MARCH 28, 2019 | KAREN JORDAN
Q&A: Multifamily Developer Gelena Skya-Wasserman on Making Her Dreams Come True in Commercial Real Estate
She Says It’s All About the Hustle
Gelena Skya-Wasserman, founder and principal at boutique real estate development firm Skya Ventures, Inc. Photo: Gelena Skya-Wasserman
Gelena Skya-Wasserman says her boutique real estate development company’s motto is, “Building projects that enhance their surroundings, foster communities and inspire others.”
And Skya-Wasserman, founder and president at Skya Ventures Inc., based in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Tarzana, said she is all about working hard to make that happen.
An affiliate of multifamily investment firm Gelt Inc., which was co-founded by her husband, Keith Wasserman, Skya Ventures has worked on several Los Angeles-area projects including the ground-up development at 4522 Lexington Ave. in Los Feliz and 5800 Marmion Way in Highland Park.
Born in Odessa, Ukraine, Skya-Wasserman and her family immigrated to the United States in 1990, after brief stops in Italy and Austria. After watching her parents struggle and work, Wasserman decided from an early age that she would take a different path.
She said a book she read when she was 14 had a big impact.
“I always saw how hard my parents worked, and the harder they worked, the more harder they worked, then the more money they made, the harder they worked to pay the taxes,” she recalled. “I thought there’s got to be a different way, and there’s got to be a different system. I read a book called ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ and was really enlightened by this whole different life that could be had under real estate.”
CoStar News: How did you get into commercial real estate?
Gelena Skya-Wasserman: » I ended up going to the University of California at San Diego. I’ve always worked since I was 12, and I’ve always been making money and been very entrepreneurial, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. Really the only talent that I had was sales, so the way it happened was I was a double major: communications and urban planning with a minor in economics. My urban planning major required us to do an internship, which I did, but it was here in Los Angeles, and I ended up doing an internship at Colliers International, actually with a vice president there whose name is Roger Beck. After the internship, I literally said to myself, “I will never in a million years be a broker.”
Why was that?
» It seemed like an industry that was headed toward the path of extinction as more technology came into play. It was extremely male dominated, and the people that were doing brokerage at least in my office were not the most sophisticated, let’s just say. So I just saw something different for myself, and I wasn’t exactly sure what that was.
What did you decide to do then?
» I had offers to do pharmaceutical sales at Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly. So we kept in touch. I was 20 years old. I had a package of $46,000 to come work at Pfizer, all expenses paid, company car, travel, signing bonus of $20,000. I was like, wow, I’m rich. I made it. But as I was talking to Roger, and I was touring the companies, I would have to be stationed in Jacksonville, Florida. The managers that I spoke to were making a salary that I just thought was capped.
I knew that I wanted passive income where I didn’t have to live the type of lifestyle that my parents did, and I’ve always known I wanted to do real estate and I figured I would just invest as I made more money. But as I spoke to Roger, he said, “Don’t take it. You’re going to be miserable. You’re not a middle management type person. Come partner with me.”
Was it what you expected?
» I came to work with Roger, and the market tanked two months later. Roger was away on vacation in Hawaii. I’ll never forget this. The way it works when you’re starting out in brokerages, they give you a stipend, and I think it was like $1,200 a month. I was living at home with my parents. I had school loans to pay off. I was as broke as broke gets. So when the market tanked, management sat me down and said they wouldn’t be able to provide the stipend. They said I was welcome to stay, but wasn’t going to get anything to help me get up and running.
I called Roger, and he said, “We’ll make it work, don’t worry.”
I got a job waitressing tables at night at L.A. Food Show, which was started by Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, who did California Pizza Kitchen, but the restaurant never made it. It was in Beverly Hills. It lasted I think a year and a half. So I’d come in the office at 6 a.m. I’d leave the office at about 6 p.m. to go start a 7:30 p.m. shift in Beverly Hills. I’d be done by midnight, and then I’d come back in the office at 6 a.m. It was brutal.
You then started out selling single-family speculative homes. How did you transition to commercial real estate?
» I was looking for my next house to do, and I came across this guy’s website who was marketing this property in Los Feliz, but really it wasn’t Los Feliz it was Silver Lake. That’s a big difference. Silver Lake prices are ‘x’ and Los Feliz prices are ‘y’ and so I toured it. He was marketing it wrong. There were two, different parcels – one across the street from the other – and the person that was selling the property was a member of the church but not really a real estate agent or someone qualified to sell. I tied it up, both parcels for I think it was $950,000, then I sold the parcel I couldn’t do anything with for $500,000. So my basis for the parcel I was left with was $400,000. That project, at 4522 Lexington Ave., is just about completed. It’s a nine-unit apartment building. That area has boomed.
Why do you think there aren’t more women in commercial real estate?
» I think first and foremost, if you don’t have a path in, a mentor or an adviser or someone to kind of show you the ropes, you’re not going to gravitate toward that industry. You don’t know it. It’s foreign to you, or if it is of interest to you it’s very difficult to get in. I think the second reason is we don’t expose women as they’re growing up in school to construction or development or underwriting.
Real estate has so many moving pieces. There’s the finance component. There’s the entitlement component. There’s the construction component. There is the fundraising component. There are so many different things. Also, if you ask me, prior to doing the house, I had zero construction experience.
I think for women, if they don’t know, or if they feel I don’t know enough, that risk is too great, so they avoid it. I think for those reasons it’s probably why you don’t see too many women in real estate.
MARCH 28, 2019|KAREN JORDAN, as appeared in CoStar