Presented By: Starwood Property Trust

Starwood’s CFO Recalls Her Path to Success in Our Male-Dominated Industry


Anecdotal evidence would seem to show that women have gained tremendous strides in commercial real estate in recent decades. Successful women executives are an everyday sight in our industry, and anyone with any experience can reel off the names of numerous women making substantial impacts on our current business environment. But when we look at the numbers, they show that progress is more limited than many would hope. A 2020 survey by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network (CREW) found that women are only 37% of the commercial real estate industry at large, and, even more dismally, only 9% of CRE C-suites.

For Commercial Observer’s “Women in CRE” issue, Partner Insights spoke with Rina Paniry, Chief Financial Officer for Starwood Property Trust, to get her take on the progress of women in commercial real estate. 

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Rina Paniry

Commercial Observer: What are some of the greatest advantages for a company to having women in their C-suite and on their board?

Rina Paniry: The more diversity you have, the more potential there is for sharing of ideas and gaining differing perspectives. I think you are more apt to successfully problem-solve with a diverse group than you are with only people  of similar backgrounds and experiences. That’s not to say that all men are the same and all women are the same. I think it is all about bringing different people and different perspectives to the table.    

You’ve been in real estate-related accounting and finance positions since the ‘90s. When you started out, were there aspects of working in the industry that made things especially difficult for women?

It was definitely a boys’ club, much more so than today. Although it never prevented me from achieving milestones in my career, I do think you had to fight harder than your male counterparts to advance and speak louder than your male counterparts to have your voice heard. 

Talk about how Starwood supports its women employees and helps carve a path toward management.

Real estate in particular is a very male-dominated field, but Starwood provides opportunities for women to grow. Forty-three percent of our employees are women, and 55% of the employees who work for me are women. That said, advancement is ultimately a culture of the best athlete. As a woman, you want to be chosen because you are the best athlete, not simply because you are a woman. I think it is difficult to be taken seriously when people think you have been promoted into a role for any reason other than being the best at what you do. 

Are there ways in which conditions for women have improved since your early days?

When I started my career, the proverbial glass ceiling was very real. The higher up the chain you looked, the higher the percentage of men there were. But over the past 30 years, cracks have begun to emerge. It is no longer abnormal to see a woman at the leadership table. Women are much more represented in management circles and on boards today than they have ever been in the past, but I still think there is progress to be made to level the playing field. 

What are some important steps for companies to take to help ensure that women are given a path to success in CRE?

I think it starts with corporate culture and tone at the top. The genuine support of the board and senior management is key. After that, it is about creating an inclusive environment that promotes creativity and new ideas from a diverse group of employees. There is a real movement in corporate environments today to try and foster this culture, but it is important not to simply pay lip service to it.  

What are some of the tips you give to women just starting out in commercial real estate now?    

My main tip would be to work hard and ask lots of questions. Become an expert in your field. There is really no replacement for genuine intellectual curiosity. There are so many facets to commercial real estate, and so many pieces of what I think is just a fascinating puzzle. That’s what makes Starwood so interesting. We are involved in all of it in some form or fashion. The learning curve is endless for those who want the challenge, and you get to learn from men and women who are some of the best and brightest in the business. To that end, I would suggest surrounding yourself with talent.  Take advantage of the opportunity to learn from people who are the best athletes. Ultimately, if you are great at what you do, you can control your destiny. And finally, I would suggest being mindful of the reputation you build. The commercial real estate world is a small one, and word travels faster than you might think. Everyone knows everyone!

Right now, only about 10% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, and women make up only 9% of CRE’s C-suites. Do you have hope that these numbers will improve in the coming years?  

Based on the changes I have seen in commercial real estate over the past 30 years, I am definitely hopeful. It may be a slow-moving train, but it’s moving! There are more women in the space today than I have ever seen, and more opportunities for women than ever before. I am excited for what the future holds. With hard work and determination, I think women can ultimately achieve whatever they set their minds to.  




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