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Women Leaders Of Real Estate: Audra Cunningham of T Dallas Smith & Company On The 5 Things You Need To Succeed In The Real Estate Industry

By March 17, 2024June 17th, 2024No Comments

SOURCE: Medium

Make real, genuine connections: Relationships matter. Be genuine while building relationships. Show up as your authentic self without an agenda and you will build meaningful, long-standing relationships.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audra Cunningham.

Audra Cunningham is a senior real estate executive who transitioned into office tenant representation in 2008 following a 23-year career in telecommunications. In 2020, Audra became the first female executive to join the C-suite at T. Dallas Smith & Company. As the firm’s Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer, Audra is intentional about mentoring women in the industry, removing the barriers to entry and the obstacles to being successful.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

After 23 years in telecommunications, I wanted to switch gears and venture into something more entrepreneurial. When I moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 1993, I was inspired by all the real estate developments. I knew I had something to offer to the positive energy being created and I wanted to be a part of it in some way. I read the book, “How to Succeed in Commercial Real Estate”, and decided that office tenant representation was the route for me. I started making connections in the industry by attending commercial real estate networking events. I was often told because I was a Black woman and over 40, I couldn’t be successful in this business. At the time, we were about to elect our first Black president, so I didn’t accept that logic! Fortunately, I met a corporate real estate executive Steve Dils, who thought differently. Steve Dils hired me as a tenant representative at Grubb & Ellis in 2008, and my career kicked off from there.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

The Atlanta market was challenging when I entered the market in 2008. Deals were few and far between. In 2010, I received a call from JLL inviting me to join their Washington D.C. brokerage team. At the time, there were no African American female office brokers in D.C. and the market was robust. My challenge was I didn’t know anyone in D.C. and didn’t know the market, but JLL and I both took a chance on each other, and I joined the team that same year. When I first moved, I asked some Atlanta leaders to introduce me to their contacts in D.C., and the rest is herstory. Once I started seeing success, I learned to always bet on myself. Although I saw potential obstacles by moving to D.C., I saw the potential benefits and believed in myself. I also learned that you have to be nimble in this business — you never know where it will take you. My experience and desire to continue learning and growing helped me achieve major milestones in my career, and I’m proud to say that I currently execute transactions nationally.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I currently have a real estate portfolio assignment with a global organization that I sourced. I am excited to work with an organization whose research helps people across the globe. Optimizing their real estate portfolio will free up capital to invest back into the world, which impacts the research they do. It’s a heartwarming moment to be even a piece of the puzzle.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

All of our brokers have an incredible story about their journey into commercial real estate. We pull from our unique experiences and represent our clients in a non-traditional way. We are consistently finding ways to assist our clients in saving on their occupancy costs and making the best long-term decisions. I can recall a non-profit client I represented who really wanted to relocate to a newly redeveloped building but just couldn’t make the economics work. Because of my keen understanding of the market, I knew there was an organization that may have leased too much space in that building. I was able to work with the organization so my client could sublease the extra floor in the building they no longer needed. This made their desired space affordable, and it came with brand new furniture. It was a win-win for all parties involved. This is just one example of an innovative approach to addressing our clients’ needs!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had many people support my journey. One person in particular is Benjamin F. Wilson. I was recruited to join JLL’s Washington, D.C. office in 2010. I didn’t know anyone in the field in D.C., so I asked people in my Atlanta network to recommend people for me to meet once I moved. Through one of my new contacts, I met Ben, who was the Managing Principal at Beveridge & Diamond. When I shared my story, he gave me his card and suggested we have breakfast. That first breakfast turned into a monthly meeting. Ben was committed to supporting me and helping me find success in the industry. One year, he invited me to the National Bar Association’s annual conference and introduced me to partners, managing partners, and general counsel from across the country, which ended up opening so many doors for me in my career.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

Contrary to other real estate disciplines, women represent about 36% of commercial real estate professionals and only 9% of C-suite positions. When you break it down further, Black women make up 2% of the industry and less than 1% of senior executive roles.

