Women Leaders Of Real Estate: “In This Industry You’re a Sociologist First” With Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki of tst ink
You’re a sociologist first. Our job in community development is to create spaces and places for how people want to live, work and connect in a world that is going through systemic change. It’s not about the highest and best use of land, it’s about observing and understanding how people want to live and creating innovative ways to support them in their best lives. That takes a sociologist’s curiosity and communication skills.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki.
Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki works with community developers and entrepreneurs to tap into deep customer insights and create places and brands that connect with people through experiences that matter. Over nearly three decades, the founder and principal of tst ink LLC has brought to life some of the most valued and recognized brands in resort and community development.
As chief marketing officer at Newland for more than a decade, Teri was the architect of the largest U.S. community developer’s brand, elevating its application in more than 40 communities in 14 states, where she also led new community startup, opening 11 new communities in four years. Before that, her Canadian brand design agency handled all of Intrawest Corporation’s vacation ownership resort launches across three countries.
Not one to rest on her laurels, the fast-thinking, passionate marketing professional nevertheless has many. The holder of a Master of Arts in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University, Teri was the second woman ever to be inducted into the William S. Marvin Hall of Fame for Design Excellence. Teri was also named “one of the most influential women in homebuilding” by BUILDER magazine. She serves as Assistant Chair of Urban Land Institute’s Residential Neighborhood Development Council and as a member of the advisory board for Garman Homes. Teri also founded Philosophers Café 101, a public forum for engaging conversation and exchanging ideas.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
I started in resort real estate development when I left a job working in the ski industry for Intrawest Corporation in Whistler-Blackcomb and established a small marketing and advertising business. After a few months I got a request from Intrawest Resort Ownership Corporation — the vacation resort real estate development arm of Intrawest — to write and design a quarterly member newsletter. From there, my company, tst ink, became the agency of record and over the next decade we helped create brand strategies, branded customer experiences, go-to-market strategies, and proprietary vacation exchange programs for all of Intrawest’s new vacation ownership real estate locations in Canada, the US and Mexico.
In 2003 I attended an American Marketing Association event in San Francisco on internal branding, where I met the marketing manager for Newland Communities — the largest private developer of master-planned communities in the US. Newland was in the midst of acquiring their largest competitor, Terrabrook, and doubling in size to 31 master-planned communities in 14 states. They needed to create one brand and culture from two, and hired my agency, tst ink, to lead that effort with their internal teams. We worked in a consulting capacity for two years until the SVP of Marketing for Newland made us an offer to move from Vancouver to San Diego and become part of their internal team. I joined them in 2005 and served as their CMO for almost 11 years, leaving in 2016 to set up tst ink 2.0 and continue the work I had started with Newland with a select group of other development and placemaking clients.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
There are many to choose from! One funny thing happened when we created a direct mailer for Club Intrawest to launch a new resort in Palm Desert, California where we sent a postcard with scratch-and-sniff ink and an image of a delicious chocolate on a pillow to demonstrate the high-end luxury resort experience. The postcard literally smelled like chocolate. One of the recipients who received it called the sales team and complained she didn’t receive her chocolates! It became a running joke among the sales team that marketing made promises that the sales team had to apologize for.
On another occasion, while at Newland to launch a brand new community outside Seattle called Tehaleh, we launched this new community with a home giveaway where people competed in a five-stage social media contest for the chance to be among five final teams to compete in a series of Survivor-type challenges on grand opening day. The winner would be awarded a home of their choice with one of the first phase builders in the community. (This was in 2012, so remember social media was still in the early adoption phase.) One of the stages was a timed online scavenger hunt. All qualifying contestants were given a code and could visit our community website at 9 a.m. on a specific day and compete to be among the first to answer a number of trivia questions, the answers to which could be found on the website. It was our way of making sure potential homebuyers spent time getting to know the community. We knew there would be a lot of traffic, and we tested and tested our systems again and again. But on the day of the event the added web traffic caused server delays and many people couldn’t enter their answers. We learned, real time, to communicate openly and directly when something goes wrong. I spent an entire day standing at my kitchen counter personally answering all the upset contestants on Facebook in real time for all to see. What I learned from that was open, honest, transparent communication, even in the face of a challenging disaster where people are taking public shots at you, goes a long way to build up your reputation as a company that leads with integrity. As the hours passed and I continued to engage in the conversation, others came to our defense and it ended up very positive in the end. I have been an advocate for open dialogue on social media ever since, resisting the temptation many have to remove a negative comment or go underground. When something that bad happens, you can’t hide! And I learned that testing with a group of 25 people is never enough!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, in mid-April of this year, about a month into the stay-at-home orders in most states, I grew frustrated that most business media and economists and others were all surmising what effect COVID-19 would have on travel, hospitality, small business, restaurants, and retail. But no one was talking about the impact it would have on how people feel about “home” and “community,” yet most of the nation was spending all their time working, living, and teaching kids from home. I came up with the idea for the America At Home Study (www.americaathomestudy.com) and partnered with a research strategist, Belinda Sward, founder of Strategic Solutions Alliance, and Nancy Keenan, president of DAHLIN Architecture and Planning to launch a nationwide study of 3,001 US adults 25–74 years of age with household incomes of $50,000+ to find out how COVID-19 had changed the way they live in their homes today and what they are looking for in the future. We learned that 92% of people had already made some changes to their homes, and 46% of those renting now said they wanted to buy and become homeowners.
