Jessica Brown’s earliest memories of real estate start when she was just a kid. Instead of heading home after soccer games, Brown would throw on boots and a hard hat. She’d tag along with her father, John McLinden of Centrum and now Hubbard Street Group, who took her on tours of the projects he was working on.
Her father instilled an appreciation and fascination with real estate—pointing out towering buildings in Chicago and telling her the stories behind them. Brown remembers touring redevelopment projects such as 600 West Chicago and the Montgomery Ward building.
“As a kid, and even now, I’ve always been attracted to the tangible aspect of real estate—seeing something come from an idea to reality. We’d go back and tour to see the progress, so I was involved in seeing the whole thing come to life. It went from an old, dumpy building and then all of a sudden it’s a high-end condo building. It really made me appreciate the process,” Brown said.
Brown is now vice president of leasing at Sterling Bay where she focuses primarily on retail and has worked for nearly three years. Before she started at Sterling Bay, the company had previously outsourced her position. But she said the company began to realize that bringing in someone to lease retail would help create a more cohesive neighborhood. Designating one person for that job helps keeps the company’s vision from getting muddled, Brown said, and she was excited to take on the challenge. She’s still blown away every morning when she heads into Sterling Bay’s office for her dream job.
“I’ve been here for a few years now and I have pictures on my phone from my walk to work every day. It’s amazing to look back and see how the streets have changed. Instead of meat packers there are moms with strollers, it’s a completely different neighborhood and that happened right in front of my eyes.”
One of Brown’s favorite projects was finding a short-term pop-up space for retailer, Mott50. The sun-protective apparel brand launched without any brick-and-mortar stores in 2011. They had done successful pop-up locations in the Hamptons and in California, but as a Chicago-based brand, Brown thought Fulton Market would be a great fit to test out a smaller format store. When Brown saw 160 N. Morgan St., she knew it was the perfect opportunity. It was an old bank from the 1970s that had plans for redevelopment, but in the interim Sterling Bay marketed it as a pop-up space.
Mott50 was hooked and quickly revamped the interior and painted one of the brands iconic patterns—giant avocados and palm leaves—over the building’s exterior. It attracted a lot of attention, got people in the store and helped educate new customers on what Mott50 offered. They also hosted group workouts, SoFar Sound concerts, yoga classes and kids’ fairs at the location. The pop-up ended in September after the retailer extended it another additional month.
Brown has always felt a connection to the retail sector, and during college did an internship in New York City with ELLE Magazine. She related to the industry as a consumer and was able to connect with the brand but didn’t feel that a magazine was the right fit.
After studying business and graduating from University of Wisconsin in Madison, where her father also went, she got her first job at CBRE working as an urban retail brokerage associate. She learned a lot at CBRE working on everything from high-end retail to industrial. CBRE had a robust training program and Brown worked frequently with Todd Siegal, a senior vice president at the company.
“From day one with him, he always referred to me as a partner and never an assistant. He took me to every single meeting and Sterling Bay was actually one of his clients,” Brown said.
When she got her first job at CBRE, the only opening was in the industrial sector but Brown knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She hustled to learn everything she could which led to work in other sectors. Brown wasn’t above any task and she learned first-hand how close-knit the real estate community was in Chicago.
“When you talk to someone in real estate, you can sense true passion. Almost everyone is excited when someone young gets into the business. Even if people don’t know you that well, they’re willing to give really meaningful advice,” Brown said.