Empower to In Power #5: Creating Opportunities For Women of Color with Audra Cunningham

By October 21st, 2022 No Comments

Audra Cunningham spent more than 20 years working in telecommunications before switching gears in 2008 to pursue a career in commercial real estate. Now she is the first woman to become a senior executive at T. Dallas Smith & Company LLC, the largest African American-owned commercial real estate brokerage firm in the country focused exclusively on tenant and buyer representation. In this episode, Audra joins the show to discuss how she found success whilst being a black woman over 40 starting in a new career – what some may call a triple threat.

Listen in as she explains why she is so passionate about ensuring no African American woman ever has to hear what she did as she pursued her career and the hard truths she learned as she worked her way to the top. You will learn how she uses LinkedIn to help others in the industry succeed, why she never takes any moment for granted, and her five tips for any woman looking to work her way up in business.

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In Today’s Episode:

  • How Audra began in commercial real estate.
  • Why she persisted in her career despite people talking down to her.
  • Why brokerage is brokerage – and how Audra learned this hard truth.
  • Her biggest passion in life and how she is setting out to accomplish her dreams.
  • How she is helping others in the industry.
  • Why LinkedIn is such a powerful tool.
  • How COVID impacted Audra’s work.

Resources In Today’s Episode:

Full Episode Transcript:

Empower to In Power, a podcast mini-series highlighting the trailblazing journeys of women who boldly carved a path to leadership.

“I have generally grown up in the south and never wanted to be that small-town girl.”

People who empowered them along the way.

“What differentiates an extraordinary leader from other people is their degree of emotional resilience.”

And how they continue to empower forward for the women to come.
“The tools that I have learned in my life, they kind of reside in a big toolbox that I carry around with me.”

Thank you for joining us.

Vicki Shackley: Welcome to Empower to In Power, a podcast about some of the most successful women in their industries and their journeys along the way. I’m your host, Vicki Shackley, Director of SignatureWOMEN. Today, we’re so excited to have Audra Cunningham, Executive VP and Chief Administrator Officer of T. Dallas Smith & Company, the largest black-owned commercial real estate brokerage firm. She was the first woman to be named the C-Suite of T. Dallas Smith & Company, so that’s very exciting. Audra, in doing my research, I also realized you were a fellow resident of Grant Park.

Audra Cunningham: I am. And let me just- one clarification, we are the largest African-American-owned commercial brokerage firm that exclusively represents tenants and buyers.

Vicki Shackley: Okay, great. Thanks for clarifying.

Audra Cunningham: But I also want to share that, yes, I’m the Vice President of our Grant Park Neighborhood Association. So hopefully-

Vicki Shackley: Awesome!

Audra Cunningham: Hopefully, you are active and a member.

Vicki Shackley: I need to check, but I am an active walker. I absolutely love the new green space and all the work the Neighborhood Association and the conservancy in the zoo has done. So, I’m going to check my membership and re-up. I know I am at the conservancy but for anybody who’s listening who hasn’t been to Grant Park in a while, there’s some really exciting things happening. So, thank you for your input there.

Audra Cunningham: Absolutely. You’re welcome.

Vicki Shackley: So tell us, you were recently promoted to EVP and Chief Administrator Officer of T. Dallas Smith. First time a woman has held a C-Suite position leadership at that firm. Tell us a little bit about your journey to get there? I read some and it’s so interesting.

Audra Cunningham: Well, thank you Vicki and I’m just glad to be here. Any opportunity to speak to women, for women, and into women, sign me up. Just to kind of give you a little bit of the background, I was in telecommunications for twenty-three years. I was in corporate America. My latest stint was with BellSouth and EarthLink. When BellSouth announced that they were going to be acquired by AT&T, I had the flexibility and I was able to do a lot of special projects and I just enjoyed that. I’m not one to sit still and go to work and do the same thing every day. So, I said to myself, “Well, you know, what’s next?” I don’t know that I want to be part of this large corporation. BellSouth was a nine-state regional company and it was just a lot of funds, great leadership.

Then, due to an interaction that I’d had years before, when I first moved to Atlanta from New London, Connecticut, with John Dewberry, he is the President and CEO of Dewberry Capital. He kind of planted that commercial real estate seed in my brain and I never pursued it, but that was my first even introduction that there was such a thing.

