• The Sharing Collective

Holly Duran is Fierce, Fearless and Fabulous

Holly Duran is arguably Chicago's most influential and successful woman in the Commercial Real Estate Industry. She has paved her way to the top of the competitive male-dominated industry and shares her story, advice for other women, and her passion of supporting women and children.

Holly Duran, Principle Colliers International

Holly Duran, Principal Colliers International, Philanthropist

She is tough, direct, and a tenacious negotiator, which has won her loyalty with some of the country's leading financial service firms. But Holly is also gracious, giving, and a passionate philanthropist and investor.

Holly has dedicated most of her life advocating for children and women, serving on several Boards and committees, using her tough business skills, and leaning into her high-power network to raise significant amounts of money.

After all, I am sure that other than The Gold Coast Fashion Show, which is the large annual fund-raiser for the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, you haven't seen tables full of businessmen in attendance.

For 37 years, Holly has devoted herself to the CSB and the children they serve. She has been instrumental in raising funds and awareness to support the vital programs that have made Lurie's one of the world's leading pediatric research hospitals. But Holly says what drives her is the desire to help the patients and their families not have to worry about 'How'. While Lurie may be located in a beautiful facility in the Gold Coast, most people don't realize that over 50% of the patients served are underinsured. Lurie truly has a commitment to equal care to all children, regardless of the ability to pay.

"Most people don't realize that over 50% of the patients served are underinsured. Lurie truly has a commitment to equal care to all children, regardless of the ability to pay".

Holly is also a founding member of the Chicago Commercial Real Estate Organization, the predecessor of CREW Chicago, an organization whose mission is to positively impact the commercial real estate industry by advancing women's power and success.

And recently, she became a lead investor in Bonfire Chicago, a career development business aimed at helping women excel in the workplace by equipping them with the skills to achieve success on their own terms.

After 16 years, Holly Duran Real Estate Partners, a WBE certified boutique commercial real estate services firm, recently joined Colliers International Chicago, where she will serve as principal and financial services lead for the global brokerage's local office.

Holly shares how she got started and the woman who was her first inspiration to believe women can be successful business owners. She also shared some entertaining stories and advice for women, which illustrates her direct, no-bs approach is the secret sauce to thriving in a male-dominated industry.

"What I learned as a woman in (a male-dominated) business is you've got to stand up for yourself, or you'll get walked all over".

How did you get into the CRE business?

I am from a hard-working blue-collar family and was the first in my family to attend college. I thought I wanted to be a CPA, but I realized that was not the path for me. It was my great-aunt, my first mentor, who actually got me into CRE. Back in the '70s, there weren't a lot of women-owned businesses. And my aunt had a successful business; she owned a secretarial placement business with a big fancy city office in the Prudential Building, at the time, the premier skyscraper in Chicago. Not coming from that world, it was inspiring.

And my aunt got me my first job, as an Assistant in a new, boutique CRE firm that was one of the first commercial service firms to specialize exclusively in representing tenants.

You told a great story that was the defining moment in your (early) career that not only set the tone for who you were but laid the foundation for whom you were going to become.

I was working for Larry Levy, a life-long entrepreneur who has become one of Chicago's most successful real estate developers and founder of a most prominent restaurant group.

He took me to a meeting at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the Merc). For those who may not know, the Merc was where open-out-cry trading happened before the markets became electronic. It was a male-dominated, testosterone-driven industry of traders.

The meeting was with Leo Melamed, the Chairman of the Merc, who was probably one of the most influential people of the time and, with Milton Friedman, was the founder of financial futures.

So, he was a big deal, but I was a young real estate broker and had no comprehension of his status at the organization. When the meeting began, Leo looked around for his secretary to take notes but didn't see her; instead, he saw me, the sole woman in the room, and thinking I was the secretary, he told me to take the meeting's notes.

