International Women’s Day, marked annually on March 8, is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.

ULI’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) works year-round to celebrate and support the vital contributions of women to the real estate industry and beyond. Begun on a small scale in 2011 to connect and elevate the women of the Institute, the program has expanded every year since, effectively promoting the advancement of women as leaders throughout their careers. From its humble beginnings less than a decade ago, WLI today boasts 53 chapters in district and national councils spanning 10 countries.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would expand organically this way,” says donor Wendy Rowden, president of Building for the Arts and past global chair of WLI. “Before WLI was formed, networking with other women at ULI was a little bit by luck and mostly through the ‘Women’s Cocktail Party.’ A group of us got together and said, we can do more. Programming, mentoring, and connecting is at the heart of WLI. Through WLI globally, we’re sharing best practices—including innovative programming at the local level that might be of interest to others. This keeps us connected and inspired.”

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the way in which members have been able to connect, WLI programming has continued and evolved—virtually. From internship events with college students and industry companies to talks and panels with Key Leaders and industry experts, a leadership symposium, and a series on attainable housing, more than 7,000 people have registered for WLI programming since March 2020.

Mentorships are a hallmark of the program, enabling early-career women to match with a senior industry professional for mutually beneficial idea exchange, career advancement, and friendship.

“I learn a lot from mentoring through WLI. I hope that the mentees feel the same. It’s very well organized and works really, really well,” says donor Leslie Woo, CEO of CivicAction and a past member of the WLI Global Steering Committee. “It’s an engaging way to meet younger people earlier in their career, to help me better connect with what they’re dealing with. It’s easy to lose sight of that at a certain point. These relationships foster more empathy for what early-career women are concerned about. Mentoring is my way of giving back, though, in reality, I mostly feel like I’m getting more than I am giving.”

According to donor Sheri Chromow, president of SPC Advisors, senior adviser for the WLI Steering Committee of ULI New York and a past member of the WLI Global Steering Committee, mentorship is needed now more than ever before, in part because “the world is so much faster, which leaves people clinging for help. There’s much more pressure on people to do things quickly and to succeed in a linear fashion—something which rarely happens—and the achievement pressure on women in particular hasn’t changed.”

Enter WLI Circles. Launched in June 2020, this program enables small groups of women to discuss opportunities and challenges, exchange ideas, build networks, and provide personal growth and support. Each WLI Circle welcomes eight to 12 women members, diverse in geography and discipline in addition to race, ethnicity, and age. They provide an unparalleled opportunity for peer mentoring and connection in addition to advancing the pipeline of women ready to take on key leadership roles.

Comparing the number of women in ULI leadership in 2019 (the most recent statistics available) from 2012, the increase is notable:

  • 20 percent of ULI full members are women, up from 14 percent (28 percent membership in general, up from 20 percent);
  • 29 percent of product council leaders are women, up from 19 percent;
  • 33 percent of national council and district council chairs are women, up from 13 percent; and
  • 36 percent of Advisory Services panelists are women, up from 16 percent.

While these numbers are encouraging, there is still so much to do. “We need to be more inclusive to make sure we guide women into the next level and really provide them with more value,” Chromow says. “We’re so spread out and the matching is hard, but WLI is doing an amazing job with a more diverse group of women than we’ve ever had.”

“We have faced extraordinary health, social, and financial challenges over the last year,” adds donor Lili Dunn, president of Bell Partners. “We realized that regardless of backgrounds, we’re all connected and have an obligation and a responsibility to help one another. It’s the right thing to do, the human thing to do. The impact of even a small gesture can be life changing for someone. I appreciate WLI’s smaller forum where I can interact with my colleagues to learn and share and also appreciate the opportunity to help other people in a way that is meaningful to me.”

With your help, the ULI Foundation can better leverage the collective generosity of our members to support, promote, and increase the number of women in the real estate industry today—and every day.