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Side’s Hilary Saunders: An inside look at the alternative brokerage model

Women leaving a legacy

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It was a sunny and extremely humid Thursday morning. Of course, that’s almost standard for Dallas, and it wasn’t going to prevent these three women from showing up to the August magazine cover shoot with an energy and excitement that couldn’t be stopped. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I’d say this cover is worth so much more than that. These three Women of Influence not only carry the grace and lessons of those who have gone before them, but they’re leaving a priceless legacy for the next generation of leaders. Rebecca McDonald, chief product officer at Rocket Mortgage, Pam Perry, Single-Family vice president of Equitable Housing at Freddie Mac, and Hilary Saunders, co-founder and chief broker officer at Side, are all featured on the cover and were named to HousingWire’s 2021 Women of Influence. I had the honor of sitting down with them to learn more about the projects they’re passionate about, how they’re making a difference and what advice they’d share with those in the industry. 

Here is the interview with Hilary Saunders, co-founder and chief broker officer at Side.

BN: First off, congrats on being named a 2021 Women of Influence. If you were standing on a stage giving an acceptance speech, who would you want to thank for helping you get where you are today?

Hilary Saunders: That’s a great question, and to be quite honest, it’s our partners. I would thank my partners in general because they had faith in us and continue to have faith in us and in what we’re doing. Our mission is to elevate the entire real estate industry and really provide the consumer at the end of the day with an amazing experience, whether they’re a buyer or seller. Our partners are the ones who are on the ground and are providing that experience.

BN: How do you create a work-life balance in your life and/or what does work-life balance mean to you?

Hilary Saunders: I love that question, especially since I have 16-month-old, identical twin daughters and a seven-year-old boy, who are altogether quite a handful. Work-life balance, honestly, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it isn’t balanced. I think it’s really about finding that underlying passion, so work, to me, is part of my life. And so, my entire family is a part of it. My son went on listing appointments with me when he was a baby and has been in some advertising stuff for me. It’s a family affair. At the end of the day, as long as you can take time for yourself and know that the team that you’ve built and you’ve shaped is there to carry on the mission, then you can make time for everything. 

Brena Nath: Can you take us back to 2017 when Side was getting ready to launch. How did you, along with the other co-founders, come up with the idea for this alternative brokerage model?

Hilary Saunders: Edward Wu and Guy Gal come from an entrepreneurial tech background. I come from a real estate background. I was a real estate litigator and worked as a broker associate for a big box for a number of years and wasn’t finding the support that I needed to get to the next level. Being an entrepreneur myself, I decided to go out on my own and start my own brokerage, and then, I felt, personally, the headaches and the stress of learning QuickBooks, figuring out how to build a website, how to market myself; that’s not my expertise. My expertise is either bringing excellent customer service or legal. Our brains at that point said, “Hey, we can create a platform that not only gives agents their time back but also elevates them and takes them to the next level.” Traditionally, top-performing realtors are not necessarily great marketers or great web designers or have accounting backgrounds. We take all that off their plate, so they can go do what they’re good at, and we all excel.

Brena Nath: Driven by the fact that working mothers have been disproportionately affected in 2020, you launched a dedicated initiative to retain the 48% of Side’s partners that are female, why was this initiative so important to you?

Hilary Saunders: It started before COVID and how we saw so many women exit the workforce. Prior to that, a disproportionate number of women were not doing the broker/owner experience. For whatever reason, they’re the breadwinners, but they also take care of the household and potentially the kids and family sometimes. They weren’t taking that next leap to get to the next level because there was not that back-end support for them, or encouragement for that. At Side, we have been able to very successfully bring that ownership mentality to women in general, and so a lot of our partners and people who are reaching out to us are women. They want to be that ownership of their brand, and we can do that. We give women a sense of power and a feeling of ownership over the direction of their lives and what they want to accomplish. To me, that’s personally important, too. My family has always been extremely supportive of any endeavor that I’ve ever made, and just giving that to the community in general is necessary. 

Brena Nath: There aren’t a lot of female co-founders in the industry. What unique challenges did you face in starting Side?

Hilary Saunders: I think a lot of the ceiling we actually put on ourselves, and if you can prove yourself through what you’re doing and your performance, then you shouldn’t judge yourself negatively. One of the challenges that I faced, even though I had started my own businesses before, was growing it to the level of a successful company that we have now. The wonderful thing that I had was the support of two amazing co-founders, and it was the three of us on equal footing and has always been that way. Gender has nothing to do with it. It’s that we each have different talents, and so I think it’s almost just getting over that mental hurdle. What does the industry look like? It’s very white, male-dominated, but who cares? And we’ve got fresh ideas and an amazing skill set. We’ll earn our respect, I don’t need to be given it.

Brena Nath: How do we pave a new path forward for future women leaders?

Hilary Saunders: You lead by example, and you showcase other women who have done it and are doing it. That’s a lot of what Side does. You won’t see Side on things. We don’t want to say, “Here we are doing these things.” No, it’s our partners who are stepping out and doing it. So, you lead by example, and you support each other. One thing that is wonderful about Side, and this goes across the board and is not just dedicated to women, it’s that our partners are at a caliber where they’re elevating each other. They’re sharing their best practices. They’re sharing their techniques, which I have not witnessed anywhere else. What I normally have witnessed is the top of the top kind of hold their cards close to the vest, and they don’t want to share because they see everybody as their competition. We’ve changed that mindset, and everybody is equal. Our collective job is to elevate the industry as a whole.

Brena Nath: What are three things that companies can or should start doing today to bring more diversity into the workforce?

Hilary Saunders: You cast a wide net. If you act as a company that is diverse, you will attract diversity. If you provide the opportunities and internal structure that breeds diversity, then you’ll attract it. Another thing is to support your employees’ willingness and desire to create the subculture. For example, one of our amazing teams took it upon themselves to get an amazing speaker and run a big Juneteenth celebration, and they’ve just owned it. So, you provide the internal employees the opportunity to create whatever group it is that they want, and we support that. The other thing is being active with a collective voice in the community, whether it’s on LinkedIn or providing external speaker opportunities, just supporting diversity in general.

Brena Nath: What’s one piece of advice you would give people in this industry?

Hilary Saunders: Life is too short, and I think you lead every day as best you can. Some days you don’t feel like you’re showing up as much, make up for it the next day. Every day, you try and go to bed proud of yourself in some way. I think that that leads to a lot of happiness that I have found. And nobody’s perfect. You cannot do it all — we try — but show up and do your best in that moment.

To read the full August magazine issue, click here.

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