We then took the results of the study and reached out to Garman Homes, a private homebuilder in Raleigh-Durham, NC, and we are collaborating with them to build a new concept home using the insights from the study. We are also partnering with a technology company called Cecilian Partners, who is using their technology to help tell the entire story of the concept home so homebuyers can visualize a whole new living experience and a more modern way to buy this innovative product. They are developing ways to demonstrate the home virtually before it is complete so we can learn real time what buyers want.
We are also about to repeat the study again to see if people’s impressions and feelings of home have changed over the past six months as we learn to live with the pandemic. I’m super excited to be able to bring real time consumer insights about home and community to the industry, and to be involved in actual R&D in an industry where it has historically been hard to do so.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think we really take the time to put the people, the customer, into everything we do. When we work with community developers to create a vision for place and a brand that brings that place to life, we are hyper focused on “who will live here?” and “how do they want to live?”. Everything we do comes out of answering those questions, and we really take the time up front to use a number of ways to ensure we understand that. This includes specific consumer research to just listening deeply and bringing a sociologist’s curiosity to how people live, and what that means for future product, community, amenity and lifestyle design.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
David Barry. He was my boss at Whistler/Blackcomb. He arrived every day at 7 a.m. and was the most creative, fun, inspiring and hard-working person to work for and learn from. When I thought I had an answer to a particular customer challenge he would challenge me to ask why, then to ask why again. I remember one time we had unseasonably cold weather in Whistler and I could hear him coming down the hall from his office, whistling. He had a hand-drawn map of our high alpine huts that served food in his hand and wanted us to make and print a pocket-sized version of the hut map with chair lift and trail connections between them ASAP so our lift hosts could hand them out to guests boarding the lifts. If it was super cold up top, it was our job to still help our guests have an amazing day.
From David I learned to keep asking why, and to keep digging until every idea, no matter how crazy, sees the light of day. Some of them will fail miserably, but others will be raving successes that would have stayed stuffed in someone’s brain if they had been afraid to look stupid or go against what’s always been done. I’ve tried to make sure the teams I’ve led feel that same expectation — bring your crazy, and then work hard to make it work.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
I actually don’t see it that way, unless you are talking about real estate sales agents or front-of-the-line salespeople or sales and marketing teams. In leadership, it’s my experience that it is very male-dominated, and I think the reasons are likely the same as why there are far fewer women than men in corporate leadership overall in any industry.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
For all three groups I think it’s the same answer:
- Invite all into the conversation, not in a token way, but with meaning. This is especially key for young leaders. Play to people’s strengths and give them accountabilities and a chance to shine.
- Have plans in place to follow up and make everyone’s involvement and seat at the table mean something beyond just a hand-out. It needs to be a legit hand up.
- Ask and listen. Ask those involved in the conversation, who have been invited to the table, and given a meaningful role what more could be done to support gender balance going forward, and then listen and act on the feedback.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Establishing a personal tie that allows for a deeper professional relationship. When you work closely with people, the more you understand and get to know them, the better foundation you’ll have for a solid working relationship. Creating opportunities for that kind of collegiality can be more challenging for women leaders. I’ve been on leadership teams where the men go fishing, heli-skiing, hunting, or even back in the day, golfing together. I don’t get invited to those events, so the friendship and learning they share in those situations is kept among them and you become an unintentional outsider. I think everyone needs to be aware of that. And it’s not a bad thing — there are things I wouldn’t want to be part of (and they wouldn’t want me there either!) — so it’s important to create ways that are just as relaxing and fun to build rapport and get to know the person behind the teammate.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
We create places and spaces where life literally happens. Homes, communities, civic spaces, schools and colleges, parks, commercial spaces that support businesses. It’s an industry that literally touches everyone’s life in so many ways. The impact real estate has on how a society functions, and on how culture flourishes — or not — is profound. What we do every day allows people to live and work their best life.
Another exciting thing about real estate is the potential impact it has on the economy overall — from a job creation perspective, to the creation of state, county and municipal tax bases, to the responsibility for creating innovative and attainable ways that home ownership can be more accessible to more people and help create personal and family wealth.
