Success stories - women in real estate: episode 11

16 August 2023

In episode eleven of our women in real estate podcast series, associate Georgia Krell sits down with Hattie Walker-Arnott, owner and founder of AI-RE, an innovative company using artificial intelligence to support eclectic real estate projects.

Georgia and Hattie discuss challenges in setting up a business, including those often unique to women, such as:

  • thriving in a male dominated industry;
  • women’s networks and support systems; and
  • advice for young women in real estate.


Clare Breeze: Our next guest to join us on our women in real estate podcast series is Hattie Walker Arnott. Hattie set up her own business: AI-RE, pronounced “air” last year, which uses artificial intelligence to support eclectic real estate projects. Hattie's background in development management at JLL, combined with her passion for technology and innovation, inspired her entry into this new and exciting sector within the real estate group. Here she is in conversation with Georgia Krell, an associate in our Commercial Real Estate Group.

Georgia Krell: Thank you very much, Claire. I'm Georgia Krell, I'm an associate in the real estate department. Hi Hattie, thank you very much for agreeing to come and speak to me today on our women in real estate podcast. We met quite recently, at the investment property forum conference and you were helping to deliver a session on the future of artificial intelligence in real estate. You obviously own your own business within that space, and I thought you represented a really fresh and exciting new chapter within the real estate industry, so I'm thrilled that you've agreed to come and chat to me. So, let's begin with your background, what is your professional background and your career in real estate to date prior to your current role?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Of course, thank you Georgia for having me and thank you for a very kind introduction. My background is as a commercial surveyor, so, I trained at JLL in commercial, mainly development. So I ended up in a really interesting team actually at JLL, which was within the central London investment team, but we did all sorts of mixed use development, we did over station Crossrail developments, we worked on Cross Rail II, which I'm not imagining we'll see the sight of anytime soon, and I also got to some fun things like lots of hedge lease regears, which I'm sure you've touched on in your legal profession. So, I spent about five or six years in the end at JLL, before I had the opportunity to be seconded to Great Portland Estates. So that's a central London developer, Office developer. First of all, I would say to anyone, secondments are such a wonderful way to give another role or another company a try, so I do really recommend people go for it if they have the opportunity. There I was working mainly in the investment team, so looking at buying and selling development sites, or buildings for GPE, but it was when I was there, I again, was really lucky to meet a man called James Pellatt who runs their innovation team, and I actually got almost seconded within my secondment - I got to go and work with him. And James was really pushing for tech in commercial real estate way before; he was really one of the very early adopters, early investors, so GP invests in tech, as well as uses it. He just completely opened my eyes to that side of the industry, which I hadn't really seen before. One thing I would say about James, and in the context of women in our industry, and the lack of female representation, he was an incredible supporter; he really took the time to explain all of these new tech concepts to me, to really make sure that I felt like I knew what was being talked about. I think that for any man listening to this, you're in a wonderful position of influence to be able to help women and bring them up with you and so, James was one of those people for me, and again, I just, I feel so lucky that I got a chance to work with him. Then that, as I say, opened my eyes to tech, and so I decided to go and work in a prop tech business and I stayed there on the tech side for a couple of years but then two things became quite clear to me: first of all, I actually really did miss the development side; the work that I did was really interesting and complex and had so many different moving parts and so I wanted to get back into that, but also, while I was at that tech business, I started to see the potential of AI, and particularly why it could work so well for real estate. And that led me to start AI-RE.

