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- 20:23, 25 September 2019
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As women make up less than one in 10 founders in proptech, the entire industry needs to make a concerted effort to encourage, inspire and motivate more diversity of thought to better serve its diverse, global customer base.
In Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, Hollywood actress Kate Winslet delivered a feisty portrayal of the company’s super-smart top executive Joanna Hoffman. Polish-born Hoffman earned an impressive reputation for being the one to stand up to Jobs’ genius. She wrote Apple’s first draft of the Macintosh User Interface Guidelines – and led the international marketing team that brought the Apple Mac to Europe and Asia.
Fast forward to today. Apple consistently ranks in the top three of the largest companies in the world by market capitalisation – hitting an all-time high of $1.127 trillion in September 2018. Pretty good going for a risky tech business that started off in a garage in California in the early 1970s.
What sets Apple apart from many companies is its commitment to diversity as a true growth driver. Here’s what Apple says on the subject: “The most innovative company must also be the most diverse. We take a holistic view of diversity that looks beyond usual measurements. Because we know new ideas come from diverse ways of seeing things.”
There is a clear business case for embracing diversity. McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity 2018 study found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to be more profitable than their peers. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 33 percent more likely to outperform the competition.
In proptech right now, there is a distinct imbalance of gender diversity driving innovation and diversity of thought – especially in leadership roles.
Proptech platform Unisuu undertook research into gender diversity across the industry and found that just 9 percent of founders are female, despite women making up around 52 percent of the global population.
But scratch beneath the surface of this headline statistic and there is likely a much smaller proportion of female leaders in proptech, according to many female founders.
Rebeca Pérez is the Founder and CEO of residential proptech company Inviertis in Barcelona. She recalls that she was one of three women at Spain’s annual proptech CEO meeting last year. “Also, I was recently looking at the Spanish proptech map and out of 320 companies there are just five female CEOs,” she says.
Women who’ve taken part in this article generally acknowledge the inevitability of the gender imbalance in proptech. Take a look at the data box Women in European tech C-suite roles in VC-based Series A and B tech companies and the reality of female participation is clear.
[BOX] Women in European tech C-suite roles in VC-based Series A and B tech companies
CEO – 6%
CTO – 1%
COO – 11%
CFO – 20%
CMO – 21%
Chief Product Officer – 9%
Source: Craft; Diversity and Inclusion in Tech, Atomico and Diversity VC, 2019.
Vitalija Danivska, a university lecturer in the Department of Built Environment at Aalto University in Finland sums up the reality. “Technology and real estate have supplied most of the talent into proptech, and both sectors have traditionally been very male-dominated,” she says. “I see more women coming into areas such as organisational management and human resources. But it’s quite difficult to find women who can come straight into filling executive roles in proptech.”
Opening up the debate
This article presents a range of views of female founders and women in senior and leadership roles – they share their thoughts about how to inspire more women to pursue leadership roles in proptech.
Given that the topic is so huge, this article examines three main areas that can help to increase the amount of female leaders in proptech: education, self-promotion, and breaking down the barriers for fuller cooperation and collaboration.
1. It all starts with education
Role models are an essential part of anyone’s life journey, whatever their starting points and end goals. Inspirational and motivational stories foster confidence and empower successive generations to emulate those who’ve paved the way before.
Maya Gal and Iris Tsidon co-founded Tel Aviv-based Okapi in 2017, a SaaS-based platform that focuses on operational excellence and operational intelligence. Having worked in the corporate world for a large IT integrator, seven years ago they started looking at ways that they could create value.
“Starting a startup is about inspiration, at least in the beginning,” says Gal. “The most successful founders have had to think outside of the box, from different angles and have had to bring their diversity into their solution.”
Gal and Tsidon exude passion and confidence about their business – like all entrepreneurs. They view their “gender as a superpower” not a hindrance. Gal says: “We are bringing something different that people remember. We are bringing new ways of thinking to real estate, to tenant experience and the way of improving NOI.”
They are also acutely aware that they can inspire a wider audience of budding female entrepreneurs. “Talking about women in proptech is part of our mission,” explains Tsidon. “We’re invited by universities to talk to female students about our journey. And we explain to them that being an entrepreneur is no different a career choice from any other.”
As a professional educator in Finland – arguably one of the most diversity-focused of developed countries – Danivska says barriers to success still exist because she is a woman and a foreigner. She’s originally from Lithuania where there are much stronger gender roles across society.
“What I’m seeing in my university is that we still have some difference between the numbers of male and female students starting to study relevant subjects,” says Danivska. “For example, the entrepreneurial spirit is stronger among male students, while female students tend to opt for other more secure career paths such as consultancy.”
