This is Tracey Velt, Editor of Publications for REAL Trends. We partnered with QuantumDigital to give you a peek into the secret lives of real estate where we pull back the curtain to share the personal passions, philanthropic efforts, community spirit, and industry insights from real estate industry leaders, trendsetters, and legends. Today, we’re talking to Al Zoubi, a broker associate with Baird & Warner Real Estate in Chicago, Illinois. Al, thanks for joining me today. And like most successful real estate professionals, you had to start somewhere. So, tell me a little bit about how you got into real estate.
Al: Thank you again, Tracey. I actually didn’t know much about the world of real estate before. I was a full-time structural engineer and came to a point where I felt I needed to change my career. I have had a mentor since college. He’s a very successful businessman, and I consulted him with my options. He asked me about what I was looking for, so I answered a career where I can be more around people and help people directly. I also told him that I want a career where I can have full control of my growth, a career that feels like starting my own business. He said I should be in real estate, and here I am.
Tracey: Great, great. And tell me a little bit about your specialty.
Al: My specialty before is in structural engineering, and right now, I’m just a real estate broker. I’m with Baird & Warner Chicago. I’m all about making a deal happen, serving my clients and helping them achieve their goals. So I don’t put a range for the price. I don’t specialize in buying or selling. As long as there is a deal there that I can help my clients get, I’m all in for it.
Tracey: Okay. Great. So I know you have a very interesting story, so tell me a little bit about what you went through to escape Syria. Tell me a little bit about your background coming to America.
Al: Growing up in Syria in a poor family was a real challenge to begin with, yet I have always been ambitious and optimistic. And when the war started, I was a junior in Damascus University pursuing my degree in structural engineering. I realized at that point that I needed a plan to escape the war so I just started applying to schools in the United States. And I was lucky enough to get admitted to Illinois Tech in Chicago with a very generous scholarship, and that’s how I came here in January of 2013. Growing up in Syria is just like growing up in a small country. It’s not as international as here in the United States. We all speak the same language. We all look the same. We all eat the same food. It was nice. I’m originally from the south part of the country, but I grew up in Damascus, the capital, which is just a beautiful city that combines the old part with the ruins that go back thousands of years old and the new part of the city. And to be honest with you, it was great. I always had dreams to explore more and go outside the country and study abroad. But these plans didn’t come true until the war started, which has affected me on a personal level and my family. It was really hard to go to college because of all the risks that are included with just going actually there. And it also affected my parents’ jobs, and it was really tough. So it was kind of the point that I started thinking seriously that I need a plan for escaping.
Tracey: Absolutely. So you came to the United States to get an education, and then you stayed. Have you applied for citizenship? And tell me a little bit about your schooling and how you ultimately decided engineering wasn’t your thing.
Al: Okay, so, yes, after being admitted to Illinois Tech, I transferred and got my degree in structural engineering with a 3.82 GPA. And regarding citizenship, I pursued my green card, which I’m still waiting for. So, I’m not actually a citizen yet, my application for permanent residency is pending right now, which is by itself is a concern, because you don’t really know what is next for you, which could be a really challenging for a lot of people, that you don’t know what the future has for you. But I always have been the kind of person that just has a blind faith, I’m optimistic, and I go for it. So, after graduation from Illinois Tech, I started working full-time, and I did that for a couple of years before I suddenly realized that my passion for math and engineering in school is different from the day to day tasks working full time as a structural engineer. Doing structural engineering and crunching numbers in front of my computer screen for nine hours a day wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So, I wanted a more exciting career, and real estate is one for sure.
Tracey: Absolutely. So, I know you don’t have any family in the United States, so how did you generate customers and real estate?
Al: That’s true. I did everything can be done to generate clients. Since I don’t have family here as you mentioned, I didn’t grow up here either, I didn’t have the luxury of having referrals from family and friends. So, I had to do everything to generate clients, from open houses, to cold calling, to door knocking. All I had were my smile and passion for my new career. It all paid off this year, 2017 is my first full year in the business. I started April of 2016, so it’s been a year, and now it’s June, and I’ve done 15 transactions, closed transactions, I have closed $3 million in sales so far, and I have $1.5 million pending transactions. I also have $1 million worth of inventory and some clients in the pipeline are actually aiming for an $8 million in sales by the end of this year.