Georgia Krell: I can really see that trajectory, sort of starting from a quite a traditional development management background moving on to current prop tech and then how that is a very clear path towards what you're currently at the forefront of and, it’s also interesting what you say about a mentor, and perhaps we'll come back to that maybe a bit later on and how that's been important to you sort of developing your own business. But that leads me neatly on to my next question, which is, how did you come to want to set up your own business? And what's going on at AI-RE today?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: So it really was a natural evolution, I think I would have taken a development manager role if I could have found one where I could also spend a significant amount of my time learning, and that's really what I've spent the last year doing, is, I've done a number of courses around AI, I've been learning to code, and I think it's something that is really missing in the prop tech industry; there are not enough proper property people, and I think maybe property people don't think that they have something to add, but actually, from my perspective, the best prop tech business is one that has both proper property people and tech people. Really just a natural progression that I couldn't see the role for me where I could both do work on development, but also work in tech and learn about tech, about AI specifically. And, so, I decided to do it myself.

Georgia Krell: I think that idea about proper property people (which is a bit of a tongue twister), then sort of developing new skill sets within tech and AI, that's interesting, because it feels to me that's the proper way to utilise AI; to actually inform and symbiotically improve the property business rather than those two things existing sort of in parallel and not really interacting properly. Is there anything specific that you're doing at AI-RE today, any projects that we're working on that you might want to share with us?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: So, at the moment, we've got two parts of the business. So, the majority is development management, so I'm working on some really interesting, mixed-use regeneration, and then the other part at the moment is AI education for real estate professionals and businesses. So, whether that's, as I say, I run a podcast, which is called Property 3.0, and that is all about me capturing these things that I've been learning over the last year and translating them into their potential uses for real estate. I run lectures and seminars and things like turning up at the IPF conference to help. Really my main aim is just to get property people thinking and talking about AI, and then as well, doing CPD sessions for real estate businesses.

Georgia Krell: Fascinating, I mean, your session at the IPF conference definitely had that impact on me. The various examples that you gave - the architect's drawing as the one that stands out most vividly in my mind - that you asked Chat GPT, or one of the other AI models, to produce some drawings of a mixed-use scheme and within three seconds, you had four different options, which might have taken an architect's firm days to deliver.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Yeah, if not weeks. So that was a programme called Midjourney. So, all of the large language modules, so chat GPT, they have what's called an overlay, an image generator on top of them, and Chat GPT’s one is called Darley. Midjourney is an exceptionally good one for just creating images that are really beautiful in their own right, and you can literally just type in “please create a building at this” (that event was at a Hilton Hotel, on the river) so I said, “please show me four designs of a Hilton hotel,  clad in wood, with foliage, and a rooftop garden with trees”, or whatever, and within seconds, it produces all these different options. The thing that gets me so excited there is that the process of designing buildings is obviously so iterative, and it takes a long time and if we can just, you know, really quickly in one meeting spin through loads of different options. Now, at the moment, they don't have any of the detailed design behind them. We don't yet have any systems, which can also include all the rights, the lights and the planning and all the kinds of other restrictions that go… what's the word…constraints, that go into a development, but, for just getting people to think of the art of the possible, it's amazing.

Georgia Krell: Yeah, I completely agree. Moving back slightly to your business, and setting up that business specifically, and you mentioned before about the importance of having James Pellatt who was sort of a mentor to you. How easy or challenging has it been to set up your own business, especially within such a male dominated industry as real estate is? And have you felt supported, encouraged? Obviously, people like James have been very supportive.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Yeah, incredibly.

Georgia Krell: But you presumably also have some challenges to overcome as well.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Yes, I think, I would actually say I do feel lucky, I haven't had any major hurdles – yet! I also do recognise, obviously, I am a woman, but I'm also a white, public school educated woman. So, I appreciate that I have a huge amount of things in my favour. The great thing about places like JLL and GPE is that, I definitely didn't realise when I was there, was that it creates the most amazing network of people that you build good relationships over the years, and all of the work that I do at the moment has come from people that I've worked with historically. You know, maybe it's not someone that I actually directly, because, you know, they're still at GPE or JLL, but they've said, ‘Oh, yes, this person needs someone on this development scheme, and they’re struggling with the modelling or struggling with this’. It's a fantastic industry, actually, for that I would say, for making those connections. I would say the thing that is most challenging, and especially when it's a business which has two very clear halves, is knowing any one day where to spend your/my energy. So again, I think we don't realise when you're in a firm, you know what you have to do that day, you know what work is coming in, you know, if you want to be promoted, you kind of know the steps that you need to do, the things you need to achieve to get there and it's quite difficult, sometimes thinking, “okay, I've spent half a day or a day or a week focusing on this project” and particularly when I'm looking at AI and having a go at building tools myself, which may well be useless and then it's very easy to think, “oh, I spent a whole week doing something but I could have done something else”. but I think that's just the nature of business and it's something I'm coming to terms with a bit and, as long as I'm doing things that are interesting, and I'm learning …

