By Seemal Saif, Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure
Salima Rawji couldn’t be in a better place right now. Her 505 Richmond project with Build Toronto was recently featured in The Globe and Mail and received a rave review, with the paper’s architecture critic writing that the project “breaks nearly every expectation.” It’s clear that she’s excited for what’s in store for her career and the City. The morning we met she had just tweeted “I love my job.”
Salima moved to Toronto from Vancouver 15 years ago and immediately felt that she would call the city home. She jokes that it took much longer for her mother to realize that Salima may never return to Vancouver because she had her heart set on Toronto.
Salima completed her undergraduate degree at UBC and went on to work in the arts industry at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre where she organized a summer festival series. She went on to complete an MBA at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
It was during her time at Rotman that she took a course in real estate development with Professor Mitch Goldhar, the owner of SmartCentres, a large real estate developer. The firm offered a two-year rotational program to students who were new to the real estate industry. This provided Salima, an emerging young professional, with a chance to enter the industry, learn about the different business areas and select a job function after her two years were complete.
Moving from the arts to real estate may seem like a dramatic shift, but Salima believes that a large creative component is also necessary to be successful in the real estate industry. She draws several parallels to her work at the Harbourfront Centre, especially her strong project management and planning skills.
In her present role as Vice President, Development, at Build Toronto, Salima is able to combine both her social and business skills. She finds it difficult to define a typical day as each day brings its own set of challenges and opportunities. A morning — which usually starts early for Salima — could involve sitting with community members or neighbourhood boards to understand the needs of the community. Salima may find herself in a board room with corporate executives, convincing them to buy into a vision or negotiating a land sale. She could also be in a councillor’s office discussing a new development.
Given all of her experience, I had to ask Salima what, in her view, is the biggest real estate challenge facing the City of Toronto. “We are progressing and moving forward at a very fast rate, and it is essential to ensure that we bring everyone along with us and design a city that works for all of us, not just for the privileged,” she says. Salima believes that we, as city builders, need to think about what a successful city needs. While we need to respect that our industry is a business, “at the end of the day we are all people and people are the ones that end up using a city,” she says.
“People need a certain set of functions for access to everyday services and to live a happy and fulfilled life. As an industry we really need to consider that,” she adds. We must rely upon city policy and collaboration to execute this.
At Build Toronto, Salima says she is in a very unique position with an organization that is not just profit-driven, but also embeds components of city building, such as sustainability, job creation, transit-oriented development and affordable housing, in its work. She is particularly proud of how seriously Build Toronto takes the community engagement process. Build Toronto’s entire approach to development is very different, as it’s able to reach a middle ground between the private and public sectors.
In Salima’s opinion, the most noteworthy way the real estate industry has changed over the years is that the view that land should be seen in silos is shifting. We once saw each asset class in its own lane, but as land supply became tighter, the industry was forced to think of land with a more layered approach, she says. Salima also believes collaboration is so essential because “the reality of business in a big city is also going to force us to become more collaborative.” Over the years, this change has also resulted in Salima’s expertise shifting from retail to mixed-use.
It’s hard for Salima to pick her favourite project. She finds her entire portfolio exciting and, in her view, each project that she has worked on across Toronto has something to offer.
Some of Salima’s strongest mentors have been the women she met at ULI Toronto. She believes the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) at ULI is a phenomenal group that has had a very strong influence on her.
Her advice to newcomers to the real estate industry is to get involved in industry events and volunteer for causes that they are passionate about. She agrees that this may sound cliched, but the knowledge and relationships that she has built by volunteering at various organizations is priceless. Being involved has been very rewarding and “brings a net positive benefit to your work,” she says.
Salima recalls how she joined the diversity fellow program of CivicAction and how it changed her perspective on city building. She says it helped her to find her tribe and meet other remarkable, like-minded people who were committed to seeing the Toronto Region succeed, both socially and economically. Later she co-chaired the Emerging Leaders Network and won the Metro Next Leadership Award.
She got involved with ULI Toronto in 2013 because she was craving a women’s network geared towards city building. She felt she did not see herself reflected in leadership roles until she discovered the WLI initiative at ULI. “[It had] such a profound impact on me and my career and it allowed me to contribute to the industry and get a first hand view of all the amazing work of ULI,” Salima says of her involvement.
Salima is currently chair of ULI’s Outreach Committee, which she believes is a great fit as it allows her to engage with both professional city builders and the community.
As a woman of colour, she feels her focus must be on doing great work. “Wanting to put forward really phenomenal projects is more relevant to me than being a woman of colour,” she says. While she agrees that women face challenges in the industry, Salima wants to put more of her energy into her work rather than dwelling on her gender and identity.
“The more projects we celebrate, the more great projects happen. It will become easier for those who follow,” she says.