The North Bay has dozens of local real estate agents who exclusively market commercial property, but only a handful are women. Though that’s been changing slowly in recent years, the stories of these trailblazers hint at why the ranks aren’t larger.

The industry stereotype is that women in real estate brokerage gravitate toward residential sales. And if they get into commercial deals, it’s for retail property. Local agents and national real estate organizations acknowledge there’s some truth to that.

“If you go into a retail-only brokerage, you’ll likely find more women than in an office and industrial brokerage,” said Cathy D’Angelo Holmes, who has been leasing and selling real estate with Coldwell Banker Commercial Brokers of the Valley in Napa for a decade. Her office has had only one other female commercial agent since Aurora McKnight came seven years ago. “I don’t know why. It’s still all about walls and square footage and ADA requirements.”

Many residential agents are women, according to the National Association of Realtors, which as nearly 1.2 million members, or about half of licensed U.S. real estate agents. About two-thirds of members specialized in residential brokerage last year, down from 82 percent. Fifty-three percent of all members who have broker licenses are female, compared with 63 percent of licensed agents.

A Napa native, Holmes does broker retail deals, but because of the relatively small size of the Napa Valley market, she’s also marketing and searching for office and industrial space.

Holmes came to commercial real estate from seven years in the mortgage business then six years of selling homes in Texas and California. She had been working since the early 1980s in selling Texas Instruments computers and the first laser printers, one of the few women in the country doing that at the time. She also worked in sales for Sprint and American Airlines. During an economic slump she moved into the mortgage business because of homeowner rush to refinance to lower rates. Then she pursued a real estate license after seeing how much more agents earned.

“One of the things I’ve always known in real estate vs. selling computers is the more time and experience you have, the more you gain credibility,” Holmes said. “Every year for me is more business and more credibility.”

To gain and keep that credibility in the early years of her sales career, Holmes took a “masculine” approach to how she dressed. In recent years, she’s been dressing “very conservatively,” wearing a skirt at times. Sometimes, she’s decked out in a white suit while touring a dirty warehouse with a client.


Retail real estate deals can be more involved than for office and industrial properties, said Sara Wann in the Petaluma office of Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc./ONCOR International.

“Retail adds another couple levels of complication, like traffic counts and customer patterns, that do not matter as much with office space,” Wann said. “There’s also exclusives, like when shopping centers have a coffee shop there and cannot have another go in there. I enjoy those aspects.”

Wann entered commercial real estate 12 years ago in a career change from being a working mother who handled the finances and administration of a family construction business. Now she specializes in retail properties.

“I was never interested in residential real estate,” she said. “Business decisions are made differently from home-buying decisions, which are much more emotional. The business world is more about tangibles.”

Wann enjoys hearing the concerns and needs of companies seeking space then finding solutions that also work for the property owner and local government permits. Then there is the variety of clients and industries she works with — a baker one day, a lawyer the next.

Having a background in construction that involved reading building plans and obtaining project permits has helped Wann in commercial real estate, yet she needed more than knowledge alone.

“For me, it was difficult to get in, because it was a man’s world,” she said. “That’s OK for me, because I enjoy it.”


Enjoying analysis over emotion is a common refrain among the North Bay’s prominent female commercial property deal-makers. That’s what attracted Marin County apartment investment specialist Katherine Higgins to the profession three decades ago.

“I wasn’t interested in residential at all,” she said. “Residential is more of an emotional business, and I like to analyze things.”

Though she comes from a Midwest family with a sizable commercial property portfolio, she pursued a journalism career but discovered writers often were too cynical.

Wanting to get into business but not wanting to spend more time in school for an MBA, Higgins went into sales, working with something she grew up with: buildings. After a couple of years of selling automated building-management systems for large Silicon Valley campuses, she realized the real estate itself was more interesting and didn’t require extensive engineering knowledge, so she started studying commercial real estate. In 1986 she affiliated with what is now HL Commercial Real Estate in San Rafael and became interested in multifamily investment property, later becoming an investor herself.

While there are fewer women in commercial property brokerage, and still fewer in a suburban market like the North Bay, the ranks shrink more among those who focus on sales, with its more unpredictable yet lucrative commissions flow, said Higgins, now affiliated with Paragon Real Estate Group’s Greenbrae office. Much of her clientele over the years has been repeat business as owners move on to larger property investments via tax-deferred Section 1031 exchanges.

“You have to feel confident working around other men, not be intimidated and have a strong business plan,” she said. “If you’re into sports, which I am, that is the mentality you have to bring to it. It’s extremely competitive.”

Right now she is competing with four other agents — all men — to list a North Bay apartment complex for an out-of-the-area owner. Like in the early 1990s, the multifamily investments market has peaked after a long stretch of soaring sale prices, so few sellers are seeking buyers. Making a listing pitch in a market like this requires trust in the agent’s experience, Higgins said.

“It’s challenging to explain the difference between market reality and what they’re reading in the paper and hearing from other owners about the market,” she said.


Carolyn Pistone, president and managing director of property-management firm Clear Blue Commercial in Petaluma, said she earned a real estate agent license to transition from a career in the 1990s managing operations and facilities for movie and animation companies to being a working mother. She thought selling homes would allow time for volunteering in the classroom and community.

“I found out very quickly it was a better use of my talents to work at the corporate scale,” Pistone said. “I had much more of a business background that could be put to use than to sit in an open house on a Sunday and watch couples fight.”

Drawing on experience planning animation data centers, overseeing tenant improvements and working with commercial agents, she earned her California real estate broker license in 2002. A dozen years later, she started Clear Blue, certified as woman-owned, green and a benefit corporation, or B Corp.

“I don’t want to sound sexist at all, but I can see that women tend to be more collaborative and multitaskers,” Pistone said. “The understanding you can provide service to client and your planet and your community has been really embraced by women in commercial real estate. There is a saying among men in sales in general that we have to kill what we eat, and women more about planting what we eat.”


The North Bay’s largest commercial-focused brokerages have at least one female agent in their local offices. The biggest of the firms, Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc./ONCOR International, has six among its 52 agents, including Rhonda Deringer, who was named the firm’s first female partner earlier this year. Newmark Cornish & Carey has two in Marin County, and Meryl Sebestyen has been working that market since 1982. Cushman & Wakefield has longtime retail agent Jennifer Hibbitts in the Larkspur office, though the San Francisco-based Retail Services Group has several. HL Commercial Real Estate in San Rafael has two, and so does Meridian Commercial also of San Rafael. Half of North Bay Property Advisors’ six agents are women, as are three of the seven agents at Santa Rosa Business & Commercial.