Georgia Krell: And you're learning on the job, how to do it.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Exactly. Yeah, majorly!

Georgia Krell: That does sound daunting and it also sounds like something that's right for you, especially if you've set up your own business, and it's your baby, it's probably very easy to spend as much time as possible on work, and you know, making sure that you have the balance between work and private life is probably more challenging than when you just work for an organization and there's sort of that division of church and state that is a bit clearer.

You mentioned about the sort of informal networks that you’ve benefited from your previous jobs - are you part of any formal women’s networks or women’s initiatives within the real estate sector?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Yes, so one, which is might seem a bit off the wall is an organisation called ‘pedElle’,  which is part of Club Peloton, and Club Peloton is the company that runs Cycle to MIPIM and well pedElle has been around for something like 15 years, so back then, they were seeing that in the cycling world, within real estate, you had even more of an imbalance between the men and the women. So, they started pedElle, which is an annual women's only ride, and they started that to get women into long distance cycling with a view that hopefully you would do that, build your confidence and then move on to cycle to MIPIM or they do loads of different rides across the industry, and they are amazing networking events.  So for me, I did pedElle in 2018 and I was basically completely new to road cycling and I loved it and met just the most amazing, interesting group of women; you'll go out for a ride and you're with developers, investors, architects, engineers, lawyers, you know, all aspects of the industry are represented there and five years later, I'm still in touch with them, we have a very active Whatsapp group and there's always people kind of asking questions, like ‘can you point me towards …’, The other day I needed a planner for quite a niche planning question and I went to that group and came back with six or seven different options of people I can go and have a conversation with. So, that for me, has been the most powerful group. I appreciate it is a bit niche, but I would recommend that anyone who is even potentially inclined and thinking about getting into cycling, check out pedElle.

Georgia Krell: I do love the idea of such a specific niche within the real estate world, but having said that, what I can imagine being a bit more invigorating than in a normal sort of networking set scenario, is that you're doing a sport together; there's a shared activity and that's actually quite refreshing from just sort of a drinks event where people are talking shop, it's actually you've got  this whole other world that you're engaging with together, but also that can then relate back to your real estate interests, which is quite interesting.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Yeah, for sure.

Georgia Krell: Real estate industry more broadly, what characteristics do you think that a person/a young woman needs to have to work in the real estate industry, especially within AI, the new frontier within that industry?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: So, one thing that I really actually wish that we could see more of, and I hope we will see more of is a willingness to try and explore different options, and if you have an idea, give it a go! And it's a problem that I've seen for a long time in the real estate industry, obviously, when we're dealing with, first of all, very expensive, and also very permanent things, ie buildings there's a tech approach, which is the Mark Zuckerberg ‘move fast and break things’. You can't just  chuck a building up, see if it works, and then go, ‘oh, no, this was not actually that great, let's, let's tear it down and try another one’  we absolutely cannot do that, but I think that may have led to us as an industry being a little on the risk averse side and an interesting example, I have  on one site that I'm working on at the moment: we are looking to build some kind of community centre/public square/essential hub to this scheme, and rather than just saying to the architect “let's go and design something”, our aim is to use the space prior to the scheme being developed, to use the meanwhile use as effectively a research bed, and be able to test different things, test different programs with the local community and see what really engages people. And then, when we go and actually build the building, we can really make sure that that is something that works well for the local community and reflects what people want and what they've proven to us over the years or months leading up to it, really grabs people's attention.

