How Women Are Emerging Into Leadership Roles in Proptech

Female founders and investors make their mark in one of commercial real estate’s fastest-growing niches

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In 2023, women-led proptech firms secured $1.5 billion in funding, likely an annual record and accounting for more than 10 percent of the $11.38 billion invested in proptech last year, according to the Center for Real Estate Technology and Innovation. Still, women make up a small fraction of proptech venture capitalists, principals and C-suite executives.

These six women are a part of that fraction. They have emerged into leading roles in proptech from varied backgrounds — finance, engineering, aeronautics, design, etc., inside and outside the United States. 

SEE ALSO: Restaurants Put Proptech on the Menu

But all appear to share an aha moment where they realized their ideas could satisfy a demand in the tech marketplace and advance real estate’s operations that much more.  

Julie Blanc is co-founder and CEO of Rentana, a San Francisco Bay Area-based revenue management software platform for multifamily owners and property managers.

Rentana is an early-stage proptech startup that provides users with AI-powered transparency and recommendations, said Blanc, who was in financial services before starting the company in 2023.

“My background is in venture capital and scaling enterprise software companies as an operator, as well,” said Blanc. “I’ve been investing and partnering with proptech founders for over 12 years. That’s actually how this all came to be. The founding team includes engineers that I’ve admired from afar for quite some time, who I’ve wanted to work with and start something together. And some of our founding advisers have been close to multifamily.”

Blanc declined to talk about Rentana’s funding and client base, but said she was excited by the challenge of starting the company.

“We’re just getting started, but we really have big ambitions as a team. We feel very fortunate to be so supported by so many different people in this ecosystem, whether it be clients or advisers. It’s been a really nice time to be founding a new technology in proptech, and working with incredibly sophisticated customers.”

Elizabeth Chrystal is a principal at proptech venture capital firm Zigg Capital. She came to proptech by way of being CFO of chef David Chang’s Momofuku hospitality and packaged food group.

“I was involved in the building of the physical restaurants, which included me seeing all of the problems of the technology being quite antiquated and the cost overruns that are frequent in any type of construction, down to permitting and insurance, and the many products that an expanding restaurant is buying,” said Chrystal.

During that period, Chrystal crossed paths with Zigg co-founders Dave Eisenberg and Ryan Orley about one of their portfolio companies. She realized there was “a big opportunity in proptech that resonated very much with my experience as an operator. I was eager to combine what I had learned from my seven years at Momofuku with the investing thesis that they had done quite well in.”

Although she did not have an investment background, Chrystal had dabbled in restaurant angel investing while at Momofuku. Since joining Zigg in May 2023, she has been leading the firm’s efforts in consumer-facing and restaurant-related technologies, alongside the firm’s broader proptech focus.

“If, globally, only 2 percent of VC dollars are going to women, to me that indicates a really exciting, untapped talent pool that presents a compelling opportunity for whoever can be the partner to that group of talent,” said Chrystal. “We’re starting to invest our third fund now, and already it has more female founders than either of our prior funds. That’s not something that we’ve done by design. It is just reflective of us chasing the best talent globally and being aware of talent sources we might have overlooked.”

Eda Erol, CEO and founder at Poliark, an AI-enhanced 3D design firm for the built environment, was born in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and came to the U.S. to study, earning her master’s in geographic information services technology from the University of Arizona. After returning to Turkey for work, in April 2021 Erol decided to start Poliark, which is headquartered in Manhattan.

Erol saw that the architecture, engineering and construction industry struggled with finding and using high-quality design software. She set about to solve that problem by creating Poliark, but didn’t quite expect the reaction to her new company, which last month was accepted into pre-seed investor Techstars’ latest accelerator cohort.

“What surprised me was how everyone in the architecture and engineering world is open to the new technologies, but not quite sure how to adopt them,” said Erol. “For example, with AI, regardless of the scale of the construction company, they are into it, because they want a solution to speed up the operations. But as they are more of a conventional company, it is hard for them to understand, let alone use the technology, and it’s hard to adopt it.”

Such hurdles are being met by Erol, who as a woman, immigrant and hijab-wearing Muslim, has confronted her own challenges.

“Of course, there’s always some prejudice, but then I still have roots in my home country,” said Erol. “I still have an R&D company there. So going back and forth and having roots in both countries actually helps. People do understand it. There have been some occasions when men or the companies were not comfortable in the first place, but, you know, AI is a technology that regardless of who found it, or where the company is, if the technology works it can break the barriers.”

Tiya Gordon is co-founder of itselectric, a Brooklyn-based EV charging startup that partners with property owners in cities across the U.S. who want to install a public curbside charger on their property.

Having been successful in design and operations across a range of disciplines for some of the country’s top firms and institutions, Gordon in July 2021 decided to “use design to wage war on the climate crisis.”

In co-founding itselectric, Gordon has brought her outsider’s perspective to proptech.

“I think the transformative, differentiating factor that my co-founder and I approached the problem with is a very different way than had previously been done in the United States,” Gordon said of itselectric’s technology and design. “It was a very fresh set of eyes on a problem that was previously treated in a very traditional way. That made a difference in not only the solution, but the way in which our solution was perceived publicly.”