In part, the lack of opportunities for women to advance in the industry could be attributed to nepotism. This industry thrives more on who you know than what you know, so opportunities rarely happen by chance. They are built relationally or fraternally making room for inequity. Intentionality with mentorships and sponsorship will foster change.

I make it my mission to mentor and coach other young women who are interested in a career in commercial real estate. I didn’t have that when I started in the industry, so it’s important to me to create that space for young women who need guidance.

What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

Individuals: It’s as simple as being a gate opener instead of a gatekeeper. Open doors for those coming behind you who may not look like you. And even further, expose them to opportunities. Mentor and sponsor them on their journeys.

Companies: Firms have to be clear — to win our real estate business, your team needs to resemble our employees. Firms have the responsibility to create a space to make their stakeholders feel included. DE&I has to be a part of a company’s mission, culture, handbook, etc. to guarantee a long-term effect and leaders must hold everyone accountable for it.

Society: The behavior of people influences and shifts everything. If individuals and companies do their part to be inclusive, society will follow suit.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There is an arsenal of challenges women face from gender bias to the gender pay gap. Adding to that, women have to work much harder to gain respect in leadership than their male counterparts in many cases. Women have to be confident and comfortable being bold by finding their voices and using them!

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

As a real estate professional, I enjoy being in the driver seat of my career. I can set my own schedule, create my own goals and strategize a plan that helps me achieve desired success.

I am grateful for the opportunity to positively impact diversity in the commercial real estate industry. To coach young people and instill confidence in them to be successful in this industry is a priority for me.

The industry is always evolving, allowing me to be innovative in my approach to real estate. My clients benefit from my unique approach to finding real estate solutions for them.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

Though I’m grateful that there has been progress, the speed at which women and people of color have been included in the commercial real estate industry has been relatively slow. I’m proud to be a team member at T. Dallas Smith & Company considering we are the largest African-American owned, pure rep tenant firm in the country, but it says a lot that we are the largest with less than 30 employees.

We are truly in a digital age. Technology makes things easier and more efficient but also less relational at the same time. People often prefer making connections virtually and it tends to create a wall that likely doesn’t exist with face-to-face interactions.

The narrative around the future of office space. People are relational by nature. Although there is a place for working from home, cultures may suffer if there isn’t a hybrid option. Promotions are not only determined by work performance but also by your leadership qualities and the relationships you build. It is difficult to display those attributes over video while working from home. I tell young people, “If you want a job, work from home, but if you want a career, go to work!”

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Mentorship should be a priority for every leader. Lead by example. Pour into others. I think a lot about the younger generation of brokers at our firm and how they will one day be leaders in this industry, so I am intentional about spending one-on-one time with them and supporting them in their goals.


You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

  1. Get a mentor: There will be challenges along the way, so having someone to coach you through the valleys is important. How you respond to conflict will shape your credibility.
  2. Know the industry: Be knowledgeable. As a new broker, this is something you can control. The information is there, so take the time to learn it. You bring value by learning as much as you can and you will find that people will reach out to work with you.
  3. Be confident: If you don’t believe in yourself, why would you expect anyone else to believe in you? People want to work with people they can trust, internally and externally, and confidence breeds trust.
  4. Be ready and willing to learn: What makes the commercial real estate industry so exciting is every transaction is different. Keep up with new industry technology, new developments, and tenants moving into the market. This will make you a valuable asset to anyone’s team.
  5. Make real, genuine connections: Relationships matter. Be genuine while building relationships. Show up as your authentic self without an agenda and you will build meaningful, long-standing relationships.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Child hunger breaks my heart. The United States is the richest country in the world with more billionaires and millionaires than I keep up with. I believe if individuals, corporations, and the government collaborated on how to collectively address this issue, we could find a way to eradicate hunger for all, but especially children. Hunger impacts children’s ability to learn which then impacts their ability to improve their situations, generationally. I believe we as a society can really can make a long-lasting difference if we make the intentional decision to work together.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m accessible via LinkedIn if you search for Audra Cunningham.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

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