So fast forward, I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I feel like I’m pretty entrepreneurial, I am totally relationship-driven. And thinking back on my interaction with John Dewberry and the success that he had had, I picked up this book, How to Succeed in Commercial Real Estate by John Bowman. Read it, and said, “I want to understand the different disciplines in commercial real estate,” because I didn’t know anyone in the business nor did I know anything about it.
After reading the book and contemplating, I said, “Oh, I don’t want to do development. I like to wear heels and pearls so that probably won’t go well on the job sites.”

Vicki Shackley: The hardhat.

Audra Cunningham: Exactly. And then I said, “Well, maybe I’ll be a retail broker,” and I was like, “Oh, goodness, no. I love to shop too much. I probably shouldn’t do this.” Now, understand it, that I really don’t know what any of these roles do. As unscientific as my thought process was, this is really how I ended up being an office tenant rep broker. I did think about, “I had been an office captain for a couple of moves while I was with BellSouth and I’ve been an end-user in an office building for many years. Voila, I should be an office broker.”

There you have it. That was where the journey began. I went and got my real estate license and while I was getting my real estate license, I took a package from BellSouth, by the way, and while I was getting my real estate license, I did some consulting with EarthLink. And 2007, I said, “Okay, it’s time. I’m going to take the rest of the year off.” Then in January of 2008 is when I said, “I’m going to be in commercial real estate. I’m going to be an office tenant rep broker. Now I need to figure out how to do it.”

Vicki Shackley: That’s some timing right there. That’s some perfect timing.

Audra Cunningham: Oh, yeah! That’s coming in the story. So I also had taken a couple of CCIM classes, the Intro and the Financial class. I just figured if I did get into the business or got a meeting, I wanted to be able to speak halfway intelligently, especially because I wasn’t young in my career. I was a little older in my career. Full speed ahead, I go to a bunch of network events. I’m kind of the laughing stock at every networking event because you know how usually you have your name tag and it has your name and your company? I’m the only one that doesn’t have a company and I’m running around talking about “how I’m going to be a tenant rep broker.”

Vicki Shackley: You’ve got your “Hello, my name is…” tag?

Audra Cunningham: Yeah. “Hello, my name is Audra Cunningham and I want to be a tenant rep broker.” There you go. And at the time, I didn’t understand people’s response. Everybody was polite, but they were a little confused, a little intrigued. I ended up meeting a gentleman named James Pitts. He said, “Hey. You know, I was thinking about getting a junior broker, but they’re usually younger and they don’t have kids and they don’t own a house,” because you don’t know when you’re going to make any money. I was like, “Well, you’re not supposed to say that to me but since you did, don’t worry about it. I mean, I can do this. I promise you.” I ended up convincing him and Steve Dils and I got on at Grubb & Ellis in March of 2008, is when I started.

By the summer of 2008, I used to sit in James’s office every day, and go on every meeting with him, and just watch what he would do. What I didn’t understand was that was really how the apprenticeship works in brokerage. The one thing I forgot to mention in my journey, I did have a couple of other meetings with very large global commercial real estate firms where I was told that “I was black and I was female, over forty, and that I would never be successful.”

Vicki Shackley: Oh, the Triple Threat?

Audra Cunningham: Yeah, exactly. For some reason, where I thought, “Oh, great. I’m black, I’m forty, I’m female. This is great. Life is wonderful.” They were saying, “Oh, no. That’s like the worst thing ever. You can never be successful.” Fortunately, for me, we were on the cusp of either having our first black president or first female president. Again, you understand how scientific my mind works and I said, “There’s just no way they can be president and I can’t be an office broker. That just doesn’t make sense to me.” So I kept pushing forward and that’s when I met James. Well, by the summer of 2008, needless to say, I should say late summer, September, James was not really coming around. He had gone off and gotten a job in Johnson Controls, I believe.

I was so focused on trying to figure out how to be successful at this business. I really wasn’t paying attention to the fact that, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the financial industry was kind of falling apart, I didn’t understand the impact it was going to have on real estate. As naïve as that might sound, I just wasn’t focused on anything negative. I was focused on things positive. Barack Obama gets elected president. My first transaction, by the way, was his campaign headquarters in Atlanta. When he won, that was significant to me. Just remember, people were telling me “I’m black, female, over forty, I can’t do this, that, and other thing,” so it was inspiring. I always look at the glass half full, so I elected to look at that as meaning that I, too, could be successful.

