Finance  ·  Players

Wells, Wells, Wells (Fargo): Kara McShane’s Women Leaders on Their Rise to the Top

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For Kara McShane, the significance of her 2020 promotion to head of commercial real estate at Wells Fargo didn’t truly sink in until she received a gift from a client one day: a simple silver necklace with a charm about the size of a quarter attached to it. The charm? A piece of broken glass. 

“You broke the glass,” the client’s note read. 

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After a decade at the bank, and following senior roles in commercial real estate and asset-backed finance, McShane had ascended the throne and achieved what no other woman at Wells Fargo ever had. 

“It somehow took that necklace to jolt me,” McShane said. “The truth is, you often don’t realize when you’re a role model and you don’t realize the significance of your position until you meet and talk to young people who tell you that. Even then it’s still hard to believe. But then you take a minute and realize, ‘I have a responsibility in this seat.’ ” 

Like several other women whose careers are on an upward trajectory, McShane had been pedal to the metal and hadn’t taken the time to properly appreciate her success, or the weight of her promotion. “Like anyone else, I have ambition in my career and I’m always looking to reach the next level,” she said. “So, for me, it was just the next step. Then it struck me that it really meant something for other women, too.” 

McShane has had a career in banking that’s spanned three decades.

“It was unthinkable 30 years ago that a woman would be running real estate at a bank like this,” she said. “The fact that it’s a reality today is terrific — but there’s always more progress to be made.” 

Smash! 

The term “glass ceiling” was coined by Marilyn Loden in 1978. Although the commercial real estate industry has undoubtedly come a long way in terms of having its ceiling smashed since then, there are very few teams today — especially CRE finance teams — who so clearly demonstrate the representation of women in leadership positions as Wells Fargo does. 

When McShane took the reins in 2020, not one woman reported directly to her. Today, her team’s diversity has expanded from 10 percent to 50 percent. Of those professionals, 70 percent are in new positions — either new to the leadership team, or in a completely different role than they were when McShane took over. 

The diversity wasn’t intentional, but rather the result of finding the best person for the job. 

“My main goal was to create the best leadership team off the bat, and I think I’ve done that,” McShane said. “When I set out to fill a position, it’s always about getting the best talent for the job, so it’s a bonus that my team is a lot more diverse than it used to be.” 

Diverse talent wants to work where they see similarly diverse leaders ahead of them, and Wells is doing a good job of walking the walk, not just talking the talk, McShane said. 

“There is diversity throughout the ranks, but I think the more people see role models in leadership positions that look like them, the more likely they are going to want to work at a place,” she said. “We also have a very deep bench of talent with lots of experience in commercial real estate, and that in and of itself attracts talent.”

The bench 

That bench includes Rachel Jinich and Vanessa Rodriguez, both of whom McShane has elevated to leadership positions in the past few years. 

San Francisco-based Rodriguez is now in her third decade with the bank, and was promoted to lead community lending and investment within the CRE group in October 2021. Jinich has been with the bank for 17 years now, and was promoted last April to lead the bank’s specialty real estate finance (SREF) business where she oversees all SREF teams, including hospitality finance, senior housing, manufactured housing and specialty capital.

20211014 Vanessa Rodriguez from Wells Fargo WEB Wells, Wells, Wells (Fargo): Kara McShanes Women Leaders on Their Rise to the Top
Vanessa Rodriguez. Courtesy Wells Fargo

“I’ve been at Wells for 22 years and Kara took over the role in 2020 as the first woman to run the whole shebang,” Rodriguez said. “If nothing else, that alone speaks to evolution in our industry. We’re so proud of her for that and want to support her. We want her to win.”  

Rodriguez and Jinich got their banking starts on opposite coasts — Rodriguez in San Francisco and Jinich in Boston — but both earned their stripes through loan workouts following the Global Financial Crisis.

