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Real estate executive: Make sure career plan is nimble

Interviews | Apr 20, 2015 |
MaryAnne Gilmartin speaks to a Women in Leadership Conference audience.

MaryAnne Gilmartin speaks to a Women in Leadership Conference audience.

When MaryAnne Gilmartin graduated from Fordham University in the mid-1980s, a career in real estate development was not on her radar screen.

In an era of carefully managed résumé-building and 10-year plans for careers, that may sound odd. But for Gilmartin, it worked.

Originally planning to go to law school, Gilmartin instead took an Urban Fellowship in New York and found out she loved the idea of development.

The CEO of massive development company Forest City Ratner, Gilmartin spoke about her career during the Women in Leadership Conference held recently in the Walsh Library. The conference was put together by the Fordham chapter of Smart Woman Securities.

Gilmartin, who will be joining the university’s board of trustees, is responsible for some of the most iconic new structures on the New York City skyline. The Barclays Center in Brooklyn and The New York Times building in Manhattan are among her triumphs.

While admiring those who have a career plan and stick to it, Gilmartin was honest about her own path.

“That is simply not what happened for me,” she said. “I happen to be a great project manager, and I do plan. But the case of my career was not about that. It was about serendipity.”

The executive spliced the story of her career with practical advice for the students who came to hear her and others speak: Work hard, do not succumb to a belief that you can’t do something and leverage your relationships.

Above all, be open to change.

Gilmartin said she was struck by the horrid conditions in some of the city’s public buildings as she was beginning her fellowship.

“So I start doing my interview process and I realize the city is a total dump,” she said.

There were desks in the hallways. She was told the rodent problem was under control. The buildings were hot and the people sweaty. But in the Public Development Corporation, where she did her first fellowship, things were different. There was air-conditioning and carpet. She was able to get a seat at the table and work on important building projects.

It was then she realized that real estate was “in my veins.”

“I never quite got that memo that I was young, I was a woman, this was a male-dominated business and I just felt like I could make a contribution,” Gilmartin told the audience. “And I was empowered and I was fueled by the people around me.”

Gilmartin said she strongly believes in a meritocracy. Hard work and recognizing possibilities are key to success, she said. Taking to heart the lessons of an accidental real estate titan is important, too.

“I tell you that because I always want people to know that stumbling into something is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “One must always have a plan. That plan really needs to be nimble and one must always be open to the possibility that something else can happen along the way.”

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