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eXp’s Stacey Onnen and Fee Gentry talk diversity initiatives

Today’s episode of HousingWire Daily continues our Women of Influence series and features an interview with eXp Realty’’s Stacey Onnen and Fee Gentry. Onnen is the president of U.S. Brokerage Operations and Gentry sits on of eXp World Holdings’ board directors and helped co-found and lead several of eXp’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, including ONE eXp. 

During the interview, they both share their unlikely starts in the housing industry and discuss eXp’s recent and dramatic growth. They also talk about eXp’s numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives and why they think it is important for company success. 

Here is a small preview of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

Alcynna Lloyd: eXp has experienced dramatic growth over the last few years and has now joined the heavyweight division. And, while brokerages may be riding a sales boom right now, some are concerned that the boom times never last, and more inventory won’t keep up with demand. Is this something eXp is actively thinking about? And if so, what are you doing to ensure growth in the market experiences a downturn?

Stacey Onnen: It’s something that every brokerage has to think of all the time, because when we all look back, we didn’t know when the crash in ‘07, ‘08 was going to happen. And it affected different parts of the country at different times. We’ve got a great team and we do feel as a company being one large, corporately owned brokerage, that we’re in an incredibly unique place to jump into that. But we also want to make sure not just on the corporate level, if you think of how our agents like twisted and turned very, very quickly, when COVID hit, the agents that had come through the ‘08 downturn, they had to learn a different style of business immediately. Those agents were more prepared, then you take the fact that we were already working virtually. So that wasn’t even a game changer for our agents.

Fee Gentry: From the Board of Directors point of view, we’re looking at our financials and financial models, so we’re forecasting and staffing accordingly. That’s, that’s what our leadership is doing.  We’re advising and providing guidance of what we see in the industry, what economists are saying about the industry,  and we’re following those trends. The other part is that we’re investing heavily in our agents, we’re investing in our staff. We’re doing some lead generation technology, so some technologies to keep us in the forefront of the market. We’re trying to be in front of the industry instead of just waiting to see what happens. 

HousingWire Daily examines the most compelling articles reported across HW Media. Each afternoon, we provide our listeners with a deeper look into the stories coming across our newsrooms that are helping Move Markets Forward. Hosted by the HW team and produced by Alcynna Lloyd and Elissa Branch. If you have a pitch or an inquiry relating to podcasts, you can reach our team at [email protected]

Below is the transcription of the interview. These transcriptions, powered by Speechpad, have been lightly edited and may contain small errors from reproduction:

Alcynna Lloyd: Hello HousingWire listeners, welcome back to another segment of HousingWire’s Women of Influence. I’m Alcynna Lloyd and today I’m joined with eXp Realty’s president of U.S. brokerage operations, Stacey Onnen, and Fee Gentry, the cofounder and co-chair of ONE eXp, eXp’s diversity and inclusion initiative. Thank you both for joining me on HousingWire Daily.

Stacey Onnen: Thank you for having us.

Fee Gentry: Yeah, glad to be here. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening wherever you are in the world.

Alcynna Lloyd: Good morning to you too. So happy to have you both on here. Listeners, Stacey and Fee have joined me to discuss how they became Women of Influence and new movements happening at eXp Realty and eXP World Holdings. Stacey and Fee, before we dive in today’s conversation, can you both share your backgrounds with our audience? How’d you get your start in the housing industry and what has the journey looked like for each of you?

Fee Gentry: My background was not traditional. This was, you know, real estate was plan F for me. I came from a background of sports and rehabilitation, fitness and I’m more of an entrepreneur more than real estate. I call myself more of a real estate entrepreneur. So I came, like I said, working with patients. I went to physical therapy school, went to get my MBA in business and I’ve, you know, started nine different companies in five different industries and then had kind of a crash and burn kind of moment. And my mom was building a house and I met a real estate professional with a big rig company, Keller Williams, and she said, “I think you’d be really good at real estate.” And I was like, “I didn’t go to school to become a real estate agent,” you know? She’s like, “What? Like, you can make really unlimited income, etc.” And she said, “I think you’d be in the top 10% and so my ears perked up and I, you know, joined the real estate industry. When I joined, I didn’t know the difference between a lockbox and a listing, no joke. In my first year I sold 39 homes and then went on from there so that’s kind of my path to real estate.

Alcynna Lloyd: Wow. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Stacey Onnen: I love that, Fee. Now see, I learned something new about Fee again. You know, it’s funny, I started in the late ’90s. I was doing accounting for construction companies at the time and really just had realized I didn’t want to be behind a desk. I missed some form of people. And so, same as Fee, I knew nothing about real estate. I don’t even remember to this day what actually got me into real estate school. And I went to school and found some great success in the beginning. I think my third year in, I did NAR‘s 30 Under 30, which was super cool, especially being in a small town and then I was just young and crazy enough to think after three years in I was just gonna go start my own brokerage. So I did, because why not?

