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