Flipping the gender roles in real estate

And the opportunity for women to take a $300Bn industry by storm.

My cofounder, Anna Karp, and I often talk about what it means to be a woman in the home renovation industry and what can be done to inspire lasting change so it is safe and welcoming to a lot more women.

Various events have conspired this year to reveal the horrendous sexual harassment and pay inequality that women across many industries are experiencing. And while the allegations have come mostly from the entertainment and media industries, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it’s just as bad in other industries, including our own.

Earlier this year, I learned about a women working in a large design-build firm in New York with revenues of $100M+ who, upon the company being acquired, was revealed to be earning $150K per year while her male counterparts were both earning $600K. To add insult to injury, the acquirer added only her to a Key Man Insurance policy as her contribution to the operation proved critical. #KeyWoman

Here’s the thing about this – Our performance data at Bolster strongly suggests that the skills required to be a successful general contractor (financial management, sales and marketing, customer service, communication, negotiation and project planning & management) are gender neutral: we have no evidence to support men being able to do any of them better than women in our industry (to state the obvious general contractors are not required to lift heavy things, only coordinate things like suppliers, trades, finance etc).

We also have evidence to suggest that the best performing general contractors are those that come from outside the industry (from management positions typically) rather than "up through the trades”. This is possibly due to a higher level of education being achieved by outsiders and implies that being a successful contractor, at least when you start, is independent of past construction experience which men in the industry, and I think society in general, typically uses as a [false] argument for renovation being and remaining a “man's industry”.

Upon learning of this idea many skeptics say “ok, love the idea but how does a woman with no experience in renovation go about becoming a GC?” Very good question. My answer to this is to imagine Emma, she works for a GC called William. Emma spends her days coordinating and managing sales, marketing, operations, finance, HR and admin functions for William while he’s out selling to owners and managing things on the ground. So how could Emma become the GC without construction expertise? The answer is in the question – Emma doesn't need to work for William. She can simply set up on her own and hire herself a team of Williams like every other industry does!

Today there are tens of thousands of women backstopping their male counterparts, very often being grossly underpaid for the critical business functions they manage, who could down tools, set up on their own and go hire the domain expertise they need to build out a fully operational GC.

One possible hurdle to achieving this and that women face in becoming entrepreneurs in general is the rampant gender bias in the investment community - only 8% of investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are currently women - and so raising capital can be a challenge (this is especially true in construction where scaling and complex product issues make raising investment capital a challenge for anyone). This issue can be totally sidestepped however thanks to the standard practice of requesting and accepting advance payments from consumers to satisfy a project's early cash flow requirements. Managed responsibly, the profit and overhead component of these advance payments are a natural antidote to being dependent on investor capital and bootstrapping a GC business to financial freedom.  

In sum, our data and experience shows:

  • The skills needed to succeed as a GC have no inherent gender bias towards men; 
  • Domain experience, contrary to popular opinion, is not necessary and may even be an impediment;
  • The GC business has a self-funding function that means women do not have to rely on the predominantly male investing community to get started.

Clearly a lot has to be done to help ensure women can feel safe and supported in building companies or taking on good, fair paying jobs but as more women become entrepreneurs and data gets democratized therefore helping to dispel myths about who can do what, there is a huge opportunity for women to enter and reshape the $300B renovation market and become more visible leaders in a male dominated industry.

And, if any one of them should knock it out the park, they may even help positively impact the current Forbes Rich List Ratio of 10 men to every 1 woman which we likely need to get to 1:1 for society to truly achieve any hope of lasting gender equality.

Fraser, CEO