Well, unfortunately, we’re in November, I had a panic attack one day. It was just like the world was coming in. “What am I doing? Maybe everybody was right. I’m irresponsible. The world’s falling apart and I’m in this commission business. I have a daughter. My youngest is a sophomore in high school,” and I just had this moment. One of the assistants was walking by the office. And again, James has kind of gone off and gotten a job. She noticed that I wasn’t my smiling self and she doubled back, came in there, and we prayed together. It was that day that I made the decision that I didn’t care what it took, I was going to be successful. I was in it to win it and that was it.

I was with Grubb & Ellis for about two years before JLL, just one of the most respected commercial brokerage real estate firms in the world, probably not the largest, I think CBRE is the largest. But they called me and said, “Hey, there’s a gentleman that you know that was in Atlanta that came to D.C., Les Williams, and he just talks about you all the time. There are no black female brokers in Washington, D.C. and we were wondering if you would be interested in coming to be a broker in D.C.”

If you know anything about brokerage, quote-unquote, the reason I wasn’t going to be successful is it’s a relationship driven business. You have to go to the country club to get your relationships and all of that. So I’m saying to myself, “How is this going to happen? I’ve not been to D.C. in 15 years, maybe. I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t know how that would work.” To their credit, we came up with an opportunity for me that I would be able to financially live while I try to figure it out. But at the end of the day, this was 2010 and I said to myself, “there’s just no way there could not be a black broker in D.C.” I commuted every week from Atlanta to D.C. because my family stayed here.

And when I got there-, before I got there, I asked five people here in Atlanta to give me two people that they knew in D.C., so I wasn’t meeting people in the grocery store. My folks here at Atlanta were C-Suite, high-level people, executives, so they ended up giving me to either executives or managing partners of law firms to meet with. And that was the foundation of how I built my relationship and how I built my business.

Two years later, CBRE recruited me to come work with them and it’s just a really challenging business for women, period. But women of color and women of color that aren’t from that market, there were so many different dynamics that I thought, “it would be a better culture for me at CBRE.” So I ended up taking the opportunity at CBRE. Then two years later, I went to Newmark following the law firm practice group from CBRE that had moved over to Newmark. And I’ve been working with them and I guess the moral of that entire journey is “Brokerage is Brokerage.” All the firms would be different, but they were all the same.

And in 2017, I said, “Okay, I’m tired of flying back and forth to D.C., I want to come back to Atlanta.” And I got an opportunity in 2018 to join a Health Care Repositions Realty Trust as their Senior Regional Leasing Director. So that would put me on the landlord side versus where I’ve had historically been, on the tenant side. It did just been such a challenge and we can talk about that as we go through the conversation, some of those challenges. But it did just been such a challenge as a Tenant Rep Broker, internally, culturally in the firm’s that I worked for, that I said, “you know what, let’s try something different.”

And as much as I love Physicians Realty Trust, nickname is Doc, love the people there, the landlord side of the business didn’t give me the thrill. I didn’t have the hunt. I didn’t have the ability to build the relationships like I did with Tenant Rep, so I said, “Hey, I resign.” Probably two years later, still very close with everyone at the firm. Just had dinner with the CEO when he was in town about a month ago.

Once again, you know me, I’m going to take the risk. That was November of 2019. I’m going to take the rest of the year off and figure out what I’m gonna do next year. I had seen Dallas, my CEO and Dexter at a networking event in November. And we had crossed paths over the years, but because I was in D.C. so much, I really didn’t interact with them much. I promised them that I would give them a call after the first of the year, when I was beginning to figure out what my next move is going to be.

And I called them and we had lunch. Two and a half hours later, it was a wrap. Yes, it was. I knew exactly where I was going.

Vicki Shackley: So you’re done?

Audra Cunningham: Yeah, I was. Oh my gosh, I mean our values aligned. They were just such authentic, caring, God-fearing, spiritual people. We have a lot in common plus it was an opportunity. My biggest passion is to make sure that, one, no other African-American females ever hear what I had to hear when I tried to get in the business, that’s the first thing. Secondly, I don’t want any people of color that are wanting to be brokers to experience the difficult journey that I’ve experienced because a lot of people come and they leave, because it’s just nobody makes it easy for them. So to be in a position where I can help groom and help be successful, people of color in the brokerage business it just made perfect sense. And then the rest is history, and here I sit today.

