Rotary Club Chicago Woman of the Year Keynote

On May 22nd I was asked to give the key note speech at the Rotary Club of Chicago. While I spoke about change, growth, diversity and adversity, it was an honor and a pleasure to celebrate the honorees and support an organization built on philanthropy and making an impact on the city of Chicago. I hope you enjoy the key note speech below!

Good morning and a warm welcome to each of you. I feel very lucky to be here at such a special time! The royal wedding set new standards and traditions in welcoming their newest bride, the pope is doing all sorts of tours and making effort to bring people together, and the graduation of my daughter this past weekend provided a glimpse of an array of diversity for all sorts of women graduating from GW. Samantha, at her party, dedicated her GW stole “The Stole Of Gratitude” to me for helping mentor and make possible her journey. The GW will always remind me to be a good woman. I’m Randy Fifield, and I thank you for joining me here today to celebrate four incredible good women in honor of their inspiring work.

As senior level leaders of a not-for-profit, a technology start-up, a Fortune 500 communications company and the fourth largest school district in the United States, today’s outstanding Rotary Club “Woman of the Year” honorees shine brightly – not only as tough-as-nails professionals in challenging roles, but as women making a difference in the lives of others through their commitments to service and community. It is commitment to service, community, personal growth and core values, to things that go above and beyond the nuts and bolts of our daily work responsibilities, that often imbue our work with deeper meaning.

So let’s give another round of applause to Janice Jackson, Amanda Lannert, Yvonne Jones and Deborah Steiner. We cannot congratulate or thank these women enough today for their service contributions and for being agents of change. As women leading in fields like technology and compliance, they are decision makers in male-dominated industries. As women working to help at-risk children succeed in school, they are opening doors that lead to a wealth of opportunity.

This drive to change the status quo and to improve the lives of those who might otherwise be overlooked resonates with me, as I think it does with so many others. I have certainly made it a mission of mine as a woman executive in development and construction to drive change. To help others, you must often be willing to push the envelope and to have the vision and the energy to shift the conversation and create new standards.

On development and invest teams today, it is not uncommon to find 70% men, but at Fifield Companies we are 50% WOMEN. We have more than 50% women working in the management arm, and while we do not do commercial brokerage, only 23% are women in that segment of the market. As the chairwoman of Fifield Realty Corp., the development arm of Fifield Companies, I’m fortunate enough to be a part of an industry that I’ve dreamed about working in since I was a little girl.

I grew up in the city, in Rogers Park, with my wonderful, strong single mom. We were a great team even though things weren’t always easy. I found out early that sometimes a bad day is truly what sets you on the right path. We moved quite a bit, but I was lucky that my mom made an adventure out of everything and helped me embrace the joy in change. She knew I needed to stay busy ALL the time, and she indulged my need to make every space we lived in comfortable and beautiful – no matter how small our budget. She cared about those thing, too – about living our best life with the little that we had, so we always worked together and laughed together while creating our “dream houses” and embracing new environments.

That skill, embracing change, helped me a lot during my middle school years when we moved neighborhoods, and it really set the tone for my life in so many ways. I knew I wanted to work in real estate and development in Chicago and create beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. I began doing that in my 20s through neighborhood residential development. But I knew that to get as far as I wanted in this field, I couldn’t be afraid of the unknown, of a new challenge, or of working hard to achieve my goals. And in commercial real estate, as in so many other fields, being fearless, or at least acting fearless, certainly comes in handy. You need to be brave and speak up.

The thing I didn’t know when I started, that I do know today , is just how much I would need to embrace change – the changes I could control and the changes I couldn’t control at all, and how my professional goals would evolve. Sometimes people thank me for being a voice but what I am really trying to achieve is empowering women to know their value and gain their own voice.

For the past 16 years, my husband Steve and I have had the distinct pleasure of developing groundbreaking new construction apartment communities in Chicago’s downtown core that have helped set the tone for multifamily development, provided thousands of job opportunities, and changed communities for the better. We didn’t start out doing that. He did offices, and then we did condos. But the market changed, and we had to change with it. Luckily we stayed ahead of the curve and invested in apartments in the West Loop while most of our colleagues were still building condos or converting apartments to condos. There were plenty of naysayers in 2005, but I was insistent that the time had come for apartments. Our strategy worked, and it was the catalyst for the business we have today.