Jinich discovered a passion for real estate while earning her master’s in international economics and finance at Brandeis University. After joining Wells’ Boston office in 2006, she was asked to be part of a credit management training program in San Francisco, and headed west in September 2008. “So, perfect timing,” she said and laughed. “I get to San Francisco, Lehman collapses, and the world is a whole different place.” 

One of her mentors, Mark Myers, who was McShane’s predecessor, left the special situations group to oversee the distressed real estate that Wells Fargo had acquired from Wachovia in the banks’ 2008 merger. “I raised my hand, and said, ‘I want in. I don’t know what your group is all about, but whatever you’re leading, it sounds interesting.’ ” 

Rodriguez, on the other hand, went to the University of California at Berkeley. She was looking for a summer internship in 2001 as the dot.com bust was underway, heavily impacting the Bay Area, when she learned about Wells’ summer training program. 

“The critical element was that I came across a really great recruiter who was diverse himself across a number of diversity dimensions and — 22 years ago now — way ahead of his time in terms of focusing on recruiting diverse talent,” Rodriguez said. “He was a tough critic, so there was a perfect combination of him challenging me to be my best, but also taking a vested interest in me to help bring me in, navigate that summer and get into a full-time role at the firm.”

They’re still close, 22 years later. 

“I seek his counsel often, and when I don’t, I’m thinking about what he would think of what I’m doing,” Rodriguez said. “At the start, he told me, ‘You’re going to need to work harder and work smarter and be better than everyone next to you, every single day you come into work.’ He was saying I had to rise to this challenge, and I really wanted to excel.”  

Rodriguez spent her first five years in San Francisco in commercial banking. From there, she moved to New York City, where she spent the next 10 years — the most formative of which were 2009 through 2012, doing loan workouts following the Wells Fargo -Wachovia merger. 

“I really grew in that time,” she said. “Within maybe a year of me going to New York, we were smack dab in the middle of everything. New York was the center of the crisis, and I was working in banking when banks were teetering. It was scary, but I placed myself right in the center of the fire, and just tried to capture that time and grow from it.” 

Those three years ended up being the most critical to her career development.

“It was a time to dig in,” Rodriguez said. “There were a lot of people around us with more experience who probably thought we were too young and couldn’t add any value, but the hustle was real — and a year in workouts is like five years when times are good.” 

It’s something that McShane can attest to. She framed it in the context of the dislocation fueled by today’s rising interest rates, which is now approaching the two-year mark. 

“Commercial real estate is cyclical, and I’ve been through lots of down cycles in my career. This is just another one,” McShane said. “The positive side is that challenges create opportunities. When things go wrong, and you need to enter into a workout situation, that creates [loan] workout opportunities for young people — and workout experience, in many ways, is a badge of honor. When things go wrong, that’s how you learn and that’s how you get better. That’s how you become a better lender, a better investor or whatever else it is that you’re doing.” 

The women for the job 

In the same vein, one piece of career advice that Jinich gives younger women in the industry today is to run toward the fire. “Go where the business is growing,” she said. “Even if you feel like you don’t check all the boxes, run towards that fire.”

It’s advice that’s served her well. After working on distressed workouts during the GFC, Jinich was asked to join Wells’ newly formed hospitality finance group in 2012 — and the call came on her first day back after maternity leave. She wasn’t a lodging specialist, and knew she’d be going from something she knew to something completely new. 

Still, “I took the gamble,” she said. 

That gamble placed her in the specialty real estate finance group and eventually into leadership roles there. In 2017, she pivoted asset classes again when data centers got hot and became another specialty-focused vertical for the bank. 

Last year, McShane “took a chance” on her, Jinich said, when Jinich’s now-predecessor of 35 years was retiring. “Do you think you’re ready?” McShane asked, and Jinich ran toward that fire.  

Jinich said that McShane was taking a chance on her as the next leader, “and here I am,” Jinich said. 