Vicki Shackley: Tell us some of the ways you’re helping other people? I know you have a series of dinners and you’re mentoring and tell us a little bit about what you’re doing to make that path easier?

Audra Cunningham: Sure, sure. I think, now, about my part time job but I loved every minute of it. LinkedIn has been such a powerful tool not just for my business but for me personally. It gives people, and it’s not just people of color, people that see that I transition from one career into commercial real estate. So I get a lot of messages from people that want to transition from a career into commercial real estate. People that want to get into commercial real estate that are not white males and they are struggling and they don’t know how. And people that are in commercial real estate but feel very isolated because they might be in Denver, they might be in Dallas, they might be in areas where they’re the only person of color and they just-, it’s a lonely place sometimes.

So, I do a lot of communicating with people via LinkedIn and in the world of Zoom and Teams. We do a lot of video calls and I’m just there for them, they can text me, they can call me. Sometimes being a person of color, when you’re the only one in the room, you have questions but you feel a little insecure about asking questions because you don’t want people to question whether you should be there or not, your value. And so I’m always there as a resource.

The East Lake Women’s Foundation is another way that I give back to the community and along with the Grant Park Neighborhood Association. And East Lake Women’s Foundation has a great history, East Lake period, has a great history and I won’t go into it but they’ve done a dynamic job turning that community around. And with turning the community around, there’s a lot of emphasis on the youth and education and making sure that people in underserved neighborhoods and that area get opportunity.

So, that’s part of these, like Women’s Foundation’s mission. Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS, I am on the Diversity Council and the mentee program. So that’s another way that I’m able to touch people. CoreNet, I’m the co-chair of the Diversity and Action Committee. We started when I joined CoreNet, and CoreNet is a global commercial real estate association for corporate realtors, real estate folks. When I joined CoreNet, it was the woman’s committee, and I was very instrumental in transforming that committee to our Diversity and Action Committee. So, one, we could be more inclusive and it wasn’t just all women but two, really addressing the times that we’re in right now and the challenges that the commercial real estate industry has as a whole when it comes to diversity.

And the timing couldn’t have been better, I believe we transitioned in 2019. Then with the death of George Floyd, we just really went into action and even though we were all home and on Zoom, we’ve created some programming that just gave us an opportunity to speak to the commercial real estate industry about being a person of color in this industry, about the challenges and what the majority in this industry can do to help change that. So, I’m really proud of that.

And then there’s a couple of organizations. NEWCRE, I’m one of the co-founders of that organization. A couple of black women hit me up on LinkedIn once again and said, “Hey, there’s not a lot of us in this industry, we should all know each other.” And we had our inaugural meeting, our large meeting at my house, I hosted that at my home. And we now meet probably once or twice a year. That started in 2018. We are attempting to get back with our programming but our mission is empowering, supporting and promoting women of color in the commercial real estate space. We provide job opportunities, and again, just coaching and the support.

And the one that’s closest to my heart is No Opportunity Wasted. I founded this group of women in 2006 through some personal challenges that I was having and I had a group of women that were just so supportive and they were just dynamic women. They didn’t know each other and I decided that they did need to know each other and I’ve hosted what I called, First Fridays at my house, I brought them all together and we met at my home. And every month since then, we meet. We have supported each other through career changes, through divorce, marriage, having kids, getting doctorates degrees, master’s degrees, you name it. We vacation together and we do a lot of community service together and I’m just really proud of them.

Vicki Shackley: That’s nice!

Audra Cunningham: Yeah.

Vicki Shackley: That’s great. That’s such a great idea.

Audra Cunningham: We are thick as thieves.

Vicki Shackley: Oh, I love it. I loved it. I think you know, men play golf and we’ve got to find ways to connect.

Audra Cunningham: That’s right. That’s right, we do. And we have to be intentional about it, right? So, that was exactly what we do.

Vicki Shackley: We’re running out of time, but one final question because I think everyone wants to know and this has nothing to do with women’s or anything like that. But tell us how COVID impacted your business and how commercial real estate may be impacted going forward after COVID?

