This year Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize for lifting millions of poor people — primarily women — out of poverty. His secret? He gave tiny loans, say, for a much-needed cow or a cell phone, that allowed his borrowers just enough elbow room to get a little ahead.

And it is a very similar tactic that the Commercial Real Estate Women Foundation is following with its CREW Careers program, which will enter its third year in 2007. The program attempts to introduce teenage girls to the various career paths open to them in commercial real estate.

“However, our ultimate goal is to give women a leg-up in life so they can have economic security,” says Anne Lawler, CREW Foundation chair. Lawler works as a commercial real estate attorney and managing member with Jameson Babbitt Stites & Lombard in Seattle.

CREW Careers reaches girls through organizations such as Girl Scouts and Girls Inc., but chapters often partner with local non-profits and reach a larger audience of at-risk teens, many of which are on the verge of entering the job market.

With roughly 7,000 CREW members nationwide, CREW Careers has nearly a 10% participation rate. In 2007, 26 CREW chapters, 750 CREW members and 850 student participants are expected to take part in the program.

“Almost uniformly, the chapters are finding that the program is drawing back senior members who may not have been attending on a regular basis because they're really enjoying the opportunity of giving back,” says Lawler.

Not only are CREW members showing up, but so are the sponsors. Cushman & Wakefield currently stands as the top sponsor with a $100,000 donation in 2006 and a pledge for the same amount in 2007. “All of the companies that have been sponsoring CREW careers are really dedicated to promoting women in commercial real estate, promoting diversity in their companies and education,” says Roberta Fuhr, former CREW Foundation chair, and senior vice president and northwest regional manager for KeyBank Real Estate Capital. KeyBank is also a major sponsor and has given $75,000 to the program and pledged another $50,000.

Real-life applications

CREW Careers is taught through a two-pronged approach. There is a classroom component that includes detailed handout materials, and an on-site component in which the students tour a local real estate development in progress.

In Seattle, Kent Station, a mixed-use development, was used as a teaching aid. “We were in a room at the center and the girls could see both the newly finished open part of the project, and also the part that was under construction,” says Lawler. “Throughout the day, people made presentations on different disciplines. It was very interactive.”

During the one-day program, architects were brought in with the actual plans of the second phase of the project. Another CREW member used a square ruler to demonstrate how space is measured in a commercial real estate development. And still others role played lease negotiations. “The idea was to show how all of the various disciplines work together to make the final product,” says Lawler.

As a banker, Fuhr instinctively understood that her financial presentation would be a tough sell to teenage girls. In the end, she choose to act out with a colleague the scenario of a developer coming to a banker to ask for a loan on a development. Fuhr, playing the developer, began the interaction by requesting 100% of the money for her development. This, of course, initiated a conversation about loan-to-value ratios and equity. “My own money? I have to put my own money into this?” Fuhr responded in mock surprise.

Fun aside, Fuhr's personal mission through her position at KeyBank and the CREW Careers program, is to empower women in perhaps very practical ways.

“Not everybody has to be a real estate lender to work for a bank in commercial real estate,” Fuhr explains. “There's loan closing, loan disbursements and all kinds of asset management jobs that don't really take four-year degrees.” Girls are also given information about community colleges and classes are recommended.

Aliky Williams, a 17-year-old, who entered the program via her San Francisco Girl Scout troop, recalls her experience. “The best part was being able to mingle with hardworking women who love what they do, and are teaching girls like myself to follow through,” she says. “It was very influencing. Everyone needs a role model and all of those women were mine.”

Sibley Fleming is the managing editor of NREI. She has worked in journalism and book publishing for the past 20 years and is the author of seven books.