Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Debra Yudolph, Say

Supporting gender diversity and conversations to support the growth of women, David Phillips talks to Debra Yudolph, Founder & CEO, Say.

Debra Yudolph, Founder & CEO, Say | BTR News
Debra Yudolph, Founder & CEO, Say.

How did you get to where you are today?

Property wasn’t in my original career plan when I left school at 16. Starting out as a management trainee at Harrods, I then travelled extensively, working for a US fashion designer before taking a job as a trainee residential property manager back in London. More travelling followed, including hospitality and shop work which is an excellent grounding for the service-oriented property industry. I eventually joined W.A.Ellis (now part of JLL), then was approached by Grainger to be Head of Property and Asset Management, where I spent 10 years before leaving to found SAY Property Consulting with my former business partner Charles Seifert.

What were the key factors to your success? And what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?  

I know it sounds obvious but working hard is important – I’ve always had a good work ethic. Being genuinely interested in what you do really helps, too. Jobs can be boring, so it’s important to find ways to challenge yourself and make them interesting. I’m a people person and I want people to do well, which – along with honesty and fairness – is the foundation of being a good manager and creating great teams. I recognise that everyone is entitled to a career and should be supported to make the moves they want, so supporting people through their careers is important to your own success. In terms of challenge, it has not always been easy working in a male-dominated environment, but I’ve always had good support from my peers and colleagues of all genders.

Have you felt that your gender has given you an advantage (or disadvantage) in the industry and career? 

I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about it. Yes, there’s been sexism, but it hasn’t held me back from getting jobs or finding business as a consultant. And women are much more memorable than men in blue suits with white shirts: women should embrace that! It can be a great advantage. However, the biggest challenge for our industry is its lack of diversity, especially in relation to economic background. I am quite unusual to have not gone to university and perhaps that has made me more open to people from all backgrounds, but people do tend to recruit in their own image, which reinforces the lack of diversity in the industry. Part of my advantage has been my ability to take people for who they are.

Do you feel diversity has improved within the industry in the past few years? If so, what has attributed to this? Is there anything holding the industry back? 

Diversity is getting better but there is still a long way to go. It’s all to do with who is choosing to come into the industry – employers can only hire who is available. For example, although SAY has a diverse team with more than 50% women, our four recent hires in the last six months were all men because no women came forward for the roles. We need to change attitudes to real estate and sell the career options differently.

How can the industry continue to attract young talent into the industry?  

It should do more at college and sixth-form level. We need to break down the different activities available to make it more interesting – Real Estate can offer such a broad range of careers such as marketing, business, finance and branding, and it has a positive impact on so many areas of people’s lives. There are colleges from 16 for fashion and media set up by the industry – we should have something like that for the real estate industry, too, so people can get into the industry with training early on. Promoting good work cultures can also attract young talent: smaller firms like SAY do this well because we have to fight harder to attract talent.

Do you have any advice for young people hoping to join the sector? Any recommendations of books/podcasts/online courses etc. for both soft/hard skills.  

Build a personal network and surround yourself with people who will support you in your career and who you will support. Networking doesn’t come naturally to most people but it’s crucial. The more people you know and have made an impact with, the better for your career. I would tell my younger self to network more enthusiastically – and also not to be afraid of admitting when you don’t know how to do something. Sometimes, it’s good to be vulnerable and ask for help.

Who inspired you/are your role models and/or mentor(s), and who do you admire in the industry? 

My dad was a big influence, encouraging me in what I wanted to do, supporting me when I started a business, and never underestimating my ability as a woman. I also have a group of women who are just there for each other. It’s a great support network. I would like to call out Liz MacCallum, whom I met at Grainger. She has had a brilliant career; I look up to her and am lucky to have her in my life – she was meant to retire but is now my EA, so we get to be connected all the time. Although I had no formal mentors in my career, it’s great to see the idea getting the recognition it deserves today.

What prediction(s) do you have about the property market in the next 10 years? Use of AI, importance of ESG, gender/diversity balance etc. 

Technology will undoubtedly be a major theme, for example helping to improve design efficiency and within areas such as environmental and energy monitoring. We need to think about the shape of future careers in light of technology such as AI – it’s important to embrace technology but also to look at its impact on the skills we need. 

How would you sum yourself up in three words?

I know it can be a disliked word, but I am passionate and genuinely interested in the industry and its people. I can be simultaneously highly organised but also scatty. And I’m a family person – my family are a huge part of who I am. 

Wild Card: What are you doing to level the playing field for the next generation of talent?

I’m fortunate to be in a position of influence and currently help in this area through training, recruitment, mentoring and talking publicly. My non-traditional route into the industry also helps here.

What would you like to ask the next participant in our WIL series? 

What has been your proudest moment?

David Phillips – supporting gender diversity in the property industry

At David Philips, we’re committed to gender equality. We strive to create a workplace that reflects the communities we serve, where everyone feels empowered and part of an inclusive workplace culture. 

Whilst female representation in the property market has improved markedly in recent years, there is still work to be done, with only 30% of senior management positions in property occupied by women. Since 2022, we’ve conducted interviews with some of the industry’s influential women to share their career stories, the challenges they have overcome and their views on how to address gender gaps within management and senior roles across our industry.  

We continue to push for better representation and recognition of women. Creating a culture of equality isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing, research shows that diverse companies are more innovative and more profitable. With our Women in Leadership series, we aim to shine a light on some of the industry’s leading talent and encourage a conversation that continues the drive towards gender equality.