Georgia Krell: That's really clever, the testing it out beforehand and as you say, it's not something we necessarily always get the opportunity for within real estate because of the nature of the asset class and assets and sort of tangibility, but if you've got the opportunity, you're absolutely right, or willingness to try and just to see.

Turning more specifically, to gender issues within real estate, do you think that companies within the real estate sector and you've worked for quite a few and you obviously come across quite a few in your line of work-do you think they're doing enough generally for gender diversity/equality within the industry?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: I think we can't talk about the industry really, as a whole, I think there's some people who are doing incredibly well, and some people who are maybe, still room for improvement. So, an example, an organisation where  I know a number of the senior executives relatively well, and they, about t a year ago, they were looking to hire a new development manager, they put this job out on LinkedIn, and had got something like 20 or 30 responses and they came to me and said, “you know Hattie, we've only had applications from white men and maybe it is the case that at the moment that those are the only people who are currently available and interested in this job, but is there anything you can you help us?’ and I just sent it out to a couple of people that I knew who might be interested and I put it on some WhatsApp groups. So, it's easy, it's not  a difficult thing and they got five or 10 more applications from a more diverse group and I think what's really important - two things to note first of all, that that organisation was aware enough to think, huh, maybe we could be looking for some more applicants, whereas I think a lot of people would say, “we've had 30 applicants, there must just not be any women who want this job”. and I think that clearly that organisation is doing really well at it, kind of seeking out women, but I think that other organisations may well need to try a bit harder to go beyond that next step, and actually a friend of mine called Faith Locken, who's also a surveyor  by background, but she runs an organisation called We Rise In, which is about elevating black professionals, mainly in the real estate industry, but she's now expanding into other industries, who are kind of mid levels in their career into senior positions. So that's kind of the core of her business and she does a lot of training for real estate organisations and does things like reverse mentoring programs, but she's actually had people come to her, again, with that same issue and say “we've just had applicants who just all look the same. Can you help us to go and find some more people?” And she's said, “Yes, I've got a contact list that’s as long as my arm”, there is the talent there, but at the moment, I think it's still down to the individual real estate companies having to go out and actively find it and if you're not one of those companies who's doing that, then you might well just sit back and say, “Well we tried, put it on LinkedIn”.

Georgia Krell: I agree that I think good work being done, definitely room for more, but what's heartening is that there are businesses, there are ways out there of trying to redress the balance of it. That's heartening. I think we've covered most of the questions I was going to ask you, and you've spoken very eloquently about your background and current work and the sector as a whole. Clearly, you've achieved a lot already, despite being relatively young, so I just thought to round off, I'd ask you what's your most important piece of advice that you'd give to anyone, but especially a younger woman, trying to start a career in the real estate industry?

Hattie Walker-Arnott: I think this might seem a bit, again, specific, but my advice to young women would be to save your money. And generally, people invest, and women will invest less. The reason why that's so important to me, is because, the reason why I could go and work at a startup - quite often with startups, your salary will be really low, but you'll get equity options and things like this - and I was able to take a massive pay cut, I think I was getting paid a third or something of what I was pre startup, and I was able to take that because I had saved enough money from my previous roles. I was willing to take that pay cut because particularly with that startup, the founding team was an incredible founding team and I knew I would learn so much from each of them and so I saw it as a learning opportunity and again, there's one other startup that I helped for a period where I didn't get paid anything and again, I was like, “Well, I have the freedom because I have been fortunate enough through these jobs that I've had previously to save a bit of a…”

Georgia Krell: Safety blanket.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: A safety blanket.

Georgia Krell: I think that's a really unusual but an excellent piece of advice. Thank you very much for your time today, Hattie. It's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, and I've certainly learned a lot.

Hattie Walker-Arnott: Thank you for having me.

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