From left, four rising stars of real estate: Jona Flores, Naveed Tejany, Lina Khan, and Kyle Footman. Courtesy of Jona Flores, Naveed Tejany, Lina Khan, Kyle Footman; Insider
The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged residential real-estate markets and threw commercial ones into a tizzy as Americans reassessed their home and work lives. This year, some of the most disruptive reactions — from Zoom-town booms to retail-store reimagining — became longer-term trends.
Companies, policymakers, and advocates have responded to the persistent demand for housing at the affordable and luxury levels. Winners and losers have emerged from the battle between office barons and work-from-home defenders. Real-estate investing has expanded to the meme-stock crowd, which believes anyone can become a landlord.
Propelling these developments through the morass is a slate of visionary young industry leaders. Insider has tried to capture the brightest of the bunch in our second-annual "Rising Stars of Real Estate" list.
Our inbox was flooded with nominations for brokers who blasted through sales records, thanks to increased mobility of homeowners and renters, as well as a second year of soaring prices. As technology plays an ever-growing role in transactions and property management, scores of young executives behind property-technology, or proptech, startups emerged as formidable contenders. You'll see some of the most ambitious and creative on the list below.
But real estate isn't all about making money. The acceleration of housing demand at a time of economic uncertainty has also put a spotlight on people disadvantaged by the trend, and some of our rising stars are fighting to fix what's wrong with the system.
We asked that nominees for the list be no older than 35 as of November, work in the US, and stand out from their peers. Out of the scores of outstanding young people leading the next generation, we've highlighted 30 to watch.
Presented in alphabetical order by first name, here are the rising stars of real estate for 2021.
Adam Pollack, Accept.inc
When Pollack was a senior in high school, he made two promises to his family: He would finish college on time, and he would never go into real estate.
Pollack's father was a mortgage attorney in New York, and Pollack grew up immersed in the industry. But when the housing market collapsed in 2008, he witnessed firsthand the financial havoc it wreaked on his family. They weathered the storm, but Pollack swore off the industry.
Pollack broke both his promises in 2016, when he and his friend Nick Friedman dropped out of Harvard to cofound the company that would become Accept.inc, a digital lender that enables homebuyers to make all-cash offers on homes.
Typical mortgages can take a month or more to close, which is why sellers often prefer the ease and speed of all-cash deals. In the view of Pollack, who is now 26, the ability to buy homes with cash isn't merely an advantage — it's a "superpower" for any homebuyer.
The Denver-based company buys homes on behalf of approved customers with cash, then sells the homes back to the customer for the same price, once their mortgage closes. It makes money off the mortgage as well as title services, which it says costs homebuyers no more than the traditional process.
Accept.inc has so far enabled nearly $300 million worth of all-cash home purchases, said Pollack, who serves as CEO. In July, the company announced it raised $90 million to help grow the team and expand into new markets.
Alex DiStefano, Avenue One
DiStefano seems to have been hell-bent on a real-estate career since her earliest days at Pennsylvania State University.
Now a member of the acquisitions team at the single-family-rental proptech Avenue One, DiStefano cut her teeth in real-estate finance at Goldman Sachs. She specialized in the trading of US mortgage-backed securities, an $11 trillion market of bonds backed by home loans and one of the most active in terms of daily volume.
How she landed the job at one of Wall Street's most prestigious banks lays bare a dogged determination: She said she cold-called Goldman employees until someone took her seriously.
But there was an even more attractive opportunity to come, and like in many walks of life, the pandemic played a role. Investments in rental properties were on the rise as Americans sought space outside urban areas or became ready to form new households.
At Avenue One — which puts private equity and other institutional money to work in single-family rentals — the 27-year-old DiStefano would be called upon to do more hands-on work, right down to the property-management level. That spoke to her at a time when the pandemic had her taking stock of her career and pondering a new direction.
"What brought me the most enjoyment over the years was that I was always someone that was heavily involved in activities in high school and college," she said. "I wanted to do that on a larger scale."
