The Head of Investor Solutions at JLL in Hong Kong tells Edith Terry about the male-dominated world of construction and how her parents helped her understand that her genetic dwarfism could be an asset in life
Chicago-based Jones Lang Lasalle Inc. (NYSE: JLL) is known, like its headquarters in the “City of Big Shoulders,” for its sprawling size. A Fortune 500 company with operations in over 80 countries, 103,000 employees and 2022 revenue of $20.9 billion, in Hong Kong alone JLL employs 8,000 people and managed more than 400 properties across the Special Administrative Region, and is going on its 50th year in China.
Its Head of Investor Solutions, Jessica Chan, is a 15-year JLL veteran who moved to Hong Kong in 2015. An architect by training, the 39-year-old believes that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are key to the design of vibrant city spaces. We catch up with Jessica in the “QB Café” at the Hong Kong headquarters of JLL at Taikoo Place. Many of its 300 multinational tenants are also customers for JLL’s advisory services, and the QB Café, which serves as JLL’s main reception area, reflects the company’s values in transparency and inclusiveness.
Jessica comes by her perspective on DEI genetically. She was born with hypochondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. Her small stature is Jessica’s least defining feature, however. The daughter of first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong to the US, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 2002 with a degree in architecture, she plunged into construction, traditionally a male-dominated profession, and has never looked back.
“My passion for DEI very much influences why I think development and cityscape are very important. Cities in general are great places for people to come together with different ideas, with different incomes ad backgrounds to share an experience, and a big part of that is made up of infrastructure and building. And place making is something I wanted to be a part of, a very small part of, but a part of, and JLL does have that big tent.”
What I do
I’m assuming that point blank, most people don’t know what JLL does. The firm provides property advisory for clients in all phases. You have tenants who need help with their workplaces, whether it’s the actual space or the designer space, and use of space, and we help them develop and solidify their cultures, no matter how big they might be. We also work with another type of clients, investors and asset managers, which is what I cover here in Hong Kong. I’ve been with the firm so long, doing multiple roles, I know reasonably well how our firm operates and what kind of advisory services we can offer the clients, in a very broad stroke. My role is essentially to knit the firm together in approaching solutions for clients that are of the investor mindset.
Getting to know the construction “subbies”
My first job was in Washington, DC. I was the executive assistant to David Dempsey, the managing director who ran the construction arm of JLL in DC, and he gave me opportunities not just from a learning perspective, but also to experience and talk to the “subbies,” trades men and women and get a view on how things are built. I expressed to him very openly that I was using his role to grow more into the field that I had studied. I hadn’t studied architecture to be an executive assistant, but architecture is what opened the door for me at JLL in DC. So from there, he put me literally on-site. I was the construction administrator for a large, what we call base building project, to re-clad or reposition the building at 1801 K Street in the lobbying corridor in DC.
Of a team of eight individuals from JLL, there were two ladies and two administrators, but I realized that the difference between being an administrator and a construction manager is not much, and I knew that my career aspiration was to be able to work with really smart and innovative people, not defined by the white collar or blue collar, because in those roles, you actually work with all collars to build something that’s real.
At the end of the day, construction is construction. You might have a different approach, but how you build a high-rise building in Hong Kong is similar to the manner that you build one in New York. There might just be different steps between steps A and B. So this is why I chose what I do in JLL. I wanted to work with architects, but not necessarily be the architect. I respect architects for what they do and the creativity they impart, and vision, and design in itself. But I did not necessarily have the passion to do it.
“It’s actually quite magical”
I’m very tactile by nature, so what I enjoy and what I did my internships in at different architectural firms over the years at Cal, was more of getting very excited to go on site and talking to trades and learning how they fit within the bigger puzzle. There are trades from mill working to masonry to glazing to air conditioning, probably more than 25 to 50 trades that all come together at various points to do something big. I found it very interesting. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a male or female, to be able to be the coordinator of all those different individuals, because you’re pushing progress forward, by being able to look back at what you’ve done and where you’ve come from, but also how to plan for the future.
That’s essentially what project management, or construction management is, in a very high-level nutshell. So I thought, I really like that coordination, and there’s actually a profession out there that pays for one to organize individuals and places and people and information to do real estate, to basically develop something out of the ground. And it’s actually quite magical.
