Maurie Lawrence remembers trying to gauge whether anyone in Greenville would be interested in starting an organization composed solely of professional women in commercial real estate.
“I met with a bunch of different people and I said, ‘Oh, really, you’re interested? Would you be interested in working on it before even launching?'” she recalls. “The first formal meeting was at Coffee Underground before we even launched to see how many people we would get. We probably had 35.”
This year, that group, CREW Upstate, marks its 10th anniversary as a chapter in the international CREW Network, whose 12,000 members — all commercial real estate women, hence the acronym — must apply to and are then vetted to join one of its 77 chapters.
“Ten years is an important milestone for a chapter,” says Laura Lewis, chief marketing officer for the Lawrence, Kansas-based group representing virtually every aspect of commercial real estate. “Ten years is a pretty young chapter in the scheme of our organization, but once they get that foundation — like the Upstate has — the growth in a decade can be really strong.”
CREW Upstate now boasts 108 members, who forge deals and relationships through professional-development and educational programs, awards and, of course, networking.
“You have camaraderie with people that are experiencing a lot of the same stuff that you are,” says Angela Self, CREW Upstate’s new president, “and we have that because we’re all women in a more male-dominated industry.”
Lewis notes that women represent 35% of that industry in the U.S. and just 9% in the C suite. CREW Network is now working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a 2020 study, and they “hope to see improvements in both areas,” Lewis says.
Meantime, Lisa Dwight, director of marketing at DP3 Architects, a firm in downtown Greenville, says CREW Upstate relies on members’ all-volunteer participation in various committees.
“We encourage our members to create these bonds and build these relationships so that it’s not just a ‘we want your business,’ it’s creating a long-term partnership,” says Dwight, the most recent of the chapter’s nine past presidents. “These personal relationships are so much more robust than you might get in other professional organizations.”
Lawrence, who is senior counsel and director of ethics and compliance at Milliken & Co., says she began working on developing an organization for female commercial real estate professionals in 2008.
“I started meeting with women to say, ‘Hey, what do you think? I’ve seen this works in Charlotte [and] Atlanta,’ and most people, most women, said, ‘Tell me more.’ People who are not women in commercial real estate would say, ‘Are there enough women [to form a chapter]?’”
There were and more — and the chapter now also includes men.
Michael Watts is one of them. The financial planner and real estate developer, whose Consolidated Planning Inc. office sits across the hall from DP3’s suite in the Wells Fargo Bank building on Main Street, joined CREW Upstate a little more than a year ago.
“I think that women bring a whole new perspective to business that we as males are not exposed to — they look at things differently,” he says. “They just do because they’re female. There’s some sharp women in there. Sharp.”
Watts pays the $350 yearly membership fee, which, as he and the others say, pays for itself. For Dwight, CREW changed her professional life.
“This is personal to me,” she says. “I had anxiety issues for my entire career, and so I never joined a networking organization because I was always just afraid.”
Then CREW Upstate recruited her. “And it has completely changed my professional landscape. The people that I met were instrumental in bringing me out of my shell,” says Dwight, who moved from the communications committee member to committee chair to president-elect to president in four years.
“I never would have imagined that six years ago.”
Lawrence couldn’t have imagined a decade ago what the organization would look like today. Now CREW Upstate includes real estate bankers, architects and even a professional like Self, who specializes in “building biology”; she’s founder and principal of Vital Spaces and a licensed residential builder and contractor.
Says CREW Network’s Lewis: “We’re really impressed by some of the things they’ve done in the past decade, growing leadership and creating strong and vibrant programs and providing opportunities to network and do business together. That’s a testament to the leadership they have, to have a strong core of professionals who are pulling everyone together.
“It’s obvious they have that.”