Managing Principal, Craig Zodikoff awarded the SF Business Times, Outstanding Voices at the Business of PRIDE Awards.
This article was originally published on the San Francisco Business Times.
Craig Zodikoff did what he thought he was expected to: After growing up in the New York metro area, he went to law school, became an attorney and got married, all in his 20s.
But he soon realized that wasn’t who he was — or maybe he knew all along. His marriage unraveled and his first gig at a Chicago law firm took an unexpected detour when he faced discrimination after coming out. He changed careers, joining commercial real estate company Equis Corp. in Chicago, a job that later gave him the opportunity to move to San Francisco in 2000 with his husband.
After leaving Equis for a stint with Kidder Mathews, he joined tenant rep firm Cresa in 2009 to oversee its Bay Area operations. He serves on the boards of Sterne School and Horizons Foundation.
Tell me about your experience coming out.
I have an older brother — he’s two years older than I am — and he had come out a few years before. My parents were open minded and very supportive of my brother, but for some reason I had made a decision that I was going to have to be the straight one. It was sort of a strange perspective. I talked myself out of coming out because I felt that I was going to have to live a different life than I had chosen for myself.
I probably thought that maybe I was bisexual. I got married in my early 20s. I was married for three years. I remember thinking at that time that this is the path that I was supposed to be on. I came out after the divorce. When I was presented with the opportunity to date women again, I think I realized that that was not what I was meant to do.
How did you end up in real estate after getting your law degree?
I was an art history major as an undergrad with a little bit of emphasis on architectural history. Eventually I thought that I was going to be an attorney that worked in the design and construction world. After I went to law school I got a job at the first place that would hire me. I ended up focusing on banking, corporate law and some commercial real estate.
I really became intrigued by real estate but I hadn’t made a decision yet to leave law until I started to experience — I guess I would say – some prejudice in the environment. There were actually some attorneys that would not work with me because I had just come out.
It was a time in my life that I reflected on what I really wanted for myself. I made the decision that I would never be dependent on someone else for my advancement, that I was going to do something that was entrepreneurial and that I was driving my future and I was the one responsible for that path that I was on.
How did you feel when you heard that other attorneys didn’t want to work with you?
A young attorney in the office told me that he had heard from a paralegal who had had lunch with some of the admins that there were partners in the firm who were not going to work with me. I was just out of law school. I was a kid, like 23 years old. So I had started in this industry and learned very quickly that it was not going to be a great cultural fit for me.
Did you confront anyone at the firm?
I did. I had gone through a review process and I was getting feedback from attorneys that I thought was surprising to me. I ended up making an appointment to speak to some of the partners and share with them what I had heard. They said they hadn’t heard anything about it, and by the way, maybe they didn’t. I told them that I thought it was best that I leave, and we made the decision mutually that I’d leave. I usually don’t talk about this too often because it was such an awful time in my life, but the silver lining is that it forced me to do something that I really wanted to do.
I think there was a lot of time and energy spent on not being truthful about my life while I was an attorney so that when I went into real estate, I remember saying to myself, “I will never do that again.” If someone asks me what I did over the weekend, I will tell them. If I went on a date, who with, what kind of social activities.
That was my decision to be out at work. I then had to make a second decision — do I want to be out in front of my clients. And that was a harder decision for me and took a bit longer. You spend more time with your colleagues, so you really have a sense of them as people. With clients, there are a lot of new introductions. I told myself that the service I provide with a client has nothing to do with who I am as a person beyond being a service provider. I was wrong about that. I realized that I needed to trust my clients and invest in those relationships just as much as I was going to do at the office. Once I did that, I think my relationship with my clients deepened. I know they trusted me more because they saw I was sharing more with them. They shared about themselves with me.
A lot of people would say CRE is not an easy industry for a gay man. Even today, across the board, it’s not known for its diversity.
I chose commercial real estate because it was an entrepreneurial field that I was interested in. And it’s funny. I thought of it very simply. I thought, no one can fire me if I did that.
I agree with you, CRE is not diverse. In fact, I’m a founding member of the Diversity, Inclusionary and Belonging Executive Council at Cresa. As a firm, we are really trying to cast a wider net on inclusion in commercial real estate.
When I started in San Francisco, I was really surprised to see that there were no out gay brokers — zero. Which is incredible. So people would say, “Craig, yeah, he’s the gay one. He’s the gay guy.” Which is sort of funny when I think about it. To this day I can mention only a couple of out gay brokers that I’m aware of and they’re all much more junior than I am. I don’t know any other principal-level gay brokers in San Francisco.
Have you been able to mentor other LGBTQ people in real estate?
Last year we established an ERG called Prism. There were a couple people within Cresa who in essence came out because of that and I was able to talk them through their concerns about doing it. It made me feel great because these are people who are bright, promising and have since contributed to the company in a really big way.
Any advice to young LGBTQ professionals?
Above all else, you owe it to yourself to come out. The quality of your relationships will improve substantially once you do. Trust that people will want you to share who you are with them. If you trust yourself and you trust other people enough to bring your authentic self to work, you are going to attract lifelong deep rewarding relationships.