And, wow, looking back now, there are days that I think, “I should have waited and learned more,” but, you know, that’s one of the things that I think is life. That’s how you learn and so I owned that for about eight years and humorously, Fee, sold it to a Keller Williams, retained the building, leased to them, and really thought I was done brokering. I really thought I just wanted to sell real estate and the next thing you know, I started this CE company. I was teaching for NAR, teaching for AAR, you know, just getting back and one of my friends slapped me in the face and said, “Hey, by the way, teaching is no different than brokering. What are you doing? Like, you’re back in the same role.”

And so year’s later, my broker crush, as I always call him, an amazing guy named Jim Sexton, he called me and got me back into brokering and I’ll never forget the moment I called my husband and said, “Babe, I took a job today,” and he’s like, “You’re not looking for a job.” And he was right but it was meant to be and, wow, I worked for two great people at Realty ONE, Kuba and Pat Kelly. They let me run. They let me fly. They let me do things and it was incredible. So then I got this great opportunity to come and continue what I was doing at Realty ONE, at eXp, and they were in 30 states when I got here and it was just an absolute blast getting to watch it grow. So, yeah, a little bit different as well.

Alcynna Lloyd: Wow, that’s amazing. So your background for what you’re doing today, as you’re a brokerage owner, managing broker and national instructor for real estate education, as you mentioned, I want to focus on a few other things. In 2018, you joined eXp Realty as a senior vice-president of brokerage operations and was promoted to president of eXp’s brokerage operations in 2019, and now you run brokerage operations for a virtual team of more than 600 staff members and 50,000 agents. Because of this leadership, in 2020 your operations and transactions helped eXp Realty earn a number one top mover transactions ranking from Real Trends 500 and additionally, as your oversaw brokerage operations, eXp Realty’s agent count has grown from 7,000 in 2018 to over 50,000 in 2021, representing an increase of 614%. So can you tell us about this growth and how it’s transformed business operations or how the company approaches the market now?

Stacey Onnen: You know, it’s fascinating. When I got here in 2018 we were in 30-some odd states, it was the early 30 numbers and it was myself and really two other people in the brokerage operations piece and we literally just… I always tell people, and Curtis Dixon always laughs at me when I say this but I approached it like a puzzle because that’s really all operations is in my brain. It’s a very large puzzle. And one of the things that I’m so grateful for is, you know, Glenn, he met me at 6:30 in the morning. Thank goodness he likes my hours. He showed me around for a couple months and then Glenn is that visionary that just lets you fly. He just lets you do what you do and do what you love.

And so I look at the success we have now and, number one, it’s the agents who bring in the other agents. Number two, it’s this incredible dream team of staff we have built. I think when I think of how Glenn is able to let us do what we do, it is truly… One of it is that virtual piece. I can hire the best people from anywhere because we’re not limited by being in each other’s space and seeing each other day to day. And so what we really did was we just wanted to make sure that if Fee is in Texas and attracting that agent to eXp, that when the agent comes to Arizona and joins, they get that same experience. They get that great feel, that same incredible brokerage experience wherever you go and so we just systematically went through the U.S. and aligned everything as much as we possibly could to each other with operational licensing laws differences, of course. But we really just made sure we built one solid foundation that agents could bring other agents to and feel confident about the support they got.

And I love the credit but it’s my dream team. It is this incredible group of people we have established and, you know, now we’re running into Canadian operations and we’re going to bring them into alignment with North America and really help them grow. It’s just been this incredible opportunity and thank goodness Glenn and Jason Gesing is like really, truly the most inspiring boss you can have because he just lets me be me. And then I get to let my team be them. And when you just let people do what they do best, it’s incredible what you get.

Alcynna Lloyd: That is so true. And speaking of what people do best, Fee, I would love to focus on you now. You joined eXp Realty as an agent in 2017, leading the company’s efforts in equity, belonging, and inclusion. As cofounder and co-chair of ONE eXp, eXp’s diversity inclusion initiative, you support career development and champion fair housing principles, providing networking opportunities that encourage cultural awareness. In fact, you helped facilitate the growth of 10 affinity groups, including the Black eXp Network, which is almost 4,000 members. To top all this off, in 2020 you were appointed to the eXp World Holdings Board of Directors, making you the first Black woman elected to the board of a publicly traded real estate company. Also amazing, and I really want to understand what these achievements mean to you personally. As a Black woman in the real estate industry, why is inclusivity so important to you and how does it feel to be the first Black woman to be elected to the board of a publicly traded real estate company?

