• The Sharing Collective

Emily Smith is Empowering Girls to be Future Leaders

The road to the top in the Commercial Real Estate Industry wasn't easy, so Emily Smith has made it her life's mission to change that for the next generation by empowering girls to become the leaders of the future.

Emily Smith, SVP Bespoke Commercial Real Estate and Founder of Female Strong

Emily Smith, Senior Vice-President, Bespoke Commercial Real Estate and Co-Founder of Female Strong.

Emily Smith is a rock star in the Chicago CRE industry, specializing in tenant representation. But the road to the top of this male-dominated industry wasn't easy so, Emily has made it her life's mission to change that for the next generation of female leaders.

"I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass".

- Maya Angelou

What began as adversity, a lack of women in her industry that she could turn to for support, became Emily's advocacy for supporting women in business. She has developed programs and initiatives, raised significant funds to help women-owned businesses, and has created a non-profit organization to teach business skills and empower young girls to become future leaders.

What do you attribute to your success in CRE?

You won't see an MBA as part of my resume, but I didn't need it- my father taught me everything I needed to know about entrepreneurship. As a first-generation farmer, he graduated from U of I and gambled everything to purchase his first 250 acres. He has taken that land and grown the overall operation to about 5,000 acres today, which, if you know much about the agriculture industry that is a nearly impossible accomplishment. He taught me the value of hard work, resilience, grit, doing the right thing, and building a community that can support you.

What are some of the challenges you have faced being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

Too many to count. Unconscious bias still very much exists in the CRE industry. Just a few months ago, I nearly had a deal fall apart because the broker on the other side didn't like negotiating with a female. I picked up on it pretty quickly and brought my male partner in to finish the deal.

I always check my ego at the door. My client got an incredible deal, and that was all that mattered. Client first always. On the flip side, I have secured deals that my male counterparts couldn't because of my high EQ, ability to listen to client's needs, and level of empathy, trust, and creativity I bring to the deal.

Tell us how you have been able to thrive in a male-dominated industry?

When I came to Chicago and started my commercial real estate career, I knew I would be successful. I had tremendous confidence in my abilities and work ethic, but I wasn't prepared for being the ONLY female in the room all the time.

About 12-18 months into my career, I started to suffer from imposter syndrome. I thought, "I don't talk like these guys, I don't sound like them, and I don't negotiate like them either…" I didn't have a female role model in my industry that I could see or lean on. I nearly quit.

But before I did, I started opening up about my concerns and frustrations, and I found some incredible mentors and sponsors that I could lean on. Surprisingly, some of them were men in the industry. The more I shared my story, the more I realized that I was not alone, and many other women felt the same way I did. I started to look at the things that made me different as my strengths instead of liabilities.

Fast forward 13 years later, and I am a top producer at my firm and in my industry. And I can say with confidence; I run circles around the guys.

What is Female Strong?

Female Strong is a 501c3 non-profit organization and a community of committed individuals that offer hands-on programs, mentorship, and experiences that build confidence in middle and high school girls. By empowering young women with the skills they need early in life, we are equipping them to realize their potential, and we help propel them to become future leaders.

What inspired you to form your organization Female Strong?

My journey had me questioning why more women were not in CRE? Why were women not as confident in their abilities to succeed as I was?

None of this made sense to me, so I started digging in, and what I found is the 85 percent of girls in the 6th grade believe they will be as successful as boys in their chosen career path.

By the time those same girls reach the age of 19, that drops drastically to only 35 percent. Those statistics broke my heart but made me realize that was the root of the issue and the real barrier to entry.

I realized that if we could get to girls from 6th-12th grade, we can drastically impact the confidence gap. Girls can't be what they can't see. I committed myself to be part of the solution and tackle this issue head-on, hence how Female Strong was born.

I believe if we can get to the root of it early, it will get more girls in the C-suite, create more female entrepreneurs, and get more women in the boardroom.

One of the Female Strong programs is YEA! Chicago, which I love and have been honored to be a part of the last two years. Can you tell us more about YEA! Chicago?

YEA! Chicago, Young Entrepreneurs Academy, is a program about building the skills and confidence for girls to thrive in business and life.

Our program teaches students how to select, research, vet, develop, and market a business from start to finish. It is a six-month after-school program that begins in October and ends in March.

The girls are assigned mentors to work with to help them develop their business plans. The course concludes with an Investor Panel who select and award three students with an investment.

What has been your greatest achievement?

When I reflect on whether it is today or ten years from now, I believe that Female Strong will be my most important contribution. It creates a ripple effect of other women and other girls reaching down to help the next one coming behind them. Receiving notes from students and parents alike thanking me for helping them (or their daughters) by building their confidence, business skills and empowering them is my greatest joy.

"At Female Strong, everyone has a story and their own personal Why that deserves to be celebrated. We are just getting started."

Who or what inspires you?

Currently, I am inspired by Cleo Wade, an artist, poet, activist, and author. If you focus on being a whole person and leading with love and compassion, it naturally makes you more confident.

Also, I am super inspired by this Pixar Short Aminated, PURL, I can absolutely relate to this early on in my career! I love that they tackled this issue!

What advice would you offer a young girl trying to find a career path?

Young girls, especially girls in challenging neighborhoods, don't understand what a network is, the importance of one, or that someone would even care to hear what they have to say. If you don't have access to a network, make your own regardless of age or background.

Reach out even when it might be scary or hard. I believe most people are genuinely good and want to help. You may get a few doors slammed in your face or unanswered emails, but that is good; it helps develop resilience. Pop back up and get back out there. The earlier you start, the better off you will be.

"Young girls, especially girls in challenging neighborhoods, don't understand what a network is, the importance of one, or that someone would even care to hear what they have to say".

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

That there is only one unique you in this world. Let them see it. It is your greatest superpower.

Who are the five people- living or dead- you would invite to your dream dinner party?

My response to this question would probably change daily- but right now, as silly as it sounds, it would be my nephews. I don't get to see them nearly as often as I would like. If the last 12 months have taught me anything, it is that family is the most important thing. So I will take a pizza party and time with them any day.

What is your motto?

"Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep, Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."

- Ernest Hemingway

It is a quote from Ernest Hemingway. I actually have framed it, and it hangs in my bathroom so, I see it every day when I get dressed.

Find out more about Female Strong.

Find out more about YEA! Chicago.

Check Out YEA! Chicago's Highlight Reel.