Toward socially and environmentally responsible real estate

Peggy Ghasemlou is earning a master of science in real estate development (MSRED
Peggy Ghasemlou is earning a master of science in real estate development (MSRED) from the School of Architecture and Planning’s Center for Real Estate. Credits : Credit: Jodi Hilton
Formerly an architect and mentor to young women in Tehran, master’s student Peggy Ghasemlou now aims to promote sustainability and green investing in real estate development.

The MIT student of popular imagination is a Tony Stark or a Riri Williams working in a lab and building the technology of the future. Not necessarily someone studying real estate.

Peggy Ghasemlou is doing just that, however, and she’s traveled over thousands of miles and jumped through about as many hoops to do it.

A licensed architect in her hometown of Tehran, Iran’s capital, Ghasemlou enrolled at MIT to pursue her interests in sustainability and inclusion in the fields of architecture and real estate development. Now, after managing visa and travel issues that required her own superhero-like determination, she’s halfway through earning a master of science in real estate development (MSRED) from the School of Architecture and Planning’s Center for Real Estate (CRE). This fall, she will be working with lecturer Jacques Gordon, CRE’s former "executive-in-practice," on a thesis involving portfolio management.

Throughout her time at MIT, Ghasemlou has enjoyed her program’s balance of economics, technology, sustainability, and design. She says the curriculum has supported and challenged her in equal measure, but above all, she appreciates the program’s emphasis on financial, social, and environmental responsibility.

"I’m so grateful that I chose MSRED, because they are not just thinking about how to make more money," she says. "They are teaching us about how to make a lasting positive impact."

It hasn’t been an easy journey. Visa issues, scholarship rejections, and thousands of miles stood between her and MIT, and the challenges didn’t end when she did get to campus, halfway around the world from her home and family. She beat all those odds, however, and is ready for whatever the future brings.

"When I first arrived here, I had three main feelings: relief, hope, and doubt," she said. "Now, I am just feeling grateful for my time here and the friendships I have made."

From design to ownership

While growing up, Ghasemlou loved design "from the start." That affinity led her to pursue a bachelor’s in architectural engineering, followed by a master’s in digital engineering with a focus on sustainability.

She first made serious contact with MIT while pursuing her master’s, taking the Institute’s online courses to help her with her thesis on zero-energy buildings. She chose both the thesis and the classes out of a desire to "do something positive and impactful" and learned how to use tools to optimize a building’s energy efficiency, among other important measures.

After she earned her master’s, she spent the next five years designing and developing residential buildings for a studio in Tehran. The experience sparked her interest in the financial side of architecture and real estate, and along with it, the intersection of sustainability, economics, and design - areas encompassed by MSRED’s curriculum.

She decided to apply, and was also awarded the Goldie B. Wolfe Miller Women Leaders in Real Estate scholarship.

"The Goldie Initiative is the most supportive community," she says. "They’re the best thing that’s happen[ed] to me in the U.S. They really care about you, and they really want, in their heart, to help you."

With women underrepresented in the real estate fields, particularly at leadership levels, awards like this emphasize both the progress that has been made as well as the work that is yet to be done. In Tehran, Ghasemlou founded Girls in Real Estate Development (GIRD), to introduce the fields of architecture and real estate to young women and help create career pathways for these traditionally male-dominated professions.

"I really love to see women being in decision-making positions and to be able to influence different industries in meaningful ways," she said. "Whatever I learn, I try to [pass along to the next generation]. It might have a small impact on them, but I tell them, ’If I can do it, you can do it.’"

Once she made it to MIT for her first semester, she took finance and economics courses, which were new subjects for her. Adjusting to a new environment was also jarring, but she credited her classmates and professors for being "incredibly supportive" and helping her "not feel so isolated."

Her second semester featured sustainability courses - a friendlier prospect, given her background in design - and helped point her in the direction of sustainable portfolio management for her thesis topic.

However, enrolling at MIT was one thing.

The long and winding road

Rewind back to last summer. Once the excitement of being accepted to the MSRED program wore off, reality set in. Like other international students, Ghasemlou had to apply for a visa. She did so through the U.S. embassy in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and began the waiting game. Days turned into weeks, however, so she decided to try her luck with a different embassy and packed her bags for Toronto.

With the start of classes only weeks away, she made the decision to wait it out in the Canadian metropolis. She ended up having to take online classes during the beginning of the semester, but right on the day she "lost all’hope," her visa was finally issued.

In Ankara, that is.

She had already flown over 6,000 miles just to get from Tehran to Toronto, and she was now staring down the barrel of a 10,000-mile-plus trip to go back to Turkey for her visa and then get to MIT’s campus, all while the semester was kicking into gear. That may have been too daunting a prospect for some, but not for her.

"I calculated the hours I was in the airport and airplane: over 30 hours," she said. "I arrived in Boston, I remember, at 11:30 p.m., then I just thought, ’Tomorrow, I should go to my classes.’"

Luckily, her family supported her throughout the process.

"I’m so thankful for my parents and my brother - especially my brother - because he believes in me all the time," she said. "That really helped me go through all the hard times I had to go through to be here."

Now that she is here, she’s got a lot of big ideas for the future of housing, sustainability, and real estate. She’ll be spending the summer with a Boston-based nonprofit called Preservation of Affordable Housing, assessing units for sustainability goals and updating sustainability criteria.

Going forward, she expressed an interest in staying in Boston long-term, noting its potential to join other cities in becoming "one of the leaders in sustainability." She’s a believer in policy for effective change-making, and cites New York City’s Local Law 97 (LL97), which requires that large buildings meet certain limits regarding energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, as an example of a law that is "not just a policy" but also makes people think about the city around them.

Ghasemlou also aims to continue to support other women in the real estate fields, and expresses admiration for female industry leaders such as Fidelity’s Suzanne Heidelberger.

"When I see successful women in this industry, I feel inspired and proud of them," she said. "I really want to see more and more female leaders in the industry."