FEATURED FEMMES INTERVIEW WITH GINNY MILLER FROM JAMESTOWN
Interviewed on September 17, 2020
Interviewed by Yingying Zhu
Ginny Miller is the Vice President of Technology Strategy at Jamestown. She manages investments in startups, funds, and strategies that position Jamestown as an innovation leader. Ms. Miller has worked with WeWork, Fifth Wall Ventures, Apple, and Harvard University in defining technology strategies for office, residential, and retail environments. Prior to her work in real estate technology, she led innovation strategy projects for Fortune 500 brands such as Starbucks, AARP, Humana, and Whirlpool that culminated in new product or business launches. Ms. Miller also ran strategy and sat on the board of Camp Phoenix, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization. She studied Engineering Sciences at Dartmouth College and received a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.
Congratulations on joining Jamestown for a year now! Can you talk about what you have been doing in this brand new role? Jamestown started to invest in proptech and craft proptech strategies across various departments a couple of years ago. The company has a strong commitment to proptech initiatives and started to look for someone who can oversee all those initiatives in one place. I joined the firm in July of 2019 and my roles have been three folds: define and develop technology strategies, build up partnerships with and make investments in technology firms, and hone our ability as a portfolio to learn new practices, deploy pilots, provide feedback and promote creativity. I understand from my peers who do similar roles in other real estate firms that these roles can be highly variable depending on what cultures and strategies are. To have a direct understanding of opportunities to create efficiencies and innovation, we need to figure out what the priorities are, what the culture is and how the teams are structured.
“I think it is a common misnomer that one person sitting in a corporate headquarters is able to deploy strategies that is going to change the company. There is no lack of ideas. The key is about creating efficient workflow and having a distributed network of people across the organization to turn ideas into actions.”
What have been your focus areas? They are constantly evolving with what the firm’s responsibilities are. One focus area has been establishing a firm-wide data strategy and capability. This has meant deploying and managing data partnerships, building out the ability to interpret and deliver insights to teams, and getting into the weeds of our company’s data architecture. I’ve also focused on managing existing strategic investments in both startups and funds (e.g. Fifth Wall Ventures and XRC Labs), and sourcing new investment and partnership opportunities. And one constant of the job is the cultural aspect of innovation – working on change management strategies to embed innovation into our DNA. I think it is a common misnomer that one person sitting in a corporate headquarters is able to deploy strategies that are going to change the company. There is no lack of ideas. The key is creating an efficient workflow and having a distributed network of people across the organization to turn ideas into actions. Obviously, Covid has been a game-changer for the focus of my role. I’m working cross-functionally with our outstanding property teams to deploy technology solutions that allow our teams, buildings and core business to remain operational, healthy and safe.
How do you work with the property managers and asset managers on the ground to push forward the innovation ideas? It is a constantly evolving dynamic between my role and property level teams. Real estate tech is different from other tech sectors because there is a hyper local element to real estate. It’s extremely difficult to just flip a switch and decide to use a new technology across the portfolio without taking into account local nuances. I have enjoyed making it a priority to build relationships with each of our local teams and buildings to understand the complex needs that sit across their projects. I also have found that our tech partners have so much to benefit from learning feedbacks from our local and boots-on-the-ground teams. As early and as often as possible, I loop our expert teams into discussions to explore product fit, so I’m not deciding on something in a vacuum.
Jamestown is one of the earliest clients of HqO. Can you tell us how do you choose a company to be their pilot partner? HqO (a tenant experience technology and services company, https://www.hqo.co/) is a good story that speaks to many different aspects of Jamestown’s innovation philosophy. The original idea came from an internal submission to a monthly contest of Innovation Ideas, where anyone across the organization can submit an idea around a new technology or a new practice that they think Jamestown should explore. One month in 2018, an analyst in our Atlanta office suggested we explore a partnership with HqO to improve tenant experiences. Our executives ended up selecting this as the winning idea for that month, and it catalyzed a relationship that ultimately turned into a venture investment, portfolio expansion, and product development partnership. In fact, I was on the phone with them yesterday discussing how they can continue to be core to our reopening strategy. HqO was such a phenomenal success story of us treating a technology company as a partner vs. a vendor, working collaboratively to improve and differentiate our core business.
Other than the features they provide, what do you value in a technology company when choosing a long term partner of Jamestown? A big part of my time spent is to help sift through the noise of various startups on the market. There are so many companies with fantastic ideas, but statistically startups fail, pivot, and face immense challenges. We want to work with durable businesses, so we look at a suite of things before entering into a technology partnership. The first and foremost is the leadership of the technology companies and their ability to speak both real estate and technology languages and to address customers’ needs. The second component is durability because we want to build relationships for the long run. We will review their investor base, their capital structure, the feasibility of their business model and their progress on the path to profitability. The third is the flexibility and nimbleness in terms of whether or not the company can evolve with us based on our need. The above requires the efforts to get to know the partner and the network with proptech investors to tap into their intelligence and experience.
