Why we're investing in small business real estate

Leah Stearns
Published on March 29, 2022

How the former CFO of CBRE Leah Stearns came to withco to breathe new life into a complex and underinvested sector of the commercial real estate market.

I grew up in Rhinebeck, a small town in the Hudson Valley about two hours north of New York City. The central village is the kind of place that often gets called “charming” by visitors and magazines. Locals know that while the buildings may be historic, so much of the town’s appeal comes from the thriving boutiques, cafes, and restaurants that line Market and Mill streets.

Small businesses—and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into owning them—are what give Rhinebeck its character and make it a destination. In town over the past twenty years, friends have opened or invested in small businesses: a bagel shop, a boutique, a farm-to-table restaurant. And all of these businesses create not only a foundation for the community, but also the magic that attracts tourists and investment to the town. 

Twenty years ago I started my career in Boston, living in a vibrant neighborhood, Brookline, right outside of the city. In Brookline, I saw so many small businesses experience a very different trajectory, getting priced out and replaced by bank branches, franchise restaurants, and chain stores. The businesses I loved that made the neighborhood so attractive found it too expensive to maintain their leases and wound up being victims of their own success. 

Fast forward to 2021 when I first met Kevin, withco’s founder and CEO. At the time I was working at CBRE, the largest commercial real estate services company in the world, as their Global CFO. Because of my personal experiences, withco’s mission and Kevin’s story really resonated with me. Because of my professional experiences at CBRE and at American Tower, I quickly appreciated withco’s value proposition: a win-win business model to not only do good for local businesses, but also do really well as an impactful platform business. So, I invested in the company’s Series A. 

Through our financial and technology products, we’re able to programmatically purchase commercial real estate with increased transparency, efficiency, and scale.

Leah Stearns
Interim CFO

Around that time, I began contemplating my next career move. I was planning to take a few months off to spend time with my family until Kevin gave me a call out of the blue. He asked if I’d be interested in joining as interim CFO to lead withco’s real estate capital raise and serve on its executive team. I’m happiest when I’m working with a team of smart, empathetic people focused on growth, and being able to do this while balancing time with my family. It was a great fit – so I said yes. 

Today, the small business commercial property market is underdeveloped and structurally uninvestable for institutional investors. While the market sees over $90 billion of deal flow annually, transactions occur primarily amongst individual investors, and the asset class has a reputation for being complex and inefficient. Enter withco. Through our financial and technology products, we’re able to programmatically purchase commercial real estate with increased transparency, efficiency, and scale. All while we’re able to offer investors an ESG strategy that supports generational wealth creation for small business owners, without sacrificing market defining risk-reward. 

My job has been to educate institutional capital partners about the immense potential, size, and scale of our opportunity. Now we’re leveraging that to raise capital that is flexible, cost efficient, and scalable to grow our ability to impact hundreds of small business owners through commercial property ownership. 

Successful small businesses make communities vibrant, exciting places to live and owning one should be fun and rewarding. I’m excited to see how quickly withco develops, because each small business that we impact could be the nucleus that allows another town like Rhinebeck to flourish.