Emily Smith, the Rare Magical Unicorn
It’s no secret that women often face adversity in the workplace. Anyone reading this I’m sure has experienced seeing very few women among a group of men in a workplace environment. One woman we know has found a way to not only overcome workplace adversity but to rise and empower other women even as she has found personal success.
Vice President of Bespoke CRE and CEO of Young Entrepreneurs Academy Emily Smith sat down with us and shared her experience as the only woman in her firm, but also to tell us about her ascension through the ranks of her firm to her current leadership position. Emily has used this experience to try and help others, especially women who have faced the same issues as she had at the beginning of her career.
Check out Emily Smith’s interview below:
Tell us a bit about your background.
I think one of the things that surprises people the most is that I am a farm girl at heart. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and moved to Chicago after graduating from college. My father taught me everything about entrepreneurship. As a first-generation farmer, he graduated from U of I and immediately bought his first 250 acres. He has taken that land and grown the overall operation to about 5,000 today which is nearly impossible in that industry. He taught me everything I needed to know about hard work, resilience, grit, doing the right thing, and building a community that can support you. He is the reason I am so passionate about helping entrepreneurs today at Bespoke. Business owners need an advocate on their side. Someone that is looking out for their interests.
What inspired you to get involved with YEA!?
I founded YEA! mainly because of the attached photo. When I landed in Chicago and started my career in commercial real estate, I knew I would be successful. I knew how to work hard and always do the right thing. I had tremendous confidence in my abilities. What I wasn’t prepared for was being the ONLY female in the room at all times. 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 made that decision, I started opening up about my concerns and frustrations. I found some incredible mentors and sponsors that I could lean on. Some of which were men that I worked with. 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 secret strengths instead of liabilities. Fast forward 13 years later, and I am a top producer at my firm and in my industry. I run circles around the guys. So much so that I have somehow been dubbed the “rare magical unicorn” in a sea of men.
Because of the “rare magical unicorn” nickname. The only thing that bothers me about that is the rare part. Why am I so rare? Why are there not more female tenant reps in commercial real estate? I started digging into it 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. When I dug into those studies, it broke my heart. But it all made so much sense. That was the root of the issue and a real barrier to entry. If we can get to girls from 6th-12th grade, we can drastically impact the confidence gap. I know it because I have been there. Girls can’t be what they can’t see. Even as an adult at 24 years old I couldn’t see it. I had no one to look up to in my industry that looked like me. I believe that if we can solve the root of this issue, it will get more girls in the c-suite, create more female entrepreneurs, and get more women in the boardroom.
What are some of the challenges you have faced being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
Too many to count. Unconscious bias still does exist very much so in our 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 it out. I always check my ego at the door. My client got an incredible deal, and that was all that mattered. Client first always. There are numerous examples of this but right now, I am really focused on my edge in the industry. I have secured deals that 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. That is the rare magical unicorn shit that I bring to the table.
What are some of your proudest achievements being a women's advocate?
When I reflect on whether it is today or 10 years from now, I do believe that YEA! will be my most important contribution. It is creating a ripple effect of other women and other girls reaching down to help the next one coming behind them….When I receive letters from these girls saying they hope to be me when they grow up and thanking me for changing their course, I know we are doing something special. I have mothers telling me their daughter suffers from severe anxiety and doesn’t want to go to school. That Tuesday is the only day she will voluntarily go because she knows if she doesn’t go then, she can’t go to YEA! and YEA! is the only thing that helps her to feel like she has a place in this world. We have just started making an impact and it’s only the beginning.
How are you and the rest of the YEA! team challenging others, male and female, to contribute and foster inclusion of younger girls in the business community?
That it is all about exposure, what are they exposed to? Girls can’t be what they can’t see so the more you can expose them to women in business, seminars, everyday heroes or programs like YEA! the more confident they will become. We bring in some pretty amazing speakers of various backgrounds for as much exposure as possible.
Who inspires/empowers you to be confident, strong, and brave as a woman?
Currently, I am really inspired by Cleo Wade. I think if you focus being a whole person and leading w/ love and compassion it naturally makes you more confident. Also, super inspired by this Pixar short ha-ha I can absolutely relate to this early on in my career and all things Bro Capitol Huge kudos to them for putting this together.
What advice would you give to younger Emily?
That there is only one unique you in this world. Let them see it. It is your greatest superpower.
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 or the importance of one. If you don’t have access to one, make your own no matter your age or background. Reach out. 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 you develop resilience. Pop back up and get back out there. The earlier you start the better off you will be.