For Rodriguez, her promotion came at a time where her personal life was busier than ever. After getting engaged in 2016, she had moved back to San Francisco from New York, where she’d pivoted from loan workouts to new originations. There, she ran the regional market for commercial real estate on balance sheet. Up until then, her career until then had been focused on market-rate assets, but the opportunity to lead community lending and investment was about to come calling.

All the while, male mentors and male sponsors had been vitally important in Rodriguez’s career.  “Frankly, they’ve helped say my name in rooms that I wasn’t in, taken my call, or given me a call when they thought I needed a push,” she said. 

Those nudges came in handy in 2021, she said: “I was eight months pregnant with my first baby and a lot of male mentors said, ‘OK, you’re ready to go and have this baby, but this is when you need to lean in. It might feel like a stretch to apply for this job right now, when you’re on the precipice of this new thing personally, but you‘ve got to do it.’ ” 

Rodriguez connected with McShane and had a “very open and authentic” conversation about what McShane needed in the role and where Rodriguez was in her  life. 

“I felt the full support of her saying, ‘There’s not just one way to do this, and I have full faith that you will make this happen if you’re chosen for the role, so don’t let the new baby be the reason not to do it,’ ” Rodriguez said. 

She now has two young children, and women often approach her to ask how she does it. “It is hard,” Rodriguez said. “But, with the right support from family, friends, the right leadership around you, and a great team under you, you can push through.”

Still, she doesn’t sugarcoat it. 

“My life is a Rubik’s Cube,” Rodriguez said and laughed. “Every day I move a piece here, so I move another piece there, but you just keep going. You wake up every day, and try to be a better mom and a better leader the next day than you were the day before. To the moms out there who are saying, ‘How do you do it?’ I just say, ‘Keep going.’ ”

Who runs the world? Girls.

As the commercial real estate industry continues to evolve, an overall leveling of the playing field is palpable. Yet, for many of the early years in McShane’s career, she was the only woman in the room most of the time and didn’t see people who looked like her in leadership roles.

She got her start at Sanford Bernstein, which was then acquired by AllianceCapital to form AllianceBernstein. From there, she went to Morgan Stanley before joining Wells Fargo. “Each place was different,” she said. “At Morgan Stanley, there were not a lot of female managing directors [MD] when I was there. I made MD while I was there, and the ones that were there, I looked up to as role models.” 

Over the years, as her career advanced, she found mentors and sponsors, many of whom were men. 

“I think women need to hear that your mentor or sponsor doesn’t have to be the same gender,” McShane said. “I’ve had bosses and colleagues and peers who have been very meaningful in terms of my counsel, and they’ve been men and women.” 

Over the years, while she’s seen women be promoted to leadership roles in CRE and banking more broadly, “they’re few and far between in terms of running businesses or being in executive roles,” McShane said. “There’s a lot more work to do there.” 

Since Jinich joined the industry 17 years ago it’s also changed a huge amount, she said. 

Wells Fargo Rachel Goldin Jinich WEB Wells, Wells, Wells (Fargo): Kara McShanes Women Leaders on Their Rise to the Top
Rachel Jinich. Courtesy Wells Fargo

“When I first started, at the bottom of the food chain, there was only a handful of women in a group of largely white men,” she said. “I look around now and my team is really diverse across the board. Part of that is Kara’s leadership. What you put out, you receive back, and Kara puts her whole self out there and is very open and honest — not just with the team, but with clients. I think that really resonates with people, and they then feel that it’s a safe place for them to do the same.” 

When Jinich was promoted to her current role last year she was in Charlotte, N.C., meeting with part of her new team. In a room of a dozen people, all but two were women. “I’d never been in a room of real estate professionals where there was that dynamic and it wasn’t some women’s panel,” she said. “Some of  the younger women came up to me afterwards and said ‘We’re so happy to see you in the role. We’re so excited.’ It was interesting because I knew exactly what they felt because it was the same excitement that I felt when Kara got her position. Representation matters, because when you see it in practice you feel like that’s achievable.”