I was surprised and replied, 'Sure, I would be happy to take the notes if you type them up'. Everyone froze, the room went dead silent. Leo looked at me, shocked at first, and then smiled and said, 'Who is she? I like her'.

And from there, let's just say, the rest was history...

So what is your advice for women in business? Especially in a male-dominated industry?

You know, I can't believe we are still having this conversation about women versus men. I gave a speech 30 years ago at an award dinner, where I was being presented CRE of The Year, about how much harder it was for women in the business, and I got so much slack for it. 30 years later, it hasn't changed much.

What I learned as a woman in (a male-dominated) business is you've got to stand up for yourself, or you'll get walked all over.

It can be a risk, but sometimes you need to take a risk. Considering that I am usually overprepared and knowledgeable, it has worked pretty well for me because I'm known for being outspoken and direct.

"Unless we speak up, we cannot create change."

So the advice I give to young women in business but it applies to all women in business.

  • Don't be afraid to speak up.

  • Don't be afraid to step up. I see young women getting caught up in the back office busy work, writing presentations, and then the guy walks in to make the pitch. Stop doing that. Step up.

  • You've got to push yourself to the front of the line. It's a shame you still have to push, but you need to push yourself to the front.

  • You have to be smarter than everyone else in the room. So do the work and gain the knowledge.

I love Bonfire and their mission! Can you tell us more about what it is and how and why you got involved?

Suzanne Muchin, co-Founder of Bonfire, and her business partner, Rachel Bellow, are incredible entrepreneurs who have been part of building the brands and social impact strategies for some of the city's most well-known organizations and initiatives.

Suzanne is an incredible leader and long-term advocate of women in business.

I really appreciate that her goal is to help the mid-level woman executives proceed up the ranks of corporate America. Bonfire solicits corporate leadership support to invest in this talent force, engaging both men and women in this mission.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Holly Duran Real Estate Partners LLC achieved certification as a Women's Business Enterprise at the City, State, and Federal level, a very difficult and time-consuming process. Unfortunately, as a professional service provider, I was never provided the opportunity to bid on work as a 'primary' service provider.

I was relegated to a 'seconary' supporting status to the corporate brands regardless of my firm's qualifications. The opportunity simply did not exist in professional services as the process is extremely closed and, in my opinion, did not enhance opportunities for women-owned businesses to lead. It was a very frustrating experience.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

I am most proud of the impact on Chicago's skyline, especially the CME Center on Wacker Drive. I have been fortunate to have been intimately involved in the project since 1981, as CME Group's outsourced global strategic real estate advisor. Now that's an achievement!

You were a business owner for years; now you are with Colliers International, tell us why you made the change.

Believe me, I'm pretty averse to change and therefore did not make a change for change sake. My Team and I had just come off a few of our most successful years, pre-COVID. We all truly were impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit at Colliers, along with its resources. We felt in this global environment that it was time to provide a truly international platform to serve our clients best.

What's the future look like for corporate America and returning to the office?

I don't predict we will be back full force until 2022. CEOs want 'butts in the seats.' They want to see and interact with their staff and get back to business as usual. However, I think it'll still be a somewhat quiet summer.

But my hope is that Covid has taught us something about flexibility in the workplace. That people don't need to punch a clock 9-5.

And my hope is it changes the business culture to better support the working parents and even older people like myself, whose kids are grown but may be dealing with our aging parents or health issues.

Additionally, increased flexibility in the workplace may help women proceed up the corporate ladder at a quicker pace.

However, life has been too frenetic, and now with technology, we need to set boundaries. We need to set priorities for both business and personal life and create more flexibility, which will actually generate more creativity. People will have time to decompress and to think.

You have a full plate; how do you unwind?

Working out, yoga, a long walk on the beach, and spending time with family and friends. I commit my weekends to my family, and outdoor activities -hiking, backpacking, biking, canoeing, and yoga are my passions.

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

I worked hard and played even harder – I would say I could have used a bit more balance in my life.

What is your motto?

Knowledge is power!