Audra Cunningham: Well, to be honest with you, COVID, it impacted me personally because it really showed me firsthand how important today is. Just seeing the impact that it had on so many different families, I just don’t take time for granted, don’t take moments for granted. The industry, it was uncertain for awhile, I mean, I’m an office tenant rent broker and nobody was going into the office and then all of a sudden, you started reading articles, “Well, we’re never going to go back to the office and we’re going to give back 700,000 square feet.” But what I’m finding, now that we’re starting to open back up is there’s going to be a hybrid model where folks are going to want to continue to work from home. But, I started with T. Dallas Smith & Company during COVID and I am responsible for talent development. Well, how do you develop people you don’t know and you don’t see?

Vicki Shackley: Oh yeah.

Audra Cunningham: So, and what about the new people that are hired? Do you really just want them sitting at home? Not getting to know their boss on an intimate personal level, their colleague. That’s how people get promoted. That’s how they find other opportunities. So although, there was a moment in time where office users kind of felt like, “Oh no. We’re never going back to the office.” I don’t think that’s going to happen and I just think they’ll be a hybrid model and people are just being more thoughtful in their real estate decisions and being more intentional.

Vicki Shackley: I agree. I think there are some good and bad things that come out of COVID, right?

Audra Cunningham: Sure.

Vicki Shackley: Less commuting but you know, I’m going to the office. I don’t worry about rush hour traffic. Thank you so much for your time and as always I find these so inspirational and just love hearing the stories of different people. And I think yours is very unique and the different challenges you faced and we hope to see you around the park. I’m always out with a big yellow dog, pretty much every afternoon. So, if you’re ever up for a walk, let me know.

Audra Cunningham: I will and before you let me go, I just wanted- There’s five points that anytime I get to speak to women, I want to leave you with, and it’s just 60 seconds, I promise

Vicki Shackley: Oh, do tell us. No, tell us.

Audra Cunningham: I encourage women to be authentic. I honestly believe that my journey in commercial real estate, I’ve been able to overcome a lot of obstacles and get to where I am because I just decided to be me. I wasn’t going to assimilate, I was going to be me and my clients absolutely appreciate that.

The second thing or second point that I would like to make to women is don’t take things personally. Don’t apologize. Do not take things personally. Things happen. None of us are perfect, and we’re not supposed to be. And when people say things to you or do things to you, we spend a lot of energy taking it personal, trying to figure out how to respond to it. We don’t need to do that.

Next, own your journey. If it’s in you to do it, and this whole idea and thought around, “I’m going to be a tenant rep broker,” and it was really inspired and fueled when people told me, “Oh no, you can’t do that. You’re black and female. Oh, no, never,” don’t. If it’s in you, you can do and you can be whatever you want to be. And I know people hear it a lot, think it’s a cliché, it is absolutely the truth. If it is in you, then you will be able to overcome whatever obstacle that’s in front of you. “She did, because she said she could.” And that’s just, all over my house, it’s in my office, it’s everywhere.

My fourth point is self-promotion. It is self promotion is always healthy. And it’s not bragging, it’s just promoting yourself. If you don’t, who will?

Vicki Shackley: That got—

Audra Cunningham: Exactly, exactly. Lastly, be bold and think bold. Don’t be scared. Be courageous. Be bold. What you think might not be possible, anything is possible if you’re bold enough.

Vicki Shackley: Audra, I should feel like you have the first five chapters of your book.

Audra Cunningham: That’s funny. It’s coming. It is in the works. Yes, it is. And you know, I talked to so many women and I’ve been told that it’s been impactful so why not share it.

Vicki Shackley: I love it.

Audra Cunningham: Well, anyone that wants to hear it.

Vicki Shackley: We’ll host your book launch, how about that?

Audra Cunningham: I would appreciate it. Thank you so much. This has been amazing.

Vicki Shackley: Thank you. Thank you and I love the five points and I love closing on that. I think those are just crystal. We’re going to have to put those up on our website somehow and give Audra credit, but I think those are great.

Audra Cunningham: Appreciate it.

Vicki Shackley: But thank you so much Audra for joining us today, and I thank everybody who listens and we look forward to talking to you next month.

Audra Cunningham: Vicki, will see you in Grant Park.

Vicki Shackley: See you soon.

Audra Cunningham: Take care, bye bye.

Vicki Shackley: Bye.

Thank you again for joining us on Empower to In Power, a podcast mini series by SignatureFD. Be sure to join us every month to hear more stories of strong women and their journeys to leadership.

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