What return is Jamestown is expecting by deeply investing in proptech industry as customers and investors? It is cool to see that there are institutional real estate firms that are launching separate funds to invest in the proptech space, which is great for the industry's growth. But Jamestown’s tech investment is more strategic and gearing to serve our core business. The technology we choose needs to generate value from an NOI perspective to our properties, create efficiencies in the way that our teams work, or provide us with thought leadership and knowledge that is critical to our future strategies. For example, we don’t invest in companies that are phenomenal in providing solutions to industrial properties if we don’t have a significant presence there. The strategic value goes both ways. Jamestown, as a proptech investor, is often considered very valuable in being able to endorse the companies as a user and introduce them to our portfolio and our peers’.
Are there some areas that you are looking for innovative solutions but haven’t seen satisfactory options? I think one area that is of increasing importance and many people are trying to tackle is flexible lease structures. Despite a lot of experiments, there is unfortunately a disconnect between the demand for new and alternative lease structure versus the ability of real estate teams to be able to underwrite that risk of management agreements or short term leases. Jamestown’s leasing team has been on the cutting-edge of creative lease structures, but there are inherent limitations based on fund structures, time spent executing etc. I think COVID will be an accelerant for new models to ultimately become more mainstream. One other area that I think is just barely scratching the surface of possibility is advanced data and analytics. Another is construction technology, particularly more sustainable and efficient building methodologies such as mass timber, off-site construction, and sustainable materials.
“There are definitely strong parallels (between the real estate industry and others)… What has accelerated innovation… is the success of new entrants and major tech players, in addition to increased consumer agency to move to alternatives, e.g. virtual care and retail health for healthcare, and working from home and coworking for real estate.”
You worked in the innovation field for different fields, such as Apple, the healthcare industry and the urban planning industry. How do you see the real estate industry comparing to others in terms of where they are on the innovation journey? There are definitely strong parallels. At a fundamental level, I think innovation across these industries means 1) becoming more human-centered in decision-making, and 2) orienting a business to be nimble in how they deliver against human-centered insights. Healthcare is similar to real estate in many ways. It’s a complex, hyper-local business with regulatory barriers – that also has massive societal significance and thus a zillion stakeholders. Healthcare and real estate are also industries where, in some cases, consumers lack agency – e.g. you get locked into an employee care plan in the same way you don’t choose where your company’s HQ is. This means that innovation is highly impactful, but slow to execute. What has accelerated innovation in healthcare, like real estate, is the success of new entrants and major tech players, in addition to increased consumer agency to move to alternatives, e.g. virtual care and retail health for healthcare, and working from home and coworking for real estate. As One Medical grows in popularity, for instance, incumbents have to respond, and can quantify and contextualize the ROI of more innovative delivery models. The same is true for real estate, as we’ve seen Airbnb, coworking operators, Zillow, OpenDoor prove the demand and viability of alternative models.
What do you find the most challenging being one of the pioneers taking an innovation role in real estate industry? I don’t know that I’m a pioneer, per se – real estate has always been an entrepreneurial field. I’m in awe of the innovation people around me have accomplished over the arc of their careers – from inventing the concept of an urban food hall to deploying sustainable building strategies. The most challenging thing about formal innovation roles is that you are a little bit on “an island”. Strategy roles haven’t been existing in real estate organizations for a reason. The industry is about “roll your sleeves up and get things done”. It can be isolating to find a way to build credibility for yourself within that climate. Therefore, it is critical to find advocates, connected team members and external communities, like Women in PropTech, to keep driving changes.
Please name a woman professional who has inspired you the most. I have been lucky to work with so many amazing women in this profession like those at Jamestown pushing the needle for our organization: Amy Knopf, our head of Asset Management, Cathy Pfeiffenberger, our head of Development, and Becca Rushin, our head of Sustainability, to name a few. Personally, my mother and grandmother inspire me. My grandmother ran her own antique business and retail shop – she showed me the link between brick-and-mortar and art, community, and local business. My mom is one of the savviest and most entrepreneurial business women I know – and will call me daily with wildly creative real estate ideas to explore, like one this week she’s calling “gas and grass:” cannabis stores connected to gas stations. Keeping things fun, fresh, and out-of-the-box is really what innovation is all about. My mom embodies that!
Edited and condensed for clarity.