Strong roots

Rodriguez is Puerto Rican, while Jinich is a first-generation American whose mom immigrated from Iran in the 1970s. 

“I often think about her life and the sacrifices that she made to move to this country without any family — just in the hope of something better,” Jinich said. “To be leading a business and have the opportunity that I have to do what I’m doing today means a lot to me, because it’s something that my mom and my grandmother, sitting in this southern town in Iran, would never have dreamed I would have accomplished.” 

Rodriguez’s grandmother passed away at age 100 two years ago. She arrived in the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, moving her sisters and mother with her. The women sewed in the Garment District for 12 to 15 hours per day, with 18 people sleeping in a two-bedroom railroad apartment by night. 

“The work ethic and the hustle and the grit that she evidenced in my life is so integral to how I am today,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez’s mother had five children and earned a master’s degree as well as worked as a bilingual teacher in the New York City public schools before becoming the full-time caregiver to her children. Rodriguez’s older sister worked on Wall Street in the 1980s. “A Puerto Rican-Italian woman was probably nonexistent on Wall Street at the time,” she said. “I have brought the influence of all these women with me into this career, and that’s all been supplemented by peers and mentors like Kara.” 

Jinich said what she appreciates about Wells’ platform today is there’s not room for only one woman: “The culture that I see spreading is women supporting other women, and the men being supportive as well. To me, it’s really heartening, because you can see the change and you can feel it,” she said.

Today’s wins

As the industry continues to navigate 2024’s uncertain market, the women of Wells Fargo have plenty to celebrate. 

“One of the hallmarks of Wells Fargo commercial real estate is that we are through-cycle lenders,” Jinich said. “Having been through a few cycles with Wells Fargo, it’s during these times of dislocation and uncertainty that we really show what we’re made of, because of the way that we continue to show up for our clients.”

During COVID, being in the lodging group, Jinich’s team worked on loan restructures, responding quickly to clients. Now that lodging has recovered, those clients remember that period and the borrower-lender relationship that developed through it, she said. 

“I think it’s the same in this environment in that we continue to support our clients, providing solutions, trying to be thoughtful,” she said. “Now that the capital markets have come back and are much more constructive, we’re providing a full suite of solutions on balance sheet, off balance sheet. So, despite the rate environment being higher, we’re still getting a fair amount done.” 

Case in point: the financing it provided to KSL Capital Partners, when it took Hersha Hospitality Trust private in November. In January, the bank also announced a $775 million M&A deal for Brookfield’s acquisition of Cyxtera and seven data centers. 

For Rodriguez, community banking is a little more of a “bright spot” compared to other areas in the market, but also not immune to some of the industry’s challenges. “We’ve been heavily supported by the firm in terms of continuing critical work in affordable housing,” Rodriguez said. “I always tell my team, ‘You’re lucky to be in this space,’ because we’re still able to do really great work that has great impact.” 

In October her team closed a $360 million financing for an 880-unit project in Willets Point, Queens, the largest affordable housing project in New York City in four decades.  

Elsewhere, McShane spies green shoots in an otherwise barren transaction landscape. 

“We’re already seeing a real pickup in capital markets activities,” McShane said. “CMBS spreads have tightened, and volume has picked up a lot in the first quarter. If and when rates decrease, that should spur a lot more activity, I hope. Now, do I know what the overall transaction volume number is going to be this year? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s going to be more than last year? Yes. Do I think it’s going to be 2021 levels? No. But I do think that we will see more activity and, like everyone, I’m anxiously awaiting it.”

As for any advice for a woman reading this article and contemplating a career in CRE finance? 

“Go for it,” McShane said. “Work hard. Stay humble, but do it with confidence and don’t be afraid of failure. I’ve had a great career, and I love how the industry is evolving and continues to evolve. We just need to attract more young women into this space, and I think we’re doing that.”