She credited Ryan Stroker, the founder of Avenue One, with guiding her through her transition from banking to the single-family-rental space and said her parents were responsible for her work ethic.
Ali Wolf, Zonda
Wolf, the chief economist for the housing-data and analytics company Zonda, said she fell in love with economics at Ohio State University after reading a line in her first economics textbook. "The definition of economics is the efficient use of resources," it read.
"I remember thinking, 'That's how I live my life,'" she said.
Over a decade later, she's using anecdotes to demystify housing data for audiences, including the White House. Bringing a human angle to the data has been her passion since she started with the company in 2015 after working at the UK Parliament and the Parliament of Canada.
"Data is everywhere, and I think what brings the data to life is the people," she said.
In her determination to present data in terms of people, she wrote an essay in July for The New York Times headlined "Here's Who Will Be Left Behind in the Housing Boom." She's been called on by Bloomberg Television and the NPR radio show "Marketplace" and has spread the word on social media since the pandemic took hold.
She sparks conversations daily among her 8,000-plus followers on Twitter.
"That's changed my life," Wolf said.
Her feed features explanations of housing and economic data and how it affects people. On a personal level, she recently found herself counseling a friend on the influence of inflation, right down to the effects on the friend's grocery bill that she hadn't noticed before.
"Now she's realized that cereal is really expensive," she said. "To me, that's interesting, that's economics."
Allia Mohamed, Openigloo
When Mohamed was working as a sales and trading analyst and renting an apartment in New York City, she became frustrated with recurring problems at home that went unsolved.
"The heat always broke like clockwork every winter," she said. "The big challenge for me was getting a hold of the landlord. We're paying a lot of money to live here. Why are we fighting so hard to get this most basic service?"
The next time Mohamed looked for an apartment, she did more research on the responsiveness of building management.
"I was standing outside of buildings talking to people walking in and out to ask them, 'How do you like living here?'" Mohamed, who started to envision a website that made this information easily accessible, said. "Could we crowdsource this data? Could we get people to share their experiences and combine it with city data to provide this background?"
She could and she did. Enter Openigloo, Mohamed's 16-month-old startup. It combines vetted reviews from residents and public records to give NYC apartment hunters vital intel, like how much rents went up in recent renewals and how many bedbug violations had been recorded.
While Openigloo has been dubbed "Yelp for renters," Mohamed said the platform was more carefully moderated and monitored. Every resident review is reviewed, and many are denied. The bar is high, Mohamed added: "Is it helpful? Is it balanced? Is it constructive? Is it polite?"
Leading a team of six people, Mohamed has increased Openigloo's offerings to 165,000 users and 20,000-plus reviews across 10,000 buildings in New York.
Mohamed — a Canadian Egyptian woman who has worked in capital markets on Wall Street and in venture capital and holds degrees from Columbia and the Canadian business university Dalhousie — said her nontraditional background was an asset.
"I have spent the past year talking to renters, property owners, property managers, agents, tenant advocates. So many of them have different perspectives," she said. "Try to find themes or commonalities in what they've shared with you but not necessarily get stuck in the way real estate has been done before."
Mohamed said the next step for the startup was addressing the other "pain points" of renting, including helping people apply for several units at once and sign leases online. She said she planned to expand Openigloo's offerings in NYC before expanding to other cities, like Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
Ashley Zimmerman Marsh, Gammage & Burnham
Ashley Zimmerman Marsh
She watched Phoenix grow up. Now, she's helping shape the next wave of development in her hometown.
Marsh, who was born and raised in the Phoenix area, is a partner at the law firm Gammage & Burnham, where she specializes in advising clients — often developers or property owners — on zoning and land use across the booming metropolitan area.
That requires managing a host of different stakeholders, including municipalities, neighborhood groups, and, of course, her own clients. When developers are conceiving a project, a lawyer like Marsh is often one of the first people they call.
