Gelena is the Founder and CEO of Skya Ventures, Inc., a design centric Real Estate Development company building ground-up multi-family products in core infill areas of Los Angeles. Prior to founding Skya Ventures, she spent time working at major commercial real estate firms in Los Angeles. Gelena’s story is one of determination, hard work, and perseverance.
Tell people who you are and what you’re currently building.
I’m Gelena Skya-Wasserman and I’m currently building multifamily apartment buildings with a design-centric focus in Los Angeles and an RV park on the beach in Monterey.
Tell us about your journey from age 18 to now.
My parents are immigrants from Ukraine, and growing up, I was always told that “we came here for you and we gave up everything, so you are going to go to college and you’re going to make something of yourself.” It was instilled in my brain. After high school graduation, I headed off to UC San Diego, intending to pursue a career as a pediatrician because I loved kids. However, after taking one biology class, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
I’ve always been very interested in business. My dad was an entrepreneur himself, and he owned a clothing store called Workman’s Outlet. They sold streetwear clothing like Fubu, Adidas, the shoes with the big, thick, colorful laces, and other streetwear that was popular at the time. Growing up, I would go to the swap meets to sell shoes and clothing with him, so I decided to take on a business major. UC San Diego was a very analytical School and didn’t really have a major that fit exactly what I was looking for, so I created my own: communications and urban planning with a minor in economics.
I interned for a VP of Office Sales and Leasing at Colliers-International, one of the large brokerage firms in LA. When I left that internship I said that I would never be a broker. I formed a very close bond and a mentorship type of relationship with Roger, the VP that I interned for. When I left the internship, I was heading down a path where I had offers to do pharmaceutical sales at a few different big firms, and part of those offers entailed moving to Jacksonville, Florida. I was speaking with Roger, and he said, “You don’t want that job. Come partner with me.” I told him to make me an offer and we’ll go from there. The offer he made was nothing, financially, compared to the financial incentives and perks of the pharmaceutical offers. As I stood at the post office with both offers signed, I said to the man at the counter, “Which one do you think I should do?” He just told me to move along, and on a whim, I just decided to do real estate.
I’ve always been very interested in real estate. My plan was to do pharmaceutical sales so that I could make a certain amount of money that I could then invest in real estate and grow a small portfolio in Jacksonville, or wherever I ended up. I entered the market in June of 2008, and the market tanked, and everything changed. I worked really long hours trying to build my business—we were doing office sales and leasing primarily on the tenant side and with entertainment and tech clients (sidenote: Sean Rad was one of my clients and we represented him for a company he had prior to Tinder called Ad.ly). I had to get a second job waiting tables because when you’re a runner for a brokerage company you get paid a very small stipend, and then the rest is commission-based. That stipend went away for me when everything in the economy changed. I would go to work at 6:00 am, leave the office at about 5:45 pm, and then I would go start my waitressing job in Beverly Hills at 6:30 pm till midnight, then do it again the next day.
I did brokerage for seven years, and my goal had always been to purchase my own property, rehab it, and grow it. I had a client that had me do an industrial project that we rehabbed and repositioned as a creative office for entertainment companies. They gave me a lot of leeway on the project; I met with the general contractor, helped with the design, the layouts, assembling the land, and so forth. I really enjoyed that experience, and from that general contractor relationship that I made, he introduced me to a gentleman who owned several homes in West Toluca Lake, an area that was not on many people’s radar.
I went to go take a look at the house and the guy told me he’d sell it for $400,000–which I didn’t have. I was finally starting to make good money in brokerage and my husband and I barely qualified for a loan of $300k to acquire the house. The seller carried the other $100k as a lender who was in second position to the first lender.
The bank underwrote it as an income property, so I had to make this dilapidated house appear habitable. So when the appraisal time came about, I staged the home. I put carpets over the holes in the ground, and where there was no tile in the bathrooms, I laid down tile, and the appraisers thought the house was beautiful. That moment taught me what design can do to people’s perception. We just staged it with plants and furniture and made it feel welcome. And it appraised for $165,000 dollars more than I paid for it. So right at that moment, I made money on the buy and that’s so critical in real estate. I think your money is really made upfront versus on the sale as most people believe because that’s uncertain.
Then, everything that could go wrong with that house went wrong. Everything.
When I purchased that home, I didn’t even know how to lay down a tile or hammer a nail into a wall. I knew absolutely nothing. Another very important lesson is: know who you’re working with. I worked with the general contractor from the industrial job and spoke with a lot of his subcontractors. A lot of them said that he doesn’t really pay on time and his money is kind of funny. So I did a full background check on him and he had several bankruptcies. He’s a great contractor, but just not a great businessman. Luckily, I paid all the subcontractors directly, because halfway through the project, I learned that the contractor was declaring bankruptcy. Because I paid all of the subcontractors directly, his bankruptcy did not impact my project as I controlled the money.