We find underutilized sites and transform them into beautiful corners of a neighborhood, elevating block after block that surrounds our projects. Despite a long list of challenges that I’ll reserve for discussion with another audience, it’s a dream job – it’s a lot of fun and it’s very rewarding. But I’ve also amassed a large portfolio of smaller multifamily properties throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods, which is reminiscent of my start in the business. Places like West Town, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Old Town and Lincoln Park to name a few. These buildings provide me with an opportunity to do the things I loved doing as a young girl on a smaller scale – to transform something ordinary into something special.

I was ashamed to live in an apartment as a child of divorce while most of my friends’ families lived in homes. I wanted to take the shame out of it by creating spaces that were better with amenities that home ownership did not allow middle-class people to have, such as wonderful skyline views, a concierge, a dog park or an Olympic size pool. But more importantly, they provide workforce housing in the city to a number of professionals who might otherwise leave for the suburbs or leave Chicago metro altogether for a more affordable city.

When I hear from property managers how popular these rehabbed units are and the gap they’re filling in our city’s housing market, I know we’re directly addressing a need and changing someone’s situation for the better. It’s really at the heart of why I love what I do. Of course, in this room, on this day, I’m not alone in filling a need or as an agent of change. Our honorees are working hard every day, in their paid positions and as volunteers, to address the needs and advocate for those who might otherwise be overlooked – and change their futures.

Without the effort of Yvonne Jones as executive director of the Jesse White Scholars and Tutoring Program, thousands of children’s lives would look much different than they do today. By running an extraordinarily successful program for Chicago’s at-risk youths, Yvonne has changed how so many teenagers perform in school but, more importantly, how they view themselves – and the opportunities ahead of them. The work Yvonne does every day helps us all, because it provides opportunity and growth for Chicago’s youth – our future and the future of this city. She is the agent of change we need in the world.

And without the efforts of Janice Jackson, today’s special public service award recipient, the principals, teachers and students of Chicago Public Schools would not be witnessing the kind of change they’ve needed to see for a LONG time. Under Janice’s leadership, school principals have some autonomy to determine how they run their own schools, because each one serves a different population with different needs, and because boots-on-the-ground leaders should be trusted to implement policies and programs in ways they understand will benefit the communities they serve. Under Janice’s leadership, teachers are emboldened to share their vision in the classroom and to inspire their students with their particular brand of magic. Under Janice’s leadership, students and their families are finally finding access to more resources, finding better guidance, experiencing more transparency. Janice Jackson has succeeded as an educator and leader for many years, and she is now taking one of her best qualities, the ability to be an agent of change, and elevating Chicago’s public schools. There’s plenty of change to be made in our great city on behalf of children and families, but there’s also tremendous opportunity to put our time, knowledge and resources toward helping those less fortunate in developing nations.

We are honoring Deborah Seiner today for her work with the Pure and Faultless Organization. Deb grew up in a family that valued service to others. The did missionary trips that led her to adopt her 3 children. She started her organization to help victims escape difficult situations including sexual violence. These women are also provided an education or a vocation to help them get on their feet. It is hard to imagine the emotional and physical struggles of these women and children or the courage it take to move on. Debs mission brings hope and light into their life all while working full-time and being a single mother to 3.

Then there’s Amanda Lannert. When I heard this enterprising professional was being honored for her active role in mentoring and elevating women in technology, which is a field where women have been in the waiting room for far too long,  I could absolutely relate to that circumstance and to the value of being an agent of change for women in an industry that has been dominated by men for far too long. Don’t get me wrong – men, of course, make outstanding contributions in the fields of technology and commercial real estate, and will continue to do so, but so can women. We are equals in this and in all things! Diversity of teams just leads to a better outcome. Amanda knows this all too well. As CEO of Jellyvision Lab, she is leading a company that values innovation, its people and their passions. That values diversity and inclusion. A place where people are virtually lining up outside the door to work, and a place that elevates women. Amanda is the perfect example of a woman using her power to change the culture of an organization and, ultimately, an industry.