The need for more housing in the Phoenix metro area has kept Marsh busy as homebuilders and residential developers work to fill demand.
"It's exciting because we have people moving here and enjoying our weather, but we already were in a housing deficit over the last several years," said Marsh, who is 34.
Marsh started her career in litigation and worked on a number of construction-defect cases for national homebuilders. She soon gravitated toward zoning and land-use cases and has been focused exclusively on that practice for the better part of the past five years.
"You're really in the mindset of trying to work with everyone, trying to take everyone's interests and opinions, and craft something that makes as much sense as it can for everyone," Marsh said. "It's really fun to play that role because it's so collaborative."
Brandon Jenkins, Fundrise
When Jenkins joined Fundrise — which started in 2010 with a focus on crowdfunding, or raising money from many people for specific projects, before transitioning to a real-estate investment platform open to everyday people — as its chief operating officer in 2011, he had to perform many roles as one of just four employees.
"I wasn't the CEO. I wasn't the CTO writing the code. I was doing everything else," Jenkins, who turned 36 two weeks ago, said.
He wasn't complaining about the duties, though. The hands-on approach is something he's never shied away from since starting his career in the middle of the last financial crisis. He was unsure of his career direction after graduating from Duke University, and some of the jobs he considered weren't even real-estate-related.
Something clicked for Jenkins when he landed an entry-level position with a large shopping-center company, thanks to a roommate working in the sector. He played a role in redeveloping a property and loved it and "the idea of building things," he said.
A fortunate meeting with the real-estate developer Benjamin Miller led to his big opportunity. He started by working on some projects in Washington, DC, including mixed-use retail buildings in "emerging" neighborhoods.
At Fundrise, where Miller is CEO, Jenkins has helped oversee over $7 billion dollars in real-estate funding. The company also launched the first online real-estate investment trust, Jenkins said.
Reflecting on how Fundrise has grown, Jenkins recalled how his boss would repeat a famous quote from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates: "Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years."
"I remember it from when we started the company, and it's been something that I think about" still, Jenkins said.
Brendan McIntee, Blackstone
Brendan McIntee Brendan McIntee
Blackstone has built one of the largest portfolios of warehouse space in the country, but last year when it purchased a large industrial property outside Seattle, it represented a promising shift for the investment giant.
The 54-acre site can accommodate nearly a million square feet of newly built warehouse space. The firm has pushed into new industrial development, thanks to McIntee, a 30-year-old principal on Blackstone's real-estate team who focuses on industrial investments.
While existing warehouse spaces are in high demand — due to a surge in online shopping, storage needs, and logistics infrastructure brought on by the pandemic — newly built, state-of-the-art spaces have drawn particular interest, along with premium rents. With that trend in mind, about a third of the roughly 40 deals McIntee is juggling are ground-up construction projects, he said.
At the property outside of Seattle, which has been dubbed Pacific Gateway Business Park, McIntee said the results are already in.
"We're around 30% to 40% leased," said McIntee, noting that construction is underway on several of the buildings at the property.
McIntee was born in Toronto, but grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He attended Harvard and joined Blackstone after interning at the company, and soon began to focus on industrial properties because he sensed their growing importance in the US economy. He's managed more than $15 billion of industrial developments in the US and Canada over the past year.
"It was the area where I was most excited about the fundamentals," McIntee said. "As I looked to my future, I wanted to put myself in a position to do large-scale deals."
Christine Wendell, Pronto Housing
Wendell, the CEO and cofounder of Pronto, said she'd been in real estate long enough to realize that the affordable-housing movement was broken in this country. She worked with developers and asset managers like RXR Realty and Megalith Capital Management, as well as the lender Wells Fargo, before founding Pronto in early 2020.
"I reflected on what I could do with my career, something impactful and meaningful, something to give back to the world," Wendell, who is 32, told Insider.
She, along with her cofounder, is trying to solve a wonky problem: the opaque and overwhelming affordable-housing-compliance process. Landlords and developers often build affordable housing in return for grants or tax breaks, but the application process requires reams of paperwork that tax property managers and prospective tenants alike.