And lastly, but key to everything, is placemaking. We get to make beautiful places that work inside and out and with greater concern than ever for the intersection of the built and the natural environment and how it can support wellness — in all ways — physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, social, environmental, financial.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
Diversity in leadership to inspire diversity in placemaking. This is an industry that creates places for the rich diversity of people in our country today to live, work, play and connect. Real estate leadership doesn’t reflect the diversity of people we are creating these places for. I think we are missing an opportunity to understand more, and to have the voices of the people we are building for influence the business decisions and directions taken. This applies to planning and zoning departments making and enforcing regulations, to investment firms financing development, to builders and developers creating places. The decisions people in leadership are making today don’t always reflect the world in which they have impact.
Attainability. Housing remains the most expensive purchase people make, and even rental housing eats up a huge chunk of monthly income. We’ve got to find a way to do things better and more affordably. I don’t advocate building utilitarian boring boxes. At all. But we have to find ways to do things more creatively and at scale, flexibly, using every inch of space (in homes and communities) to add value to how people want to live. I think we also need to open our minds to new product types that could expand the diversity of home product offerings even if they face the threat of NIMBYism at first. This includes ADUs, lane homes, small cottage product, and new “missing middle” attached product.
Wilingness to do things differently. Just to put a point on #1 and #2, we need to be willing to really do things differently. Our industry is risk-averse for one that, at least from a financial perspective, is built on timing risk and return over complex cycles. Whenever things get tough it seems many run for the familiar. It’s counterintuitive maybe, but those are the times we need to be truly trying some new things. We cut marketing budgets rather than look for ways to grow revenue. We de-emphasize the importance of true consumer research and listening to the insights that come out of it and trust our “gut” even though that gut may be grounded in thinking that is decades old. And listening to our customer, on purpose, might reveal an opportunity no others have seen.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Bring your whole self to work and communicate openly and honestly. If you don’t know something, say so. I think there’s a sense sometimes that as a leader you have to have all the answers. You do have to have perspective, a strategic focus that lets you define for your team their most important areas of contribution to the business overall, and their very critical intersection points with other teams and departments. But you don’t have to know everything.
I love Simon Sinek’s golden rule — find your “why.” People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This is so true of leaders. Your team feels it when your “why” is to help them play to their strengths, sharpen their flat spots (and be ok with that), and work hard together to see success. I’ve always worked very hard but have never asked anyone to do something I wouldn’t do. And I need to quote David Barry again, who says, “Hire people smarter than you and then get out of their way.”
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
You’re a sociologist first.
Our job in community development is to create spaces and places for how people want to live, work and connect in a world that is going through systemic change. It’s not about the highest and best use of land, it’s about observing and understanding how people want to live and creating innovative ways to support them in their best lives. That takes a sociologist’s curiosity and communication skills.
Find your voice.
Even when it feels like others are speaking a different language, find your voice and speak up. Real estate, like every other specialized field, is rife with jargon and shorthand that to a newcomer is overwhelming. I came from another country and industry — in 2003, I didn’t even know what a master-planned community meant. I spent many days feeling out of my element. I took the time to learn things that were second nature to many, and then I spoke up with ideas and insights from a new perspective that created new opportunities. Have the courage to speak up and share your POV — that’s the reason you are in the room.
The old adage “done is better than perfect” is true. Now more than ever, after living with a pandemic, customers will forgive you for not being perfect while you try and pivot to meet unprecedented change. They will not forgive you for sitting on the sidelines while you obsess every new idea, kill it by committee, and fail to get in the ring with them. Do things faster, but in smaller chunks and share the rapid learning.
Give stuff away — your time, your experience, the lessons you’ve already learned. If someone asks you to speak on a topic you know a lot about, do it. The time you’ll put into preparing will just make your skills sharper. If someone asks you for an information interview, take it and give generously and listen generously. They have a lot to give you as well, and it just feels good to share and give from your place of passion.
Ask “how might we”
This is so important to me that I printed it on the back of my business card. In everything you do and touch, stay hyper focused on “how might we” make it better, or try something different. It’s a complacency buster and it works!
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Thank you. Outside our industry, I think the area that needs the most focus and has the potential to do the most good for the most people is the healthcare system. The fact that for so many, their healthcare is tied to their employer is both challenging and limiting. I’d love to see a movement of the biggest thinkers in medicine, finance, operations and more take on innovative ways to effectively and affordably deliver healthcare to Americans. I’m not naïve enough to think this is easy, or that there’s even been a solution or program posited yet that does this. But it seems to me that with the corporate wealth and intellectual and research capital in this country, we should be able to figure this out. I think the pandemic and its impacts on both healthcare workers and Americans in general who are now more concerned about their individual health and wellness has exposed this need even more.
How can our readers follow you online?
Company Website & Blog: https://www.tst-ink.com/
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!