Commercial real estate has long been a male-dominated field but that’s changing, thanks to employers who have built Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) into their culture. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed this progress for many. According to a July 2021 CREW Network survey, 38 percent of respondents indicated that they felt the pandemic had stalled progress for women in the industry. More telling, of those who left their jobs—and the industry—as a result of the pandemic, 65 percent indicated that they would not return to their previous place of employment if their full pay and benefits were to be restored.

Attracting and retaining top talent is always challenging, but how can commercial real estate firms attract and retain top female talent in this environment? Three Lument executives share their stories, which offer clues. Spoiler alert: Allies are key, and culture is king (or queen).

In part two of this three-part series, Managing Director Laca Wong-Hammond, who heads Lument’s mergers & acquisitions practice, talks about the building blocks that ultimately lead to success and how charting and implementing her group’s strategy keeps her excited and engaged.

What’s your title and role at Lument and what do your daily responsibilities entail?

I am a managing director and head the mergers & acquisitions (M&A) practice at Lument. The practice serves clients who use Lument for financing and beyond, who are seeking a liquidity event via an exit of their business or assets. I customize exit structures for clients based on their corporate structure, goals and objectives—including tax sensitivities and legacy and estate issues. My responsibilities entail new business development, client relationship management, and transactional oversight. I am a frequent speaker at industry events, author thought leadership articles, and mentor staff. 

How did you make your way into the commercial real estate industry?

Through the good advice of a Cornell alumnus who started and sold multiple real estate companies, I started my career in JPMorgan’s Real Estate and Lodging Investment Banking group in New York, where I first got introduced to REITs and private equity. Since then I’ve worked at a publicly-traded REIT (NYSE: STAR), Merrill Lynch, and Raymond James covering CRE clients. During my nearly 25-year career, I’ve spent less than two years away from CRE, which explains my enthusiasm and affection for the industry. My transactional experience is of course deepest in healthcare assets (hospitals, medical offices to nursing homes), but I’ve also advised on retail, traditional office, and multifamily—every transaction has different challenges and it’s kept things interesting.

As you look back on your career, have any women played a pivotal role in helping you along the way? If so, how did those relationships form and what role did they play?

I’ve been privileged to have a number of great mentors, both men and women. Women executives, whether a mentor or not, have helped inform me of factors that both promoted and deterred success. For instance, a female managing director was kind enough to take me to dinner once to check in on how I was doing. I still remember this one act of kindness 20 years later… which informs me that a kind act can go a long way. Conversely, another female managing director once threw a draft pitchbook at me. That poor attitude carried a stigma that still stings. While a career negative, the silver lining has been I made a personal vow never to lose control, like she did, to anyone.

What advice would you give to women who are considering or have recently started a career in commercial real estate? 

Stick with it, trust your gut, and take on any assignment, even if it doesn’t seem glamorous at the moment. Because every accomplishment will build your credentials and it takes a lot of credentials and perseverance to succeed.

Has the awareness of gender disparity in finance helped expand the potential for women in our industry?

Perhaps a bit but it still seems like there’s a lot more we need to do. Most women self-select back office positions versus sales and client-facing roles, so I think we need to offer them more support, mentorship, and opportunities to transition, if they want to. Disparity can occur when women elect to start a family as well – this is one of the largest drivers behind pay differentials. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any woman who chooses to focus on family.  However, I will share that I am a very proud mother of an amazing little four-year-old boy… point being that it is possible to have a successful career and a happy family. 

What attracted you to Lument? Is there anything about the culture that resonates with you as a woman leader and professional?

I love the energy and “never-ending urgency of striving ahead.” In a lot of ways, Lument is a brand new company. After going through a transformative merger mid-pandemic, and a complete rebranding in less than a year, leadership crafted new strategies and incentives to reinvigorate employees. The company punches above its weight.

Through my 20-year career I have worked at a number of leading firms. Each of these places was special in its own way. However, none engaged in the kind of blank slate strategic planning like I have experienced at Lument as the head of Mergers & Acquisitions. In a lot of ways, it is as though Lument is that edgy startup and the others are the stereotypically lumbering firms content to rest on laurels. I think this type of mindset is exactly what is needed now as I can see a number of opportunities that have been magnified by the pandemic.

Lument and CREW share a commitment to DE&I, which includes the advancement of women. Why is increasing the ranks of women in the industry important? And what challenges are associated with this effort?

The benefit is an easy question to answer. Many studies show that gender and cultural diversity increase idea generation and productive discourse. More diverse idea inputs naturally will lead to superior output – and hopefully better or best ideas get the support for implementation. How to increase women in the industry is more difficult because there is simply no magic switch that can be flipped that modifies the actions and decisions of individuals. That said, a clear step in the right direction is organizations like CREW that promotes education, support, mentorship, and leadership of and for women.

Attracting and retaining talent is key to any organization’s success. Now that you’re here, what keeps you excited about your work and the work that Lument does as a whole?

I like the free rein I have in charting and implementing my group’s strategy, working with colleagues that are just as enthusiastic about gaining market share and closing deals for clients, and getting rewarded for my contributions.