Tracey: Wow. Sounds like you work very hard. So, I know real estate can be a challenging career. So, what do you find to be the most challenging part of running your real estate career?
Al: Generating clients for sure. At least for me, in the beginning. And business was really tough in the beginning. I also, to be honest with you, learned a lot from being in this business, like time management, patience, communication skills and being able to run a business because it’s really my own business. We have to act as the CEO, the CFO, I had to understand how to manage my time between generating business and serving business, serving clients, and that was the challenge in the beginning, but as I went further, I definitely have improved so much so far.
Tracey: Great. And as you know, real estate is all about building relationships. So, I’m sure you’ve met some interesting and inspiring connections along the way. You mentioned one mentor in your life. So, tell me some of the people who really inspired you, who changed your perspective or impacted you in some way.
Al: That’s so true, Tracey. I have always believed in building relationships and having mentors. Plus, in addition to the mentor that I had in college, which is still my mentor, who advised me to move into real estate, the moment I joined Baird & Warner, I asked my manager about who could mentor me, based on my vision and goals. My manager introduced me to one of the top producers in the company, Sheila Doyle. I was so determined to gain her trust and do anything to learn from her since I’m sure she was like, and she’s so busy all the time. So, I’ll tell you what, Tracey. I don’t think I would have been able to be at this level without her. She taught me a lot about the business and guided me in the right direction. But more so, she inspired me. She taught me how to keep a positive attitude regardless and how to keep my mindset at the very top. And I will tell you this, this was a key to keep the level of production I have right now.
Tracey: That’s great. It’s always good to have someone like that in your life. So tell me what motivates you every day. What drives you to do what you do?
Al: Basically, success, challenge and recognition. Having to provide my family, who stayed back home, financially was a big obstacle when it comes to moving to a career in real estate where income is merely commission based. However, I wanted to live the American Dream and to pursue happiness. I believed in myself, so did my family back home and my American girlfriend. So I decided just to do it and take the challenge to gain success and recognition. And I wake up every morning with a goal in front of me that I’m going to make in this business, not only for me but also for all the people who care and love me.
Tracey: That’s great. So in your career– I know you’ve only been in real estate for a year, but did you have that aha moment? Maybe it wasn’t in your real estate career. Maybe it was before your real estate career. Kind of the moment you realized you needed to change your career, or you better have a plan in place, or change your business model, or do something differently.
Al: That’s very true. In my business career, in structural engineering, driving to work every morning, kind of going to do something I know how to do well but not so passionate about it, and I’m a very passionate person. I love to be happy about what I do. And every morning, driving to work I– one time, I just– one morning I was listening to a YouTube motivation about if you’re not happy or you’re not satisfied, what are you waiting for? And I would, personally, rather regret making a decision that is not 100% right over just not doing it. And that was the moment where I was like, “I am going to start exploring this and I’m going to do that.” And after I moved into the business, that was my first aha moment. After I moved to the business, and especially after having a first month or six months that were really tough, my second aha moment was in March of this year where I was working seven days a week non-stop, and I realized that I lined up seven closings for May. It hit me that finally, this is the kind of production I am looking for, especially when that puts me in the lists of the top 1% of the company, literally after one year in the business. So those were my two aha moments.