Wendell said her Pronto team built a Turbo Tax-like program that allows tenants to complete applications on a computer or cellphone. She said that one of her proudest accomplishments was that a prospective tenant who had never been on the internet before successfully filled out an application on Pronto.
Wendell knows that Pronto isn't a panacea for affordable housing, but she hopes that it will help affordable units get leased much faster so they don't sit vacant. Right now, in NYC, it takes 430 days to completely fill affordable units in a building because of the lottery and regulatory processes. That keeps inventory off the market and people out of affordable homes.
Colleen O'Connor, BioMed Realty
When O'Connor started her career as an accountant 13 years ago, she had no idea number crunching would lead her to real estate.
Now O'Connor, 35, oversees leasing on 6 million square feet of life-sciences space as BioMed Realty's vice president for leasing for the East Coast and the United Kingdom, says that her analytical background has been a key to her success.
"Make sure that you find a way to differentiate yourself," she said. "I think it's really important, especially for people just entering into the field, to make sure they pick something that they really excel at. That's a way to really maximize your value."
O'Connor was working for Fidelity Investments in 2014 when she was approached by a recruiter. BioMed's tenant base had specific needs for their space and sometimes had to move immediately, so it needed someone that could analyze spatial needs on an accelerated schedule.
"They're working on mission-critical lifesaving research, so you really do have to be able to solve problems for them," she said. "The analytical background lends itself well to having a focus that really drives the most efficient build-outs and spaces that can be reused."
It was a risk for O'Connor to leave finance, but she has no regrets.
"I absolutely love it," she said. "It's so interactive, no day is ever the same and you're constantly meeting unbelievable people. I have the opportunity to get on the phone with scientists from some of these leading companies and learn from them and understand what they need."
Desmond Johnson, Middle Street Partners
In 2016, when he was 25 years old, Johnson became the youngest in Georgia to pass the Architect Registration Exam. Now 31, he is a design manager at Middle Street Partners in Atlanta and has served as the chair of the city's Urban Design Commission since 2018.
Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, Johnson was fascinated by buildings as a child. That interest led him to focus on design and development while pursuing a bachelor's degree at Florida A&M University and a master's in architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Now he's interested in more than just the buildings themselves. As the chair of Atlanta's Urban Design Commission, he dedicates his time to enriching the communities in which those buildings are constructed. Johnson wants to ensure that all new construction or renovation projects in Atlanta not only fit into the context of their neighborhoods, but "preserve the historic fabric of the city."
He is quick to note that he is among the 2% of all licensed architects in the country who are Black – so he also works to make sure his projects reflect the people they serve. He designed a $73 million development that includes mixed-income housing in a predominantly Black neighborhood, as well as a multi-use living and learning community for the medical school at Morehouse, a historically Black college.
Johnson has received multiple awards from the American Institute of Architects, including its Emerging Professional of the Year award in 2017 and its Young Architects Award in 2021.
But the most rewarding part of his career? "Knowing that my work will outlive me," he said. "I feel a deep sense of pride and honor knowing I'll be able to leave a physical footprint on this world."
Enes Yilmazer, content creator
Yilmazer, 31, has the inside track on the most expensive homes — and he's not a real-estate agent. He's a YouTuber in Los Angeles.
Originally from Turkey, Yilmazer was a professional windsurfer in his college years and used his winnings to get into house flipping. He later became a luxury-real-estate agent with Compass before spinning his passion into a lucrative content-creation career.
Now, his day-to-day consists of taking 1.54 million subscribers inside the homes of the rich and famous.
Ad revenue from his YouTube videos alone bring in between $50,000 and $100,000 each month. That income doesn't account for paydays from additional sponsors he may work with — those can include companies trying to sell a product and real-estate firms looking to find client leads.
Yilmazer's content highlights changes in the way people interact with luxury real estate.