When I think about taking on new challenges, embracing the unknown and evolving within my industry, I think mostly of the work I’ve been able to do to champion the needs of my employees and to champion women. At Fifield Companies, we are certainly passionate about meeting market demand for fantastic rental housing and love dreaming about our future projects. We spend a lot of time considering what inspires us and thinking about how to make deals happen so we can build a better building that we did before. Everything is an evolution. But what Steve and I feel proud of most at the end of each year, when our firm celebrate our successes, are two things:

First of all, that we’ve built a company that puts people first and that feels like a close-knit family. We rejoice in each other’s personal milestones, know each other’s loved ones, encourage vacations to recharge and spend time doing fun things together. It’s important. And this year, we’re closing the office between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s not vacation time or flex time, it’s a gift, for all of us. And hopefully a trend!

The other thing that we feel so proud of at Fifield and that relates directly to why we’re here today, we are deeply committed to empowering and elevating women. I’m the chairwoman of Fifield and I’m determined to lead by example, just like today’s honorees whom I so deeply admire. Making Fifield a top employer and partner for female professionals and women-led businesses has become essential to my vision for the company’s success – and it is an example I have been trying to set for Chicago’s commercial real estate industry.

I’m lucky enough to be joined every day in our corporate office by senior level female executives and managers – either our own employees at Fifield or outside designers and consultants who partner with us on projects. In our office, I have mentored two of our vice presidents, Erin Spears and Lindsey Senn, since the early days of their careers. These brilliant women understand and analyze the ins and outs of industry data, structure complex financing on multi-million-dollar developments and come up with systems that improve our marketing and our lease-up time. It’s incredible. They use their own voice daily and sometimes we are scared of them – their tenacity is inspiring. I think they’d both say they love applying their skill sets to what we do at Fifield. But I think they’d also say that the reason they stay and grow at Fifield is because we make it a terrific place for everyone to work – and a terrific place for women to evolve and to be recognized.

Outside of our office, we’ve retained woman-owned and operated companies for lending, general contracting, architecture, interior design and so much more. We feel good about providing opportunities for entrepreneurs and companies that may be overlooked, simply because they’re led by women. It’s hard to believe we live in those times, but we do – which is why it’s so important to have events like we’re having today, to remind ourselves of the fantastic professional and volunteer contributions made by women across industries and in various fields.

After we topped off our newest Chicago building in 2017, The Sinclair, I was so proud and honored that one of the industry’s top trade publications wrote a story about my team that highlighted the “Power in the W.” Women made the difference. I knew how extraordinary it was that The Sinclair was conceived, financed, designed, constructed and marketed by so many women executives and managers. I spoke about it at our topping-off event and noted that “Without the W, there is no power.”

I truly felt that way about what we achieved with The Sinclair, and I feel that way today – especially here, in this room, in the presence of women who are making such a difference in the lives of women and children through their work. Without women in leadership roles in every industry, thinking about the changes that need to be made, companies, not-for-profits, school districts and cities cannot evolve. Without women in leadership, organizations and government are unable to fully address the needs of employees, children, families, customers and constituents. If women are NOT offered a seat at the table – then we should make our own table at Megan Markle says!

Collaborating, cultivating, and elevating woman in the commercial real estate industry is a personal priority for me as the chairwoman of Fifield Realty Corp. I believe each of you here today feels the same about championing women in your industries. Thanks to so many smart and determined women before me who paved the way, and to men like my husband who have always treated women as professional equals, we live in a time where women are recognized and honored for everything they bring to the table professionally and at home.

In our great city, nationally and abroad, there is much work to be done. There are opportunities for serving and building community; for working in new ways with underserved populations; for building workforce housing that integrates our city and keeps Chicago a viable option for women and families; for giving women opportunities to shine and to lead in fields traditionally dominated by men.

I’d like to thank the board of the Rotary Club of Chicago for asking me to speak here today.

I wish each person in this room the best of luck in finding the inspiration, grit and courage to evolve and elevate others through your profession – a feat our honorees have accomplished. They remind us that no matter what industry you’re in or what path you choose, you can be an agent of positive change by embracing new opportunities and serving others through your work and your passions and philanthropy.

Thank you and enjoy this beautiful day.