CBRE’s Elizabeth Birch On Entering Real Estate After Leading A Major Nonprofit
This series looks at the myriad ways people are entering the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to its success.
Before Elizabeth Birch closed her first commercial real estate deal, she was a top lawyer for Apple and ran a large civil rights organization for a decade.
Birch joined CBRE in 2017 as Vice President, Office Users. She had previously run her own consulting firm for a dozen years and previously spent a decade as president and executive director of the human rights campaign.
While at HRC, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the United States, Birch urged presidents and lawmakers to support broader policies. She also dipped her toes into commercial real estate when she helped the nonprofit build a new headquarters in Downtown DC
She began her career as a lawyer, working in San Francisco with the global law firm Bingham McCutchen. In 1989 she became head of process and personnel consulting at Apple Computer Inc.
Courtesy of CBRE
Elizabeth Birch with former President Barack Obama in 2016.
Bisnow: How did you come to CRE?
Birch: After a legal and entrepreneurial career, I came to Washington at a critical juncture in the LGBTQ movement for equality to lead a large nonprofit, Human Rights Campaign.
Our team has accompanied the organization through a decade of tremendous growth and visibility. One of our main initiatives was the construction of the new HRC main building on 17th and Rhode Island. This taught me that a nonprofit that owns its own building is of tremendous value in the right circumstances – especially in the Greater DC marketplace. In the case of HRC, this has helped kickstart a period of great inspiration, visibility and growth. It has also created what is known as a “legacy” opportunity for donors: that special moment when donors are motivated to go beyond that to achieve a dream. The building was paid for through a hugely successful capital campaign, Building Equality. This freed up more resources that could be invested in advocacy and programs. I couldn’t have imagined the incredible benefits HRC received from their real estate decision.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Birch: Having had a long career before joining CRE, I was fortunate enough to join the industry as a vice president at CBRE in a lateral position. I was persuaded to take this step by James Dennin, an accomplished real estate professional who would become my primary business partner. We both saw the advantage of combining his extensive real estate experience and instinct with my management experience to offer clients a holistic approach.
Bisnow: What kind of training, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How important was it to play your first big role?
Birch: I didn’t have any formal CRE training. On the flip side, I am a lawyer and have extensive experience negotiating lawsuits and contracts both in a large San Francisco law firm and while litigating at Apple Computer Inc. A general contractor from Greater Washington hired my consulting firm to do business development. Peris allowed me the flexibility while my twins graduated from high school and I will be forever grateful.
Bisnow: What is a skill that you wish you could get into CRE?
Birch: Anyone can learn in the workplace, but it’s a complex industry where the scenarios you develop for your client need to be analyzed with financial precision for each variable. Fortunately, CBRE has a deep bank of exceptional talent.
Courtesy of CBRE
Elizabeth Birch speaks at a rally in 2002.
Bisnow: What did you do before you came to CRE?
Birch: At 17, I left home and went on an odyssey. I finished high school on an education troop in Europe, North Africa, and the United States. I then started from Canada, where I grew up, and went to Hawaii, where I studied oceanography and political science. I attended law school in California and after working at a large law firm, I joined Apple Computer Inc., where I served as the litigation chief and recruiter for the company. I was also the general counsel of Claris, Apple’s wholly owned subsidiary. I came to Washington, DC to lead the human rights campaign and saw a period of tremendous growth and visibility over the course of a decade. When I ran HRC, I learned the impact smart and inspiring design can have on any company.
After almost a decade in this position, I ran a consulting and management company, Birch & Co., until I joined CBRE in 2017.
Bisnow: Did you bring something with you from your past career that helped you to be successful in the CRE, or on the other hand something that you had to unlearn in order to be successful here?
Birch: I was a corporate litigator at a large San Francisco law firm, and then led litigation at a Fortune 100 firm. A negotiation is a negotiation. My legal skills, which I honed during my early legal career, were invaluable not only in the raw real estate transaction but also in understanding real estate issues. Our CBRE team has grown and operates a large non-profit organization. It is able to incorporate this knowledge into every transaction. We put as much effort into analyzing the organizational visions and goals (including timely cultural concepts such as diversity, inclusion and equity, and how this affects function and design) as we do in the transaction and negotiate the best outcome for our clients.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment when you felt over your head or worried that this industry was not for you?
Bisnow: Have you ever thought about quitting? What has changed?
Birch: No, but young people should know that the competition is tough. I believe anyone who puts their customer in the details first with laser focus can be successful.
Courtesy of CBRE
Former President Bill Clinton with Elizabeth Birch, then Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign, 1998.
Bisnow: What were your first impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Birch: It’s no secret that our industry has work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusion. However, companies like CBRE are committed to change. It will take time to build a CRE industry that reflects the diversity of our nation. We will need new approaches to crack open access and opportunities.
Bisnow: Did you have a mentor or sponsor? How did this person shape your future in CRE?
Birch: I am fortunate to have a business partner who shares my values and we strive to provide thorough and intelligent representation to each customer. We have different backgrounds, but complement each other perfectly.
Bisnow: What is an important lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way? What do you warn people about when they enter the industry?
Birch: A very wise and experienced real estate guide told me in my first week: “Most of the good deals are in your garden.” Although I have extensive untapped relationships across the country, his advice was to stay close to home so you can thoroughly manage the real estate trip.
Bisnow: If you could do your career again, what would you change?
Birch: I wanted to be a member of parliament growing up in Canada. But as a young woman, I knew I was different (it turned out to be gay) and that I probably had no snowball chance in Canada to make that dream come true. I love serving people and in my own way have tried to do my part to make the world a better place.