In the age of COVID-19, being able to offer a high-definition virtual way to see a home provides prospective high-end buyers with an honest look at the property from someone who isn't necessarily trying to sell it to them. Yilmazer gave up his real-estate license earlier this year.
He said being an agent tied to a brokerage was limiting his access to the biggest and best listings. At this point, he's toured and posted videos of some of the most expensive penthouses in New York City and some of the priciest properties in up-and-coming secondary markets like Lake Tahoe, making luxury real estate accessible to the masses in the process.
Evie Gross, Brixmor
Evie Gross. Evie Gross
Gross was arranging to renew a package of retail-store leases held by the hair-and-nail salon Sally Beauty when she pressed the broker representing the retailer in the deal: What else could they work on together?
"I'm a fearless networker," said Gross, who is a director of national accounts at the large national-shopping-center owner, Brixmor Property Group.
The broker, it turned out, was trying to find locations for the fast-growing e-commerce grocery chain, DashMart, which is owned by the delivery service DoorDash. This year, Gross, who handles leasing across Brixmor's national portfolio of nearly 400 centers, arranged eight deals with DashMart in the Midwest and Southeast.
Malls and urban retail were flattened during COVID, but shopping centers got a boost as the suburbs became the location of choice for much of America to hunker down. Gross, who is 31 and based in St. Petersburg, Florida, has been Brixmor's most active leasing dealmaker. This year, she's on track to sign 50 leases, more than her pre-pandemic tally, in 2019, of 34.
Tenant requirements have also become more fluid during the pandemic, opening an opportunity for Gross to pitch new clients, including Bath & Body Works, which used to favor malls. Since 2019, she's signed nine deals with the brand and expanded it to five other locations.
"I realized they were pursuing strip centers and stuck with it until they were ready, which has paid off, and there's still a lot more runway for deals with them," Gross said.
More recently, she has been pitching Tesla to potentially open service centers for its vehicles in Brixmor shopping centers, though a deal hasn't yet been reached.
Francis Davidson, Sonder
When Davidson was a 19-year-old freshman at McGill University, he began marketing empty apartments vacated by students in the summer months to tourists in Montreal.
"I was trying to solve a problem," he said. "At some point, just looking at this little business operation that spun up and that we had a good amount of places that we were renting, I was asking myself, 'Why is there no brand that does this?'"
Davidson, now 29, decided to create that brand. His company, Sonder, valued at $1.3 billion, offers short-term apartment rentals with hospitality qualities similar to those of a hotel. Customers pay a nightly or monthly rate for stays of days or months.
With a growing portfolio, Davidson said Sonder increased its revenue 155% year over year in the third quarter of this year.
He attributes the company's growth to its ability to pivot with the market. When the pandemic hit, it targeted traveling healthcare workers, roommates who were looking to get out of cramped apartments, and "digital nomads," or knowledge workers who were working from home off a laptop in various locations, he said.
"March of 2020 was very, very difficult," he said. "But we took it as an opportunity to reflect on what we could do to differentiate ourselves."
It paid off. Nearly a decade after Davidson started the business on his laptop, Sonder is en route to going public via a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company.
Galiano Tiramani, Boxabl
Tiramani has made a career out of capitalizing on emerging industries — first with a cryptocurrency business and then with a cannabis startup.
For his latest venture, he's tackling a more established sector: homebuilding.
In 2017, Tiramani and his father cofounded Boxabl, a company that hopes to manufacture prefabricated homes en masse.
Assembly lines have proved they dramatically reduce production costs for everything from cars to laptops to sneakers, the 34-year-old Tiramani said. His goal now is to apply those same methodologies to housing.
"This is an opportunity to transition one of the last preindustrial, pre-factory product categories," Tiramani said. "There's really nothing else out there, for the most part, that is not manufactured on an assembly line."
Boxabl's 375-square-foot tiny homes are priced at $50,000. The wait list for its offering has grown to more than 60,000 customers, Tiramani told Insider.
Ian Wong, Opendoor