A World of Opportunities
Shawana McGee launched her career and learned valuable life lessons by working abroad
Most people begin their journeys abroad by hopping on a plane and crossing an ocean. Shawana McGee’s (MBA ’07) unexpected route took her to Europe by way of the Wisconsin School of Business.
McGee, vice president of Colony NorthStar, a private equity firm in New York, never dreamed of an international career until traveling to China in 2007 with the real estate program within the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Program. There, she and her cohort explored real estate development and the experience opened her eyes to the possibility of pursuing a career in real estate abroad.
“Going to China and actually seeing how people were developing real estate in conjunction with urban planning and governmental policies and regulations was intriguing,” says McGee. “I remember thinking to myself that there was an opportunity there and that I could take it.”
McGee recently returned to the U.S. after working for three years in Luxembourg, where she relocated to help Colony NorthStar launch its European platform. She was responsible for U.S. and European portfolios.
“There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears during that period,” says McGee. “That’s a six-hour time difference between New York and Europe, so sometimes I’d take calls at midnight for the U.S. assets and still be at work at 9 a.m. because I had to take care of the European portfolio.”
McGee’s initial attraction to real estate was its ability to positively impact communities. While working in finance at EY in her hometown of New Orleans, one of McGee’s clients was a real estate development company. She was exposed to many urban revitalization projects that inspired her to pursue a career in real estate with a focus on financial engineering.
“They were turning a very unattractive, eyesore community into something the residents would feel proud of, something that would draw and attract businesses and contribute to job growth,” says McGee. “After seeing how those efforts could transform the environment I grew up in—and seeing how I could have an impact—I decided to go to grad school to transition from accounting to finance.”
—Shawana McGee (MBA, ’07),
Vice President, Colony NorthStar
While applying to graduate school, a friend suggested McGee contact Susan Chapman-Hughes (MBA ’98), who is a member of WSB’s Dean’s Advisory Board. Chapman-Hughes helped guide McGee in choosing a graduate program and also became a mentor.
“Susan’s very involved with the School and embodies the definition of what it means to be an alumna—giving back to others, instilling a spirit of paying it forward, and making a contribution based on what the university has done for its students,” McGee says. “That’s what she did for me.”
McGee’s day-to-day work in Luxembourg involved lease negotiations, property evaluations, and market trends, but while living abroad she managed to visit more than 20 countries. Weekend trips were a common occurrence. Every Friday, McGee would leave her office at the end of the day, walk to the airport across the street, and hop on a plane to a new city. After spending the weekend exploring, she would fly back Monday morning and be back in her office by the start of the work day.
The most important lessons McGee learned while living abroad were about balance.
“You learn so much about being a human being,” McGee says. “In America we think the harder we work, the more recognition and promotions we’ll get. What if that promotion never comes? Then you’ve missed out on a huge chunk of your life. In Europe, you can see in their corporate policies and their structuring that they really value taking time to enjoy life.”
After returning to New York, McGee says she carried with her what she learned in Luxembourg.
“I love the ambition in New York because I have a lot of drive,” McGee says. “But now I take a step back because it’s good to have balance. It’s important to take time off so that you can regroup and come back refreshed.”
McGee believes the value of her successful career comes in inspiring and creating opportunities for young professionals and students. Upon graduating from WSB, McGee and fellow alumnus and friend Matthew Reese (MBA ’07) established the McGee-Reese Scholarship at the School with the aim of attracting minority students to the real estate field.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about me,” says McGee. “It’s about who’s coming after me. That’s the way we make this world a better place. My legacy is not about building wealth, it’s about having a greater social impact.”