There can be little doubt that today the proptech industry is a male dominated sector. To bring you something a little bit different we've teamed up with the team at PRODA to bring you the perspective of some powerful women in the industry.
This week's interview is with Bronny Wilson, Regional Head at global property technology and services company Equiem. Manisha Veja spoke to Bronny about her extensive experience in the sector, as well as her advice to young women looking for a career in the field and much more.
MV: Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey, from being a Tenant Liaison Officer to Co-Chair of Women in PropTech and Regional Head for Equiem?
BW: I started in the commercial property industry in 2008, initially working for one of Australia's largest REITs, Investa Property Group in a Tenant Liaison role, it was my first introduction to the commercial property industry and my role was focussed on improving the tenant experience; a space I still work in today, albeit in a different capacity. After a few years I moved to JLL to work on the agency side as the Tenant Experience Manager for Rialto Towers, a million sq. ft. office tower in Melbourne. It was in this role that I met and started working with Gabrielle McMillan the co-founder and CEO of Equiem.
In around 2012 Rialto was the first building to launch Equiem’s tenant engagement platform. The platform was the first of its kind globally. My role in the Rialto management team meant I was effectively Equiem’s first ever client and was able to see how the platform revolutionised the way we engaged with customers, and the positive impact it had. It didn’t take long for me to realise I wanted to make the leap from Property Management to Proptech, although back then the term hadn’t even been coined yet.
I joined Equiem in 2013 in the role of Head of Client Services. We were very much in the start-up phase and our team numbered in the single digits. Remarkably, other than the developers our core team is still together seven years on, although now we are dispersed internationally.
In 2017, we took Equiem global. I chose to establish our European business and our CEO relocated to New York. It’s been a lot of hard work and it was challenging starting out in a new region with no network, but the property industry has been very welcoming and now it is hard to imagine ever leaving.
MV: What does a ‘typical’ workday look like for you, as Regional Head?
BW: Typical now is very different from a few months ago! Currently, a typical day is eight hours spent on video calls.
The short commute to my home office is great, but I am very much looking forward to a time when we can all meet face to face again. A typical work day involves time spent with clients to find best fit solutions to property management problems or talking through data insights and engagement strategies. Much of my day will be spent managing my team. Although we work very autonomously, there are always new challenges and opportunities to tackle as a team. It is my job to develop and work with the strengths of each person in my team to carry us to success.
My day will always consist of catching up with people across the business whether that’s in the UK or over in Australia and US to ensure we are all aligned and running in the right direction, especially at the moment, as a business we are evolving faster than ever.
MV: Having been a female leader in the PropTech sector for a number of years, do you believe a shift is taking place towards a narrower gap between males and females, in the PropTech space?
BW: I think fundamentally yes, there is a shift towards narrowing the gender gap in PropTech. I’ve noticed, for example, an increase in female participation in industry talks and events. It is no longer acceptable to have an all-male panel presenting on an issue. There are some great organisations in the UK that are helping with this such as Women Talk Real Estate who have a fantastic speaker training program and a huge online database of women who are open to speaking opportunities. It is great to see the property and PropTech industry move towards narrowing the gender gap, however, as an industry we are still far from achieving anything near equal representation.
According to Bisnow, women make up just 14% of the property industry in the UK. I believe PropTech has slightly better representation than this, but women are still very much the minority, especially when it comes to leadership positions.
It is also important to note that diversity is more than just the percentage of females in the industry. True diversity means a fair representation and participation from people of all different genders and backgrounds. Despite improvements for women in PropTech, I haven’t seen the same effort to increase racial and ethnic diversity.
According to data from the RICS and EY just 1.2% of people working in the built environment in the UK identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). These groups make up 14% of the UK population and 40% of the London population. Again, PropTech may have better representation than the property industry as a whole, partly due to being a newer, more innovative industry. But the data shows a stark lack of diversity.
Property companies have a poor record of hiring, supporting and promoting BAME employees. But issues are deeper than just a lack of representation, employees identifying as BAME are often subject to racism in the workplace. Research conducted by Bisnow and BAME in Property found 70% of BAME employees experienced racism or discrimination - ranging from subtle and insidious to outright and vile. However, the very fact that this research and organisations such a BAME in Property exist, suggest reason for hope. Acknowledging the problem is the first step.
The global Black Lives Matter movement that gained widespread attention in June this year has caused many white and non-Black people of colour to think about the ways in which they may unintentionally contribute to institutionalised racism and the ways they benefit from certain privileges. It is my hope that as an industry we can harness the lessons from Black Lives Matter and the momentum we’ve built to increase female visibility and representation to improve diversity more broadly in PropTech.
MV: Do you feel any pressure as a female leader in the PropTech industry, particularly where there is such a small number of females in similar senior positions?
BW: I have been extremely lucky to work alongside many amazing women in senior roles, both in PropTech and the property industry at large. This has been the case from my first role at Investa through to the great experiences I’ve had at Equiem where the chairperson of our board, CEO, COO and many other senior roles are held by females, providing many great role models and no doubt contributing to the opportunities I’ve had professionally.