As I mentioned, growing up in Syria was tough, to begin with. Life was tough especially with a low income like the income that my family had. And at the moment, I was trying to work and help and so when the war started, my dad is a cab driver and my mom is a teacher. And because of the war and especially when it got really, really bad, my dad couldn’t do his job anymore, which basically cut half of the income of my family and leaving us with a really tough position. Not to mention, with all the inflation, prices just went crazy and all kind of the warlords controlled prices and goods and whatnot. So at some point, it was really tough economically. For me was that young, really young person with really, really big dreams thinking about how I’m going to get my degree and start my own business back home and something actually that is kind of related to real estate where I can develop real estate buildings and whatnot. But once the war started and war was everywhere, I couldn’t truly even finish my degree, not to mention that the economy just went really down and any kind of business or investment was going to be just really tough. And a lot of people who had jobs lost their jobs, especially people who had jobs based on transportation between the states of Syria and with all the war, they couldn’t do that anymore. Not to mention that a lot of companies cut, laid off a lot of people and whatnot.It was a moment of disappointment that “Okay what am I going to do now? What is next? What is the plan?” And that’s another aha moment that hit me that I need to get out of here to a place that I really can execute my dreams. I really can be the passionate person I can and no place can be better than the United States and I am a big believer in the American dream and that’s where I was determined, even my family. My family has supported me so much. They did everything they can do for me to get here in order to finish my degree at that time and even after finishing my degree and all the sacrifices they did for that, they were really supportive to leave my degree totally and change my career into real estate. And my dad, I remember my dad has told me that “I just believe in you. You will be great no matter what you do. If you don’t want to do structural engineering anymore and you think real estate is what’s going to make you happy, go for it. You got all our support.” And that was the most beautiful thing for sure.
Tracey: Absolutely, having your family’s support is very important. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Al: I have only a younger sister who goes to school for pharmacy now, still in Damascus.
Tracey: And I know that you said you did not speak any English when you came to the United States for college. Tell me about your experience with that and your challenges in learning the language.
Al: Absolutely, so we casually learned English back home in school. Really the alphabet and some words and I had a couple of courses to strengthen my language because I realized that English is so important. However, that’s really not enough for a person just to move to the United States, which is a majorly English-speaking country. I will never forget that going to school my first week. I will get into the class and my professors, I mean they live here, they speak the language, but sometimes they speak a little bit fast and with an accent. The first week, I would just sit in the class and my goal was just to try to understand what they’re saying. It was that bad. And I didn’t have an option. I almost thought like, “What did I do? Should I go back? It’s too bad, I mean, I can’t understand my professors”. Again, I never give up so I just tried to listen, tried to talk to people and literally I came to learn the language here.
Tracey: That’s great. So how long did it really take you to understand what you were learning in school?
Al: I would say just to understand my professors, it took probably a month. I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken another language but understanding a language is way easier than speaking it. So after a month, my ear kind of got used to the accent of my professors and how fast they talk so that was good. And the challenge that is still at the moment is how to speak fluently and make people basically understand what I’m trying to say. That took a little bit more. That took probably six months.
Tracey: Absolutely. And now do you have ties to the Syrian community in Chicago? Do you do anything community-service wide or work with people coming to the United States at all?
Al: Actually, when I first got here, I didn’t know anyone in the United States so all the people I knew were the people in my school, my classmates and my colleagues. However, as the time goes, I got to know more of the Syrian community here in Chicago and actually, yes. You know what? After the war got even worse in Syria, there were a lot of organizations to help refugees. One of them is RefugeeOne and what they did, they basically hosted and welcomed Syrian families who escaped the war and they helped them find places to live in. I wasn’t a member of RefugeeOne directly, but everyone who worked knew I was from Syria and they contacted me immediately saying, “Hey, we are trying to find this family a place and they don’t speak English whatsoever, so you actually can be of help”. I was doubly helpful by speaking their language and by being in real estate, so that was a really great experience.
Tracey: Yeah, it’s great to have that perspective. So it sounds like the future is bright for you. So if you could accomplish just one thing this year, what would it be?
Al: Thank you, Tracey. That will be the Chicago Agent Magazine Rookie of the Year Award and probably the Realtor Magazine 30 under 30 list, since I’m 25 right now.
Tracey: Okay. So to wrap up, we’ll end with something a little fun. Tell me, what are three things you just can’t live without. And you can’t mention family or friends.
Al: I would say that would be real estate and my dream. I’m literally living the American Dream doing real estate in this great country.
Tracey: That’s wonderful. Well, thank you, Al, for sharing your story with us. We really appreciate it and best of luck to you.
Al: Thank you so much, Tracey, I appreciate it.