Breaking Down Barriers

Q&A with Helen Chong, CCIM

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In real estate, the distinction between commercial and residential can be a wall that's not easily traversed - many feel you're either on one side or the other. But those who operate in the “commercia-dential” space strive to excel in both arenas. Commercia-dential refers to the growing trend of professionals working in both commercial and residential real estate.

Helen Chong, CCIM, began her real estate career in 2005 and founded Haylen Group in San Jose, Calif., in 2012, with a primary focus on residential opportunities. But being an apartment investor herself, she sees ample potential in the multifamily market. Chong received her CCIM designation in 2017 while building the commercial side of the business - a side that now accounts for more than a third of Haylen's volume. 

But Chong's story isn't just about thriving in the hypercompetitive Silicon Valley and Bay Area markets. Born in Hong Kong, she survived early family and financial hardships, moving to Indonesia and escaping a deadly ethnic riot during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. She then relocated to California alone to attend UCLA while working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Now, Chong is president-elect of the Northern California Chapter of CCIM and authoring a book, as well as being selected to join the Forbes Speakers Platform to share how she succeeded in the U.S. by breaking down barriers as an immigrant, minority woman, and mother. 

CIRE: Graduating with an economics degree, what path did you take to the real estate industry?

Chong: I worked at a pension consulting firm for nearly five years, where we handled several huge institutional clients. But in 2002, when the dot-com bubble burst, I saw a lot of people's pensions drop in value by 50 percent or more in a flash. That was a wake-up call for me. I have always valued my financial independence, and I wanted to work toward that freedom. To see these people lose so much, I thought, “What if that happens to me?” It was then that I started looking at other types of investments, and I fell in love with real estate. I feel like it gives you more control over your own financial future.

CIRE: What challenges and opportunities are unique to Northern California?

Chong: Compared to the rest of the country, California has low cap rates. It's also relatively costly to do business in the state. What's unique, despite these considerations, is the demand. Investors are still flocking here. We are seeing international interest because California is still considered relatively inexpensive compared to other parts of the world. Besides, look at the companies that are in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, specifically Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon. These are companies that are supporting the global economy. There are reasons why the economy is so strong and the real estate is so expensive in this area.

CIRE: How has the CCIM designation helped you in the past five years?

Chong: Because I started my brokerage in residential, though I have invested in multifamily properties and have helped clients do so, people may have the prejudice that I do not understand commercial real estate analysis. But getting that CCIM designation and being involved in the community, I changed those perceptions. I wasn't just someone who is a residential or commercia-dential broker; I understood the complexities of commercial real estate. Back when I finished my CI101 course in 2012, I immediately used what I learned in performing 10-year analyses for my clients.

CIRE: How much of your business is now commercial?

Chong: Right now, it's about 65 percent residential and 35 percent commercial - mostly multifamily. But I do handle retail, office, and industrial. I firmly believe people should focus on their expertise, which for me is multifamily sales. Still, I am happy to partner with another broker who excels in a specific area of the market. I enjoy that collaboration quite a bit.

CIRE: CCIM Institute is hoping to push the industry to become more diverse. From your perspective, as a woman of color, what can the industry do to become more inclusive? Why is it so important to attract real estate professionals from different backgrounds and experiences?

Chong: What CCIM is doing by featuring all ethnicities and genders is a big step toward diversity. To me, diversity is a decision I make. What I mean is that I am pretty far from what's considered the general perception of a CRE professional - whether because of my ethnicity, my gender, my age, whatever it is. I remember when I first started going into these meetings; to be honest, I felt awkward. Also being a residential broker at the same time, I thought, “Maybe I shouldn't even be here.” But if I had told myself I shouldn't be there because I didn't fit in, then I would not be here today. I always feel like diversity is a choice, stemming from within us first. I can choose to be in a profession where I stay among people with a profile similar to mine. But this is where I want to be. These are the goals I want to achieve, and this is what I needed to do.


For more on this topic, check out CCIM Institute's “Foundations for Success in CRE” course. You can also learn how to earn you CCIM designation

Nicholas Leider

Nicholas Leider is senior content editor for Commercial Investment Real Estate. Contact him at nleider@ccim.com.

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