I was terrified every day of that project because the costs were mounting. It was unbelievably stressful, but eventually, the house was completed and was featured in the LA Times as the “Home of the Week.” We sold the house for about $1.2 million and ended up buying the lot next door. We had so much interest in the first house that we bought the lot next door and pre-sold it to the second-highest bidder of the first house–which I still regret doing because we probably left $200,000 on the table by doing that. That area exploded afterward.
We then bought a few more lots and another house. Later, I came across an off-market church, comprised of two lots across the street from each other. They wanted $1.3 million and I put it under contract for $900,000. I then assigned the piece across the street to somebody else for $500,00. So my basis into the deal was $400,000. I stole it. We ended up building nine units on it, and it was not an easy build. Then I bought another church, and we’re nearly done building 21 units there. All of these properties were purchased in areas that my lender didn’t even want to lend in, but I knew there was something there because I had really studied the markets. For date nights, Keith and I will go to a new area, check out which restaurants are going in, and talk to the people that have lived in those neighborhoods to get the inside scoop.
Since then, I have bought several more projects. I have a 92-unit, ground-up development that I’m doing in East Hollywood, close to the nine-unit project I did. We also have a 93-unit apartment building we rehabbed, which was vacant when we bought it, a 60 unit in Northeast Los Angeles that I bought in 2016 and fully renovated, a 33-unit, 151-bed co-living project I am currently entitling, a 21-unit ground-up that is almost completed in Northeast Los Angeles, as well as several others in the pipeline.
What advice do you have for women trying to break through the glass ceiling in their careers?
I would say don’t worry about what you do not know. You will learn as you go. I personally am very conservative every time I look at a deal. I look at it from the perspective of what can go wrong. That’s how I underwrite my deals. I’ve noticed that men will raise their hands for anything. They may not even know what they’re volunteering for or have never done it, but women will not do that. They won’t do that, because they think “I don’t know how to do that, and I’m not going to volunteer myself until I’ve prepared myself and I have all the experience.” Forget that. If you want something and you want to do something, whether you have the experience or not, volunteer. Raise your hand.
How do you think about mentorship?
I really think it’s all about your network. If you don’t have anyone in your orbit that can guide you, direct, you, or answer a question, then you’re shooting in the dark. Not everyone’s going to pick up the phone and cold call someone and say, “Hey, this is what I’m interested in. Can I have 5 minutes of your time? I’ll buy you coffee.” I would do that, but not everyone’s the same way. I don’t think everyone is going to have a mentor. Their situation just might not make it possible. People get so focused on finding a mentor and who that person is going to be. Forget that. Pick up the phone, type up the email, send in that call, and don’t be discouraged if they don’t respond right away. I get tons of emails on this front and I try my hardest to respond to as many as I can, but there’s just too many and I can’t respond to them all. Stay persistent, ask as many questions as possible, and don’t worry so much about having a formal mentor. Become the mentor you envision. You are your biggest asset.
How do you think about overcoming obstacles?
Just keep pushing through them until you overcome them. I view obstacles as a wall, and I’m just charging at it. I’m going to keep hitting it until it turns to dust. I don’t stop.
What is your vision for the future of your career?
I envision providing alternative housing options that are geared more towards the problems that we have today, such as childcare, education, health, and loneliness. I don’t think housing needs to look the way that it does today. I believe in a future where you can have an apartment building that you have partial ownership in. I believe in apartment buildings that are geared towards families with young kids with daycares, packaged childcare services such as babysitting, parent’s night outs, and in-house pediatricians. I believe in co-living models for people of all ages and a senior housing model that is more personalized and humane than what we have today.
I also believe that housing doesn’t need to take as long to build as it does. Prefab is already available. You could build the same exact apartment building off-site and bring it in pieces and be done with it in three to six months, instead of the 20 months it’s taking us. That’s possible, but the code, the planning, the zoning, and all the politics and bureaucracies don’t allow for that.
The short answer is, I believe in changing certain models of housing that we have today, and that’s my future career path.
Is there a book, podcast, or movie, that was really impactful in your career?
This may sound cliche, but Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. I was 15 when I read that, and the only things that I knew at the time were from my parents. They worked unbelievably hard—really long hours. They never gave up. They were really resilient. I thought that’s just how it was: you worked really hard, you got what you got, and you didn’t complain. Rich Dad, Poor Dad opened my eyes to the idea that you could have passive income. I never even knew what that was. No one taught me that. It wasn’t in my world. That book really changed my perspective of what kind of life I could have and what a career for me could possibly look like—it didn’t have to be the same model that my parents had.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from your career so far?
Do not be afraid of all that you do not know. Be patient, and remember, you will never regret a deal you didn’t do. You may, however, regret a deal that you DID do. Lastly, time and inflation are your best friends. Never sell.
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