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Companies Where Women Thrive: Sperry Van Ness

Bentley’s PreparedU Project will periodically present profiles of companies that are helping themselves by helping women to thrive. Here, Diane Danielson, COO of Sperry Van Ness International Corporation, discusses how her organization advocates for gender balance in leadership.

Commercial real estate can be a tough industry to break into if you’re a woman. It’s a traditional, conservative market sector where 80 percent of professionals are white men with an average age of 57. But Kevin Maggiacomo, the 41-year-old president and CEO of Sperry Van Ness, decided to disrupt this status quo, not only by ensuring gender equity on his own team and in his C-suite, but by launching the grassroots 50/50 by 2020 initiative to advocate “healthy gender balance in leadership.” Not just in real estate, but across all industries.

In this 2013 TEDx Talk, Maggiacomo spoke more about the role unconscious bias and institutionalization formerly played within his own hiring practices, and why he decided to change the culture at SVN to be more collaborative and gender neutral.

“Our growth strategy now brings a tremendous amount of honest intentionality to diversifying our organization, which gives women and minorities a strong sense of belonging,” Maggiacomo said by email. “It’s the right thing to do and the business case for gender balance is rock solid … not simply good marketing.”

Part of this growth strategy for gender balanced, “creative, innovative, and diverse talent” included recruiting Diane Danielson as his COO in 2012.

“I've worked at a lot of companies in this industry and this is the first 
one that really walks the walk,” Danielson said. “We have a diverse executive team: under 50 years old, female, even two South Pacific 
Islanders (one would be me) in leadership roles. Of the 15 new
 hires this year in our Chicago franchise, seven were women and two were minorities. Our top salesperson for 2013 was under 30.”

Much like the 79 percent of male and 89 percent of female respondents in our PreparedU study, both Kevin and Diane are personally invested in helping women in their workplace succeed. So, we sat down with Danielson to find out firsthand what makes SVN a company where women thrive:

Bentley: Why is SVN one of the best places to work?

DD: Commercial real estate is based on results. If you're a woman and you’re getting results, people take notice. We treat everyone equal and as grownups. It's in the work and not the hours logged. Everyone pitches in and works all hours when needed, but if they have something during the day like picking their kids up at 2:00 p.m., or going to checkups like one of our guys who has 1-year-old twins, that's encouraged. I applaud them for finding that balance. People can have families and still do great work and do well in business.

Bentley: How do you help female and male employees with the learning curve?

DD: We have boot camps and trainings, and we've seen a trickle-down effect from gender-balanced leadership, but we don't treat people differently. The women who make it in this industry make it really big because they work harder. When it's based on the numbers, it's not subjective. At other companies we've had to develop special programs for women, but here it's so equal that it's not an issue. It's refreshing to just focus on doing the work.

Bentley: How do you mentor, inspire confidence, and encourage your female employees to succeed?

DD: One of the first things I do with my female employees is encourage them to think bigger. Sure, they might be in this role now, but they won't always be, and I tell them what they need to do to get to the next level. I assume that my marketing director will be a CMO, and maybe because I assume it then she dreams bigger.

Bentley: Do you promote networking or other initiatives that specifically contribute to the professional development of women?

DD: Because it’s so results driven, we tend to get natural networkers. Before I came to SVN, I was the founder of the first social network for businesswomen called the Downtown Women’s Club. CREW (Commerical Real Estate Women) is where I now encourage our female employees to network, and we show all our employees how networking can increase sales. I mean, if you don’t have 500+ connections on LinkedIn, why should we even hire you for a sales role?

Bentley: What kinds of things does SVN do to help women like you succeed?

DD: Kevin shares the stage. I've never met anyone with less of an ego who deserves to have an ego. He wants gender-balanced leadership, and you do that by not keeping your female executives in a back office. You do that by putting your women out there, in front of the public, at conferences and in front of the board. We hire people who are comfortable being the face of the company and we want it to look different from the rest of the industry.

Bentley: What can other companies could learn from your experiences about hiring, employing and/or retaining women?

DD: You can't just talk the talk. At the other 20 leading firms, other than two that have one female chief HR officer or one chief legal officer, it’s very clear we’re unique. We added our first woman to the board last year and are in the process of adding a second. Look at your marketing materials. Do they say: “Only older white guys need apply here?” You may have institutional barriers to recruiting. We've spent the money and time to actively reach out and make our team the one we want.

Melissa Massello is a freelance writer, former startup executive, and serial entrepreneur passionate about supporting women’s leadership and gender equality, both in business and at home.

Companies Where Women Thrive Series

Read more about other companies Bentley's PreparedU project is highlighting for their commitment to women's success in the workplace:

PricewaterhouseCoopers

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