I wanted to always stay in the field, where I had grown my legs in what I do. People were very accommodating, meaning that, when you’re a female working in construction, you do have a very big bias there. But I think when people realize that you are smart, that you’re ambitious, and that you have the capability to be mentored, or to be taught, gentlemen in that field are very open to teaching about their careers. Having many mentors in the field has given me the courage to travel and to work in different markets.
He (David Dempsey) gave me an opportunity beyond just being his executive assistant. He gave me roles in project coordination, and from project coordination I moved up the ladder, and became an assistant construction manager, and then moved from construction management into project management. That’s essentially how my career has evolved, from construction management into project management.
Then I moved to New York, and New York is what gave me my legs to be brave. As they say, fast city, big city. You are with fast talking people who have very large personalities, but with large personalities and large budgets come very interesting experiences. If I were going to pick any person who was the biggest influence, it would be Jean Savitsky. She is a powerhouse in New York City. Now she leads real estate for the Museum of Modern Art. She was my mentor as I moved from New York to Singapore to here. She told me, do whatever you need to do to get to the top. The boys will help you, but you need to help yourself first. And the girls will help you, too. She was one of the girls.
Designing space from the bottom up
I want to think that having a personal difference wouldn’t have changed that pathway from a career viewpoint, but being unique also gave me a view on how people behave, but also how places are built for the masses.
Democratic space is a lofty word. Democratic space is physical but also emotional. And it’s safety in space, I think. Space that anybody can have access to, generally, and use it however they need. The space that we’re sitting in right now is our front reception lobby area, which we call the Quarry Bay Café, or QB Café for short, ad when you walk in, anybody can use this space. You and I are talking quite openly, and I’m not afraid to share my story, in an open café, even though anybody can come and listen in, just because of the culture we have at this firm.
I think it’s really important when you’re designing spaces, not to just design for people at the top. You want to design from the bottom to the top, and you also want to design spaces that are inclusive – not just of different disabilities or abilities, but inclusive in the way you share information as well as take into consideration what people want and how they work together as a company day to day.
Champion your differences
I wasn’t born into privilege, but I came into this world with a lot of opportunities and wide eyes, not necessarily on what is unjust per se, but what can be more just. My family is originally from Hong Kong, and both my parents did not come from wealthy families but put themselves through night school to become a classic middle-income family that one would aspire to in the 1980s. I was born in the US, and I am proudly American. They taught me that I might be different, but the differences are what make people sing, and being the same is actually kind of boring.
So they essentially gave me this inspiration to champion your differences, and you want to stand out so that you can do something in society that people will remember you by, not necessarily your titles or CV. So aside from the architecture and what you needed to do to make a living or make a job happen or make a career, I wanted to go into something that you can talk about very openly, especially in design, and design for inclusivity, for people with differences. Whether they are in a wheelchair, whether they are hearing or sight-impaired, whether you’re really tall or really short. Everything generally in the world is designed to be used as the average, but the average is actually very different depending on what society you go into and what is common.
My parents instilled into me that you always have to be curious. People may or may not understand, but Alex Barnes, who is the managing director here, said at the last town hall, “Always assume the best intent from people”. This is something I have often thought about, when people give you criticism, when people don’t invite you to something, when people make fun of you or are cruel in many different cultural ways. You have to assume maybe they just didn’t understand. Or maybe they didn’t even think of the words that were coming out of their mouths. Or they didn’t think about installing the light switch whether it might be too high or low.
If you want to be included, you need to be there. Obviously you need to be a little bit forward and invite yourself, whether it be a golf outing the firm has, or to drinks or dinner or client meetings. Nobody’s ever going to ask you whether or not you want to come. I think that generally, you need a little bit of a higher EQ, and that’s what my parents afforded me when I was younger. Not everyone’s going to be nice.
There aren’t a lot of people like me, which is cool. Before I used to think it was not scary, but unfair, but now I look at it as, I’m actually pretty lucky to have experienced that life that I’ve experienced to date, to have made the friends that I have now, and also have the family and the partners that I have now.
Outside work, Jessica volunteers both with the Urban Land Institute’s NEXT Committee to teach an elective course this fall at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on real estate regeneration, using the PMQ project in Central as a case study, and with The Women’s Foundation in a large-scale mentorship program to help put more women on boards.