The tertiary education sector in many countries plays a vital role in reaching out to secondary school students to give them a taster of more specialist studies, including engineering, computer programing and artificial intelligence. But is secondary education sufficiently preparing students? See box: Are kids given the right start?
However, some teenagers have no idea what careers are available or what they want to study, and traditional inputs might not be sufficient inspiration. “To get more women into tech is about waking up their interests in tech,” says Pérez. “Boys tend to like computing and gaming but this is not the case for many girls.”
Sammy Pahal is the Managing Director of the UK Proptech Association. She believes that “there’s definitely a systemic issue” that has to be addressed by more education to inspire female founders and more employers to encourage more female senior executives. The UK Proptech Association is aiming to redress gender imbalance by inviting both women and men to share panels at its industry events, Pahal says.
Often though, it’s a question of raising your own professional profile so that interviewers and event organisers are aware of the diversity of potential participants in proptech.
2. Encouraging self-promotion
Many women acknowledge a need to be more proactive rather than being modest about their performance and abilities.
Okapi’s Gal says that when she and her co-founder Tsidon talk about Okapi’s financial results they are “positively upbeat” about their successes. Though for some women this may not come as easily as it might be considered to be a male trait. “But you have to learn how to play the game,” she says. “There is a bias about being a female founder and there’s nothing we can do about that, we just have to work harder.”
The need for more self-promotion is shared by many women. “While the women are out there inspiring other women, men are generally better at marketing themselves than women,” says Pérez. “Women don’t tend to tell others what they are doing, they just do it.”
“It doesn’t matter how good you are at performing an activity or how good your product is if you fail in communicating it efficiently,” she explains. “I think we should be working more on self-promotion, at least to compete with men.”
There is a role for the entire proptech and wider real estate ecosystems to play in promoting diversity of thought – and diverse opportunities that fuel this goal.
Leyre Octavio de Toledo, is the Head of Workplace Strategy and Architecture at Savills in Madrid, leading a multi-disciplinary team of 85 people “with more women than men”, she says. Her team focuses on areas including architecture, engineering, consulting, construction management and sustainability.
“We believe in the empowerment of all employees irrespective of their gender, nationality or other identifiers,” she says. “Proptech companies are so new that they have been born in a much more equal culture. Traditional real estate companies are working with proptech companies because they give them more flexibility, more functionality and less focus on hierarchy.”
And, crucially, she adds: “Real estate companies are fighting for talent.”
3. Breaking down invisible barriers
When Michelle Buxton founded The Toolbox Group, a UK-based marketing and innovation agency back in 2000, it was probably harder for women then, she says. “It was very a male-dominated in the real estate environment. Marketing was always the acceptable place for women to be, but I’d say that’s changed a lot now.”
“It’s almost easier to be taken seriously in proptech than it has been in consulting from a marketing perspective,” explains Buxton. “It’s all about being a successful entrepreneur, seeing the opportunities and being able to take the risks. For me that’s gender-neutral. I would say that age is more of an issue than being male or female now.”
The difficulty for anyone aiming to break a perceived professional mould is knowing for sure if a barrier exists – and if it does, how this situation can be addressed.
“I’ve never felt that gender is a barrier,” says Bridget Wilkins, Built-ID’s Director of Community Engagement. Her company seeks to bring real estate into the digital age.
“I actually think the barrier that I’ve experienced is the brick wall or glass ceiling that’s about different skills and experience. It’s about the other person on the other side of the brick wall or glass ceiling allowing you to join their side because you are different from them,” she explains. “It requires the other people to acknowledge that they want to do things differently by welcoming someone with diverse thought, skills and experience to join their side of the table.”
However, proptech is a combination of lots of different specialisms where traditions can be very different – and this reality is shaping experience and opportunities.
“Often when we’re in proptech circles we stick out like a sore thumb among people working on a new rental model – and also because we are two female founders,” says Brittany Harris, Co-founder and CEO of Qualis Flow, an environmental management platform that holistically tracks, monitors, and predicts project environmental risk.
Harris and her C0-founder Jade Cohen are ex-construction professionals who came through the Entrepreneur First route to grow their contech business. “People would never comment about a male founding pair,” says Harris. “Being female co-founders is becoming less of a novelty but it is still an anomaly in construction tech.”
Not only are entrepreneurs seeking to break down intra-industry barriers but they are working to address often deep-seated tradition like gender diversity. But all too often, many established companies are driven by financial incentives to change rather than for the sake of innovation or their inclusion of a social agenda.
“For us to drive that change, we have to create a sense of urgency across our networks and peers, using all of the tricks and tools that we can to call out what is practical and to challenge organisations and ourselves from the outside in,” says Wilkins. “Then those organisations will have the incentive to change, and if they don’t they will eventually become the minority, following those leading the social agenda and potentially lose business.”