mPower: Remaining Resilient Amid Disruption

(Clockwise from to left: Sharon Walker, Teresa Zien, Kathleen Farrell, Bonnie Habyan)

The pandemic has increased stress on everyone and everything. So MBA CREF21 asked several female business leaders to discuss lessons they have learned while navigating COVID-19 challenges.

Marcia Davies

“The pandemic has put industries, businesses and personal lives under extreme stress. But challenges can result in opportunities to reflect, lead and grow,” said MBA Chief Operating Officer Marcia Davies, who founded mPowerMBA Promoting Opportunities for Women to Extend their Reach–a networking platform for women in real estate finance. “Events like this make me feel like we’re back in business, even if it is from a distance.”

Davies said mPower has brought women together to make connections and make friends. “We’ve strengthened each other and built each other up; we’ve shared problems and we’ve found solutions. The mPower community is the best thing that I’ve experienced in my career,” she said.

But 2020 changed everything. “Suddenly, we couldn’t be together,” Davies said. “The connections that formed; the foundation of this community became harder to keep up. The excitement that defined mPower events disappeared overnight. It’s been a loss for all of us.”

At the same time, the demands facing women in real estate finance have multiplied, Davies said. “I think most women in the workplace are dealing with more responsibilities and less support,” she said. “Most of us are busier than ever. What comes with more work is more late nights, more early mornings and more weekends.”

Davies said taking on more work at home and more work at the office left her feeling burned out. “For a while I struggled to understand why I was having such a tough time,” she said. “I finally figured it out: First, I miss the professional me…I like going into the office, it’s part of how I like to show up and do my job the best way that I know how to.”

“Second, I realized that I was missing all of you,” Davies said. “The connections we all make in person. Without in-person conferences and events, it’s been much harder to connect. But here’s the thing: our connections with each other are more important than ever. Our relationships exist to help overcome the challenges we face, and we continue to face a Hell of a lot of challenges. If we want to get through this, we need to talk to each other, we need to connect with each other. So shoot off a text, send an email or pick up the phone, because now is the time to connect. And staying connected is the key to finding the resiliency we need to come through this.”

When it comes to keeping a team engaged during challenging times, communication is one of the most important skills, said Bonnie Habyan, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer with Arbor Realty Trust, Uniondale, N.Y. “I’ve learned over the years to be as transparent as you can be all the time and as honest as you can be all the time. Communicate the vision as much as possible so everyone is somewhat aligned.”

When people feel ownership and they understand what’s happening, they feel more valued, Habyan said. “They also probably will chime in and help you a little more,” she said.

Kathleen Farrell, Head of Commercial Real Estate Lines of Business with Truist Financial Corp., Charlotte, N.C., noted that “soft skills” became even more critical during COVID. “You really had to have empathy for your colleagues, your clients and other employees,” she said. “As women, we are by and large good at empathy. That gave us a unique opportunity to lean into something we tend to do naturally.”

Teresa Zien, Managing Director with Invesco Real Estate, Dallas, likened a career to a marathon rather than a sprint. “So keep that tenacity,” she said. “As I was growing in my career, there were certainly times that I felt like maybe someone else had a leg up compared to me, but I learned this: you need to stick firm and push yourself beyond your comfort zone.”

The real estate finance industry has progressed a lot in recent years, Zien said. “It’s allowed me to get where I am today. But that wouldn’t have happened if I had ‘tapped out’ at the first sign of adversity. Change does not happen willy-nilly. It is not served to you on a silver platter, it sometimes needs to be forced, quite frankly.”

Habyan quoted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who suggested everyone do one thing they are afraid of every day. “The more you face fear, the more you’ll grow. You can say to yourself, ‘I didn’t die. I’m growing,’” she said. “To be uncomfortable is great. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not going to grow. Just wake up the next day, pull your socks up and get to it again.”