Fee Gentry: Wow, that’s a great question. I listened to all that, I’m like, “Who is she talking about?” And coming up behind Stacey. First of all, just to address the first part of it is inclusivity is really important because it’s important, like kinda Stacey said, it’s important to show up to be for every person. So whoever you are, Black, white, green blue, male, female, it’s important for you to be the best person that you can be. And there’s some groups that are underrepresented in our industry. You know, they haven’t always had the same opportunities as other people in specific industries. And so, you know, real estate is still a male-dominated industry despite the ratio of women who serve.

And studies after studies show that if you can be exactly who you are and you feel comfortable and have belongingness and that you have been given a voice to express yourself and perform at your highest, you will perform at your highest levels. Studies after studies show that women in leadership, our companies are more profitable, that we have a longer retention. And so that’s why inclusivity is important to me.

On a personal note, in a personal story, I’ve been the subject of intentional or unintentional discrimination and I just always want to make sure that people don’t ever feel that way and I want people to feel like they belong. I’m this California girl. I grew up in this utopic society and so I have this, you know, crazy thought in my head that everybody should be able to perform at their highest.

And then going back to being the first Black woman elected to a publicly traded board in the U.S., there’s part of me that’s like, I shouldn’t have been the first in 2020. However, I am in this seat, right, and so what I do is my job is to open up doors and windows for other people. So it is an honor to serve at the highest level. However, I want to continue to change this and make room for other women and other people of color in boards of directors around the country. So that’s what it does mean and I stand on the shoulders. I mean, so I’m just standing on the shoulders. I sit in the seat but I sit on the shoulders of other women and people of color and my responsibilities and recognition are fine but I’d rather serve other people at the highest level. Stacey and I are both like that. We’d just rather get the work done. But we’d just rather just have the receipts. Like, what are the receipts? Yeah.

Alcynna Lloyd: Yeah.

Stacey Onnen: Absolutely.

Alcynna Lloyd: Yeah. So you mentioned the different members and different kinda people that are part of the eXp team. So I want to focus on business of eXp and talk about the growth that’s happened at both eXp Realty and eXP World Holdings. I purposely mentioned that eXp has experienced dramatic growth over the last few years and I want to expand on that. The company has now joined the heavyweight division as some of its top competitors include Keller Williams, Compass, Realogy, and Zillow. And while brokerages may be riding a sales boom right now, some are concerned that the boom times never last and more inventory won’t keep up with demand. Is this something eXp’s actively thinking about, and if so, what are you doing to ensure growth if the market experiences a downturn?

Stacey Onnen: You know, I think it’s something that every brokerage has to think of all the time because when we all look back, we didn’t know when the crash in ’07, ’08, ’09, we didn’t know when that was gonna happen. And it affected different parts of the country at different times. And so we’re definitely looking. We’ve got a great team working on our REO, our relo, our affinity sales, our short sales. You know, we do feel as a company being one large corporately-owned brokerage that we’re in an incredibly unique place to jump into that but we also want to make sure not just on the corporate level but… Just even watching, if you think of how our agents, like twist it, it turns very very quickly when COVID hit. The agents that they come through the ’08 downturn, they had to learn a different style of business immediately. And so those agents were more prepared.

Then you take the fact that we were already working virtually, so that wasn’t even a gamechanger for our agents. They had that down johnny-pat. Now it was just how do I bring my clients into this? And so then when I think of when we’re getting prepared, now we’re looking at can agents…how do they diversify? How do they get licensed in more states? How do they build teams across the country so that if Florida’s market is slowing down faster than Arizona’s market, their team is focused in Florida for a while? And then when Florida recovers and Arizona slows down, how do we push it there? So I do think even as a company, we’re uniquely situated by being that global company-wide. Not everywhere is gonna go down and so we’re trying to just our agents prepared. That revenue share, that helps a ton because they’re still collecting income off the agents in the other part of the country that might have slowed down, and then making sure we started this really great REO and relo certification programs within the company that is allowing more and more agents to get involved in that corporate relocation and all of that. And it’s just been really good to see them grow and I think that’s gonna give them that diversified plan for when the market does change and I think they’ll be okay.

Fee Gentry: And then from the board of directors’ point of view, we’re looking at our financials. So we have eight plus four…we’re looking at our financial models so we’re forecasting and staffing accordingly. That’s what our leadership is doing so we’re advising and providing guidance of what are we seeing in the industry. What are economists saying about the industry? So we’re following those trends.

