Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Yuan Sun, RE Capital

Supporting gender diversity and conversations to support the growth of women, David Phillips talks to Yuan Sun, Head of UK, RE Capital.

Yuan Sun, Head of UK, RE Capital | BTR News
Yuan Sun, Head of UK, RE Capital.

Yuan Sun joined investor, developer and asset manager RE Capital as Head of Residential development in June 2022, spearheading the pan-European firm’s entrance into the UK residential sector. Yuan has now been promoted to Head of UK, to lead RE Capital’s entire UK operation.

Yuan had previously worked with Strawberry Star Homes, where she oversaw four major mixed-use regeneration projects with a combined gross development value of over £700m. Prior to that, Yuan served as Head of Development at London Legacy Development Corporation, where she was responsible for Stratford Waterfront Residential (now known as the East Bank) and Pudding Mill Lane, as well as working at Greenland UK, where she led the development of two major residential schemes, which included securing planning consent for the 67-storey Hertsmere House scheme at Canary Wharf.

Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?

Yes, there was a point early on in my working life where I felt stagnant in my career. After graduating from Oxford, I started off as a Structural Engineer and even became chartered in that career. Yet I felt I wasn’t progressing or developing within that role.

When I moved into project management, the pieces began falling into place. I realised I was stagnating in my previous career because it didn’t suit me. As a Structural Engineer, I focused on one element. As a Project Manager, I saw the bigger picture and gained a new sense of perspective and purpose.

Have you felt that being a woman has given you an advantage in the industry?

Yes, occasionally. When working on construction sites as a Structural Engineer, I found my colleagues tended to be more cooperative and helpful with me than they might have been my male colleagues. My colleagues have always treated me with respect.

My time working on construction sites was valuable as my career has progressed and evolved. People who have only worked in an office can have less perspective on how things are constructed in real life. Working on a construction site with supportive colleagues helped my learning and professional development, allowing me to gain that perspective and has made me a better developer as a result.

Given the industry’s gender gap in leadership, how did you reach your level of success?

What’s helped me in my career is trying so many different things and gaining different experiences. As an Engineer, as a Project Manager, and as a Developer. Every company I’ve moved to, every decision I’ve made, I’ve done something I haven’t done before and learned new skills and ways of thinking.

Because development is so complex and requires so many ropes to pull on to make it a success, it requires a lot of experience to make it work. I’ve positioned myself to constantly be gaining experience through carefully planned movements.

And, often, it’s been a mixture of hard work and a little bit of luck. There are plenty of other women, and men, who work just as hard and are smarter than I am. But luck, and careful planning, has enabled my success and given me the platform to work on some iconic residential and mixed-use developments, such as Stratford’s East Bank.

What needs to change to inform the next generation of female leaders about the industry and the roles available to them? Do we need more support for women at school level to understand the opportunity?

First of all, we need to change the general perception of what the industry is like. Yes, it has historically been male dominated, and it still has some way to go – but there’s more diversity now and it’s heading in the right direction. My own experience, including on construction sites, proves that.

Secondly, we need to show to younger women that real estate is quite a fun industry to work in. It’s challenging, interesting, and filled with people who love what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Particularly for those of us working in Build to Rent and residential property in general, we’re creating homes for people. The most satisfying thing about my job is that I’m creating something from nothing – seeing it all come together, built into a beautiful new home and knowing that I helped make it happen is so satisfactory.

As an industry, we should be going into schools to deliver talks to students. It doesn’t need to be difficult: lots of us have kids of our own and therefore connections to schools in our local areas. RE Capital in particular is really passionate about making a positive impact on the communities around our buildings and this is something we as a business want to do more of. The sector should also be offering more apprenticeships, work experience placements, and internships that are accessible to a diverse range of people.

What does the future look like for women in property and what advice would you give the next generation of female leaders joining the industry?

The industry is becoming more and more open, with a lot more opportunities for women who want to work in it.

My advice is simple: if you’re interested in something, go for it. Don’t hold yourself back. Don’t think that just because it’s still quite a male-dominated industry that you can’t achieve your ambitions – because you absolutely can. Things might take a while to change to become more reflective of society as a whole, but on an individual level we can reach our goals and that is the first step towards broader change.

Find yourself a mentor, someone that you admire and that inspires you. It’ll help you overcome any self-doubt you may experience.

Finally: don’t be afraid to try and fail. Trial and error is such an important part of what we do. And it’s something both men and women go through. It’ll help you get to where you want to be.

Who inspired you/are your role models and who do you admire in the industry?

The person I’ve found most inspirational in my career is the late Tony Pidgley, founder of Berkeley Homes. Tony’s success, in an industry often dominated by a certain type of person, shows that no matter who you are or what your background is, you can thrive in real estate.

While I didn’t know him personally, he is widely regarded as having been a good, down-to-earth person who worked hard and built up a huge legacy.