Michelle Pais, CEO of Signature Realty

Although rockstar women exist in real estate—Shark Tank host Barbara Corcoran, co-BET founder Sheila Johnson and, more recently, Realty Mogul CEO Jilliene Helman, come to mind—the industry has traditionally been a "big boy's club," dominated by Baby Boomer men. Few women are in charge

These days, a different trend is emerging. Risk-taking Millennials are disrupting the industry (raising record amounts of money), creating opportunities for unexpected players to gain a foothold in what used to be a close-knit fraternity. They're doing this, despite the doomsday recession predictions by experts like billionaire real estate mogul Sam Zell.

In 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, while other firms were closing en masse, then-30-year-old Michelle Pais launched Signature Realty, a startup, real estate brokerage in New Jersey, earning her the moniker of the "Corcoran of Jersey." Risk aside, six years later, Pais ranks among among the state's top residential brokers and has established herself as a leader in the male-dominated industry.

I sat down with Pais, now 36, to get her take on entrepreneurship in the largest asset class in the country, building a new type of company, and how to gain market share — and profit — in a cut-throat industry. 

TheStreet: Tell us about your business.

Pais: I've had the company six years now and I've been doing real estate for 15 years. My first year in the business, I sold over 25 homes. Since then, my production has doubled every year, so it's been quite a whirlwind; it's been fun, exciting, challenging, out of control, and all of the above.

TS: Real estate can be tough if you don't know what you're doing. What inspired you to go out there and take on the competition and launch your own business?

Pais: Well, I fell into it by an accident. I've always had an entrepreneurial side to me and I always knew that I wanted to be successful; I just didn't know exactly what that meant. I was 19 or 20, going to school and I saw an ad in the paper for a local real estate secretary. Right out of high school, I knew I wanted to do something that would inspire and would change lives. But I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. So I decided to give it a shot.

So it started off as me being a realtor and then I'd say four or five years into it, I knew I wanted to have my own firm.
I didn't like the cookie-cutter traditional corporate structure that's often parallel to the big corporate companies. I didn't like the feel, I didn't like the structure, the "old school" way of doing business. I wanted to do something different.

TS: When you say "traditional corporate structure," what exactly made you go "I want to change this?"

Pais: I wasn't a fan of the drama and archaic way of doing business. I didn't like the fact that real estate is someone's largest investment but there's a big lack of personal one-on-one touch. So if a problem arose [with the purchase], it was like going through an assembly line — from an agent to a manager, to his manager to a VP — just to fix it. It's virtually impossible.

TS: So a focus on customer service?

Pais: But also from a company culture standpoint. I think things are changing in some companies today, but back when I was entering the workforce, I realized that companies weren't nimble. They're giants with no flexibility for change, so people like me that have an entrepreneurial side need to be heard and be part of the growth process.

I can't even imagine how many employees or agents just stop sharing their ideas with their managers after a few ideas being shut down. So what I wanted to do is I wanted to change in the sense where I wanted people to be able — if there was a problem, or if they needed extra attention-just to call me directly and that you can actually talk to the owner — and that's what I wanted to change.


TS: Real estate has typically been slow to adopt innovation...

Pais: And I'm someone that's a creator, I'm an innovator and that's what I do all day long; I'm constantly thinking of new marketing and branding techniques to differentiate myself from the competition. And I couldn't do that by working under a brand. There's a saying that I had; I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, I'm just trying to put some rims on it. (Laughs.)

TS: Was there a key moment where you decided to go out on your own?

Pais: That was probably my fifth year in the business. I had gained a track record and credibility. At that point, I already had 500 properties under my belt, as far as sales, and I think at that point I was confident enough — knowledgeable enough, really — and I had a significant amount of capital saved where I decided to go to the next level.

TS: You opened up shop in one of the worst economic climates ever. What drove you during those early days, and today?

Pais: You know, I get asked that question all the time, "what drives you?" I wish I could answer that question in a sound bite, honestly. I think it's a variety of factors. When I decided to open up my brokerage, that was 2010, when we were in the worst economic climate. So while many real estate businesses were closing their doors — that's when I was opening mine, so I wasn't afraid of it.

I grew up in a family of hard-working, blue-collar parents that worked their butt off, day in and day out. By not having them around all the time, I wanted to be able to have the financial freedom and independence, not having to worry about living paycheck to paycheck. I figured if I start young, by the time I'm 30 or 40, I can afford to retire.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.