As a female founder, Gordon doesn’t necessarily think proptech has a reputation as being male-dominated, but she has faced obstacles.

“I think that women continue to encounter barriers, and the trick to not having that detour your progress is to simply sidestep it,” Gordon said. “Where we find dismissive behaviors in the industry, it’s often based not on intentional bias, but sort of a bias that may have not been realized. It’s something we as a company have to understand is a barrier that we have to overcome.

“And I’d like to say that actually New York is an exceptional city, because there isn’t a lot of bias toward women within the city. I think you find it when you start to step out into the larger, nationwide industry, and you’re put into those realms of dinners and conferences and spaces that are designed for men and men’s activities. As a woman, you’re definitely an outsider in that space.”

Even attempts to level that gender gap can be comically inept, said Gordon.

“I can give you a little anecdote about that. Lately, I and other female founders in my space have been invited to these sessions that are designed to teach you the skills that you need to succeed in a male-dominated space. And I’m not joking when I say these skills are being listed as golfing, poker and video games.”

Despite such questionable insights, the idea that women need to engage in traditionally male social activities to be successful is not something Gordon wants to dwell on. It is worth observing, though, she said.

“We want to get to a place where the solutions are the focus and not the people behind them,” said Gordon. “I want to get to a point where we actually don’t have to look at gender in these stories. The only way that we’re going to get to that point is when there’s actual equity, because I don’t believe that there is a difference in quality in the businesses that women and men are creating.”

Valkyrie Holmes is the CEO and co-founder of Manhattan-based Faura, an assessment app designed to lower natural disaster home insurance premiums.

Faura helps insurance companies and homeowners reduce their natural disaster risk with property and climate analytics,” said Holmes. “Essentially, we do digital risk assessments of both personal and small business properties, giving them the risk factors and ways to reduce their risk that tie directly into their premium. Then we’re able to give that data back to insurance companies to help them balance their portfolio.”

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Holmes co-founded Faura in January 2023 after internships at NASA and SpaceX, the latter of which became a full-time position.

And she’s 20. (Yes. Really.) 

“I was working in pretty simple space tech, kind of data science roles, at NASA and SpaceX, on commercial ride-share,” said Holmes. “Basically helping with electrical engineering on the same team that does a lot of the maintenance for companies that are sending things into space. Then I got a grant to pursue sustainability, and I’ve kind of been at the intersection of sustainability and insurance ever since high school.

“I did a couple of hackathons on wildfires and got really interested in natural disasters in the space surrounding that. I was working with a nonprofit called Napa Firewise back a couple summers ago, and realized that there’s a big knowledge gap between what homeowners understand about how to reduce their risk and what insurance companies and large stakeholders know about how to price that risk, how to take responsibility for that risk, and how to ultimately scale within a relatively hard market for disasters. Exploring that, I then realized that Faura could make a difference there.”

Having enrolled at Vanderbilt University — but taking three consecutive gap years to pursue her various interests — Holmes has quickly grown Faura. That has included securing a $400,000 pre-seed round in February, as well as having the startup selected in early-stage venture capital firm MetaProp’s most recent accelerator cohort.

While Holmes doesn’t accept the genius label, she does believe her intellectual and business development is the way of the future.

“I think the biggest thing that we’re going to start to see is a shift in where companies like Google are putting degrees online and you can get certificates,” said Holmes. “And, at the end of it, it’s less about the paper and the time that you spent on the course, it’ll be more about, ‘OK, what did you build during this time? What can you point to and say that’s yours?’ It doesn’t even have to be at a big tech company. It can just be something like a startup or some cool product that you sold or something that everyone in your grade was using that you can point to and say, ‘Yeah, I created that.’

“I think the traditional, ‘Are you good at school where we quantify education intelligence that kind of helps get you into college?’  I think that’s a little bit outdated. I’ll be honest.”

Charlotte Schell is co-founder and CEO of Wreno, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based platform that aids single-family and multifamily owners and property managers.

“We support third-party vendors focused on anything from regular maintenance to large renovation capex projects for institutional owners and operators,” said Schell. “Our product streamlines the process from vendor onboarding to procurement.”

Founded at the end of 2021 and operating since mid-2022, Wreno raised a $5 million seed round and now totals $6 million in funding.

Wreno claims to be the first to digitize many categories in proptech, including trade-license verification authentication, allowing property owners/operators to customize their compliance, onboarding, procurement and bidding requirements; collecting granular data on vendors instead of just approximate categories; and having the largest database of some 400,000 vendors across the nation.

As for challenges facing women proptech entrepreneurs such as herself in building a startup, Schell is undaunted.

“I try not to focus too much on that day to day,” she said. “As a startup, the reality is there’s so many obstacles already. There’s an endless amount of challenges that we’re tackling, and, for most of them, gender is not the problem. There are situations where gender does play a role in the journey, but I try to think more positively.”

Schell also sees the important advantages women bring to entrepreneurialism.

“There are a lot of other things that are within my control to help us move forward and turn things around,” she said. “You may force me to be a little bit more creative and a little bit more strategic. Also, there are advantages and opportunities that come up because I’m a woman, just from a recruiting and culture-building perspective. I think just being a woman sometimes makes people, especially other women talent, more comfortable joining you.”

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com