I acknowledge my experience is far from universal though. I know that it is often much harder for female founders to get equity and funding for their business, and the percentage of female founders in PropTech in the UK is an abmissmal 9%.
However, there has been a concerted shift in PropTech to acknowledge and elevate the women leading the industry. The Computer Weekly ‘Most Influential Women in UK Tech’ list demonstrates this shift. When the list launched in 2012, it only featured 25 women. The list has expanded to 50 women, and has been publishing long-lists since 2017, when the nominations exceeded 160. The 2020 long-list highlights over 430 influential women in tech, proving that despite only making up a small percentage of founders, there are many female role models in the industry.
Unfortunately, this effort to increase female visibility and recognition in PropTech is not being extended to our BAME community and other minorities requiring greater visibility. There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of equality in PropTech.
MV: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced, if any, as a female in the PropTech industry?
BW: I think the challenges I’ve experienced as a woman in PropTech are similar to the challenges women experience in any male-dominated industry. I’ve been asked to take notes a disproportionate number of times, been mistaken for event staff, assumed to be an Executive Assistant and when hiring I’ve had countless applicants address their cover letter to Mr. Wilson or the generic Sir. Everyone’s experience is different though, and I do want to acknowledge again how fortunate I have been to work primarily in companies with significant female leadership.
While there are undoubtedly challenges for women in PropTech, there are a growing number of opportunities too. I want to give a shout out to a couple of brilliant organisations and networks pushing for gender equality and creating opportunities for female participation. Women Talk Real Estate is a non-profit organisation helping to improve gender diversity through connecting female professionals with speaking and press opportunities as well as offering training for women on public speaking and media. CREW Network provides support to over 12,000 women worldwide through networking, leadership development, research and career outreach. Women in PropTech (WiPT) and RE:Women are other female-led networking organisations helping to connect and inspire women in property.
I think it is important that as women in PropTech we take advantage of these opportunities developed to level the playing field and increase female representation. The more we put our hand up to speak at conferences or appear on blogs, the easier it will be for younger women starting out in the industry!
MV: The power of PropTech is undeniable and the industry is considered one of the fastest growing in the world, when the world overcomes the current uncertainties we are all facing together, what do you believe the future will look like for PropTech?
BW: Present uncertainties are going to have a huge influence on the future of PropTech. I am not clear on what the long-term future holds. However, I believe there is huge potential to speed up the implementation of technology in the industry as we enter a new normal for workers in commercial office buildings.
I am hopeful the future of PropTech is a lot more diverse! This will require us all to actively challenge the power structures that currently exist and engage with underrepresented communities. Some actions I believe will help promote diversity are:
● Creating paid internship programs prioritising women and BAME applicants
● Inspiring and connecting with young girls and the BAME community through school programs and mentorships
● Being conscious of the speaker line-ups for events you are involved in and ensuring diverse voices are represented (this doesn’t just mean having women on the lineup!)
● Have a strong diversity policy for recruitment and train staff in anti-racism and cultural sensitivity
● Greater participation in mentoring programs
● And perhaps most importantly, think critically and challenge your own implicit bias
MV: What excites you the most when you think of the new future of PropTech that we are heading towards?
BW: The property industry’s adoption of technology is in a period of rapid acceleration, and I think PropTech providers are working more closely with each other than ever before which is creating some very exciting solutions to age old problems. I think COVID has accelerated some trends we were already seeing, and there is a growing awareness that the adoption of technology and a shift to a customer focussed business model is going to be key for landlords and managing agents in a post COVID world. Organisations have now seen that teams can be just as productive working from home and the successful offices of the future will be more heavily focussed on creating magnetic spaces people choose to work in.
In the words of Antony Slumbers, “Real estate is no longer about satisfying needs, it is about creating desire. And that is an entirely diﬀerent type of business, that requires entirely diﬀerent talent. The future winners will be those that realise this. And act on it.” I’m excited to see how our industry evolves over the coming years.
MV: Finally, what advice would you give to any young women or women in general who may be considering a career in PropTech, but feel there may be a barrier due to preconceived notions regarding gender?
BW: My advice to anyone starting out in PropTech is to first and foremost have confidence in yourself! Build a network of inspiring women, reach out to those a couple of steps ahead of you or connect with a mentor through female focused networks.
It is also super important to find the right organisation, for me this means looking for companies with women in senior positions and a reputation of treating their staff well.
More broadly, I believe we all have a responsibility to encourage and help young women starting out in PropTech. I am involved in the Reed In Partnership Enterprise Advisor Network, where I work with a girls school in my borough to help develop a careers plan and support young people build the skills and experiences they need to lead successful futures. I’ve found volunteering to be incredibly rewarding as well as a great way to continually improve my own public speaking and leadership skills. It isn’t hard to give time to young women, to make meaningful introductions or bring them into your network, but it will likely make a world of difference in breaking down barriers to female participation.