Donor Profile: Sarah Abrams, Msred '85

Seeing in People What They Are Not Yet Capable of Seeing in Themselves

Sarah K. Abrams received her Master of Science in Real Estate Development from the MIT Center for Real Estate in 1985. She is now President of Fidelity Real Estate Company, a division of Fidelity Investments responsible for providing the full range of corporate real estate services to Fidelity’s business units both nationally and internationally – (location/portfolio strategy, acquisitions/ dispositions, design/construction and facility/property management). In that capacity she oversees a portfolio in excess of 10 million square feet, including four mission critical data centers, with an annual operating budget over $400M and annual capital budgets ranging from $50-$500M. After 14 years with Fidelity, she will be leaving this summer to pursue new career opportunities.

Twenty-five years ago the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT/CRE) opened its doors to offer its first Master of Science in Real Estate Development. Just before then, Sarah Abrams (MSRED’85) was in law school at Cornell with the intention of becoming a real estate lawyer.

“I enjoyed law school but realized during the summers when I was working that I preferred the business side of real estate. During my third year, the Wall Street Journal had a real estate column on Thursdays and at the bottom of the column one day were the words ‘MIT is starting the first master’s program in real estate development in the country. Tuition is $14,000.’ It was very intriguing so when I was in Boston interviewing with law firms I went over to the Center – which was just a little office at the time – and picked up the brochure. After reading it I decided to apply.”

For Abrams, the experience of being part of the first graduating class at MIT/CRE was exciting. She recounts, “I was very aware – as I think we all were – that this was something completely new… not just for MIT but for the entire real estate industry. We wanted it to be important twenty years from then.”

The opportunity of being in the first class 25 years ago – “the pioneering class,” as Abrams calls it – was extraordinary. The students were connected with people such as Hank Spaulding, Larry Bacow, Bill Wheaton and Gary Hack, “people who were real leaders in their fields.”

The Center for Real Estate celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year. Abrams reflects, “the degree I received from the Center for Real Estate provides me with great credibility wherever I go in the world. It was that degree that made it possible for me to get my first real estate development job and it provided me with an opportunity to meet some terrific people who have become and remain close friends and business partners.”

In return, Abrams has given consistently to MIT/CRE for the past 25 years through both the New Visions Fund and the CRE Alumni Fund for Excellence.

“MIT had a big impact on me in terms of being able to achieve what I’ve achieved professionally. As a result, I feel I owe the School a debt for that. This is one way that I can be clear about how I valued my time there.”

Abrams gained an understanding of the importance of philanthropy from her parents. “I grew up in a home where my parents always set an example of giving back. There was a view that sharing what you had with others was a fundamental value; that supporting things in the community and academic institutions was important and expected.

This is something that I really believe – of those to whom much is given, much is expected. I had a lot of opportunities in life having a family that was intact and cared about me, stressed education, etc. I have had advantages in my life that other people don’t have. That comes with an obligation and a responsibility to give back.”

In addition to her philanthropy to the Center for Real Estate, Abrams also has continued to be engaged with the Center’s activities since her graduation. She led the alumni association for a year, she co-taught a law course in the nineties, and now she is a regular guest lecturer in Gloria Schuck’s “Leadership in Real Estate” course, which she has done for many years.

Gloria Schuck commented, “Each year the students have a long conversation with Sarah about leadership. They describe Sarah as ‘strong and brilliant, down to earth, unpretentious, no nonsense, nice and conveys a strength and confidence, very approachable, but clearly in charge, and a great mentor.’ Sarah makes a difference.”

“Sarah gives back;” Schuck continues, “she generously shares her experiences and insights with the students, and makes ‘leadership’ live. We are so grateful.”

Abrams’s advice to alumni is “stay connected to the Center. Remember that you are a representative of a great program and university and always put your best foot forward in everything you do.”

Marion Cunningham, managing director of the Center for Real Estate, said of Abrams, “Sarah gives her time to the MSRED students, modeling leadership and reaching out as a leader, and she provides financial support. Her dollars help us to positively impact the real estate industry in a variety of ways.”

Many students thank Abrams for staying involved with the MIT/CRE each year for the insights she shares with them. One student wrote, “Sarah said that you must always be authentic. I’ve had this image of what a leader is buried in my head. Some preconceived idea that I’ve subconsciously been comparing myself to and falling short every time. I found her simple advice to be extremely powerful and would say I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment after she gave it. That’s leadership ‘development’!

“I finally understood that the idea is not to try to change to become like someone else, the idea is simply to improve and enhance who you already are. Her words on authenticity were some of the most uplifting words I’ve heard in a long time. They felt freeing to me and gave me hope. The opportunities to lead exist every day and in every interaction. Logically, I understand all of this, but for the first time I actually feel it, too.”

“I am very conscious,” says Abrams, “of the fact that success is not an individual achievement. The success I have had in life is due to the aggregation of many opportunities and advantages that I have had in life. MIT was one of those opportunities that had a huge impact on my professional competence and ultimate success. I believe people are successful because they see even ordinary things as opportunities and make the most of opportunities. Over time these are cumulative and allow them to find success.”

For Abrams, the most satisfaction she gets from her work comes from building people not buildings. “The thing that is just as exciting to me as seeing a building get built is working with people to help them become everything they can be and achieve everything they want to achieve.

"My advice to graduates is: Try and see in people what they are not yet capable of seeing in themselves. Put them in positions that play to strengths and help them gain confidence. They will blossom. That is a good definition of success: being able to turn the potential you see in people into reality."

Written by Stephanie Hatch
Posted May 2010