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Originally published by ICSC, June 7, 2023.

2020 was the year everything changed for Pine Tree vice president of property management Jasmyn Sylvester, one of two 2023 winners of the ICSC Foundation Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship.

On March 10, Sylvester — who then worked as property manager for TSCG in Jacksonville, Florida — gave birth to her son Roman. Just a few days later, as she recounted, “the world went on lockdown without any explanation as to what would come next.” With schools closed, Sylvester’s husband, Steven, an assistant football coach at Jacksonville University, was laid off. He got a new job in Georgia, and so in the middle of the pandemic, the couple moved and Jasmyn Sylvester switched to a different TSCG office.

Meanwhile, the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest around the country, left her feeling displaced in another way, as well. “It hit me in a way that I had never felt before because I was now raising a little boy of color,” she recalled.

It was against this background that Sylvester, as a volunteer member of the Institute of Real Estate Management, became chair of IREM’s Diversity Advisory Board, charged with coming up with strategies to make the industry more open and to ensure IREM’s members feel safe, supported, represented and heard.

It was a fraught time. As she wrote in her application for the Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship: “Many looked to me for comfort, solutions and direction. Being under 30, I had no idea why this was placed on my shoulders, as I did not feel confident that I had the experience and [felt] grossly underqualified to take on such a charge. But I developed a hunger to make impact and change the lives of those around me. I vowed in that moment to share knowledge, access, resources and network to ensure that the path to navigate the industry is less lonely for those that enter this industry after me.”

Telling Her Story as a Black Woman in Property Management

Sylvester, who graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in journalism, believes change can start with the simple act of sharing stories. Media jobs were scarce upon her 2013 graduation, and so she parlayed a campus building manager job into a property management career. Those affinities for storytelling and property management intersected in her IREM diversity work as she started sharing her own story at IREM committee and governance meetings and town halls and in conversations with IREM leaders. “When you speak from the heart and personal experience and you lead with storytelling, sometimes that’s the best way to establish change and really pull out the best in each other,” she said.

The story she shared is that it’s not easy to be a Black woman in the property management business. Many times, she felt undermined and unrespected. Sometimes, she felt unsafe. There was the time that she put her hair in cornrows to keep it controlled. No other Black women worked in the office, and “my hair became a topic of conversation every single chance I was there,” she said. Anticipating what her colleagues might say about her hairstyle made her “overwhelmed with anxiousness,” she said. She told people at IREM that in those moments, “you wish you that just had a buffer, an environment that normalized differences so we could actually focus on the work at hand instead of my braids.”

She talked too about being questioned about her presence at a construction site despite her employee badge. And about the fact that she made her husband share his GPS with her at all times because, she said, “South Georgia is not a place for a big Black man to be by himself and in a car, and I need him to come home safely and soundly.”

Gradually, her stories and those of other minority IREM members who spoke up changed people’s perspectives. “It allowed us to open dialogue and garner listening ears and really question what changes are needed,” Sylvester said.

This openness had a profound effect on IREM leadership. “I was always told you shouldn’t have these sorts of conversations,” said Denise LeDuc Froemming, who served as IREM executive vice president and CEO at the time. “We were told not to, for instance, acknowledge someone is Black.” But, Froemming said, “I had a lot of open conversations with [Sylvester], and it helped me grow and understand that we should be having these conversations.” Sylvester, she said, “allowed me to ask questions, and we were both really open. It was a gift. I’ve learned a lot from her.”

Partly as a result of this dialogue, IREM hired a consultant to look at systemic changes that would allow more diverse voices among IREM employees and volunteer leaders. The association also later hired a full-time diversity, equity and inclusion executive to look at IREM policies through the DEI lens and help members use that lens at their own companies. Today, she said, IREM helps members reevaluate how they find talent, and Sylvester has encouraged them to look beyond four-year institutions to places like community and technical colleges and to send any internship listings to historically Black colleges and universities.

Listening to Others’ Experiences as She Climbs the Ranks

While leading these conversations on diversity, Sylvester was managing about 1 million square feet in the Atlanta area for TSCG. Then a recruiter reached out with a senior property manager role with Northbrook, Illinois, developer Pine Tree as it grew its presence in the Southeast region of the U.S. “It was an elevated role, that offered more leadership opportunities,” Sylvester said. The company soon promoted her to vice president of property management, and she now manages 1.4 million square feet of shopping centers.

Sylvester also leads a team of three other property managers with their own portfolios and has made it a priority to make her team feel heard and respected. “She set this expectation of excellence in regards to our work and our projects and our communications,” said property manager Erika Smothers. But she doesn’t expect any team member to go it alone. “In my first week at Pine Tree, she looked at me on Zoom and told me: ‘I will not let you fail,’” Smothers said. “To me, what she was really saying at that moment was: ‘I’m going to be there. I’m going to show up for you. I’m going to advocate for you.’”

Sylvester’s bosses have nurtured her growth, too. About six months ago, CEO Peter Borzak told her about the Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship and suggested she apply. It pairs each fellow with four women in senior-level positions in the Marketplaces Industry. Each fellow also participates in a formal, executive leadership education and training program or executive coaching sessions and receives complimentary registration and hotel accommodations at ICSC LAS VEGAS, as well as the opportunity to attend high-level networking and leadership events.

“What I loved about it was that it’s not an award. It’s an opportunity to grow and be mentored by other phenomenal women who have been there, done that,” Sylvester said. “I want the opportunity to ask them: ‘How do you balance being a wife and being a high achiever? Do you ever feel guilt? How do you show up as a wife when you’re wearing a boss hat every day?’”

Sylvester, who is new to ICSC, hopes the networking the organization offers will catapult her career. In five to 10 years, she hopes to have reached a senior executive role. “I know my purpose is greater than being a property manager,” she said.

And she wants to pull other minorities up with her. “One of the main purposes of why I have become such a high achiever and why it means so much to me to eventually become an executive,” she said, “is I want to be that someone that I wish I had in the moments that I needed someone the most.”