The other part is we’re investing heavily in our agents. We’re investing in our staff so development, like we talked about. So Stacey’s already covered that. We’re doing some lead generation technology so some technologies to keep us in the forefront of the market. So we’re trying to be in front of where the industry is going instead of just kind of waiting to see what happens.

And then last but not least, you know, we have Glenn, who’s such a geek because we’re looking at artificial intelligence. We’re looking at diversification of the product offering because eXp World Holdings is an entity that holds other things. We’re not just always real estate related so we’re looking at other possibilities of growing the brand or growing the company in different ways when the marketplace does have a correction.

Alcynna Lloyd: As we talk about development and how we can help people become their best selves, before we wrap today I wanted to know is there any advice you can offer to other women who aspire to your level of success?

Fee Gentry: I always believe that you have to have a clear set of core values. Once you know exactly who you are, what you stand for, what you’ll tolerate, then everything else is, you know, pretty much comes in the picture. Everything is I always tell people to create a vision for yourself. Women, sometimes we… Men, they go out and do stuff and they’re half prepared. You know, they bring stuff on a napkin. Women, we overprepare. We’re overeducated, you know, and we think in our heads a lot instead of acting.

So the other thing is take more emotional, financial, social risk, and then other parts is get mentors about that circle, about like that rule of like the five people that the company that you keep or the five most influential people and that you keep kind of influential like. Be in other circles that you’re uncomfortable in. And so I always encourage us to have like women and male mentors who are helping you and challenge you to be more than you thought you could ever be and who might have to have belief for you than more than belief that you have for yourself. That’s probably the biggest thing that I always recommend for women in leadership.

Alcynna Lloyd: That’s great advice. Stacey, what do you think?

Stacey Onnen: I like it. You know, I always think back to… As I told you guys, I probably started my brokerage long before I should have with experience and everything, right? But I did it anyway. And it was in a smaller town and there were really no women brokerage owners and I remember I got a phone call from a couple of the…I always call them now the old guard, you know, the gentlemen that had been around forever. And I got a conversation that at the time hurt. And I realized later that it was a perfect conversation for my personality because it was a conversation and these are the words they called me for years. “Okay, kiddo.” I was “kiddo.” It was exactly who I was. It was, “Kiddo, when it doesn’t work out, you just let us know. There’s always gonna be a place for you at my brokerage.” And that hurt at first but it was the best thing anyone could have said to me because I am that person, that kid, that if you tell me I can’t, oh, baby, I’m doing it and now I’m gonna succeed at an even higher level. Like at that moment, I didn’t even know what I wanted from my brokerage but, holy cow, I was gonna knock them all out of the water.

And I did. And I looked throughout the years at things that I can look back and say I really had to grow at. I was not good at asking for what I deserved or what I wanted. I did more of the accepting whatever I got, just feeling grateful to be in the room. And I think sometimes we have to remember that sometimes, like my personal go-to is I’m not the loudest person in a meeting. You know, she’s been in meetings with me. I’m not the loudest. I only speak when I’m really passionate on something and I speak when I believe in something. And I do think we, as a group, as a whole in leadership across any industry, need to not always recognize just the loudest ones, but do pay attention to those quiet voices because sometimes they’re your smartest.

And so I would remind the women too that sometimes we’re perfectionists and we’re afraid to speak unless it’s gonna be perfect. We’re afraid to try unless we know we can do it. One of the ways I judge my team on how amazing they’re doing is did we fail? Because if we failed, we were trying really hard and we were pushing the envelope. If we never fail, we probably weren’t trying hard enough. And so I think it’s just give yourself freedom to fail and realize that’s growth. Don’t accept when people tell you you can’t. Take it as, oh, I’m gonna show you I can and just keep going and ask for what you deserve. That’s a big one for me.

Alcynna Lloyd: So that’s some great advice from both of you, Stacey and Fee, so I just want to thank you so much for joining us today in this interview.

Stacey Onnen: Thank you.

Fee Gentry: Thank you for having us. This was fun. I get to see my girl, Stace.

Stacey Onnen: I know. I was gonna say I haven’t seen Fee’s face in a while. I’m loving this.

Alcynna Lloyd: That’s great. I’m so glad we were able to have this opportunity. Listeners, thanks for listening and join us next Tuesday for another great interview with a Woman of Influence. Until then, tune in tomorrow for an interview with our host, Matthew Blake, HousingWire’s senior real estate reporter. You won’t want to miss out. Have a great evening. Thank you, everyone.

HousingWire Daily

Hosted by the journalists behind the headlines, HousingWire Daily examines the most compelling mortgage, real estate, and fintech articles reported from the HousingWire newsroom.

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