“Hey guys. It’s me!” 2022 President Antje Gehrken’s signature greeting gives immediate clues as to her approachable leadership style.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Antje’s path to real estate was not, by definition, “traditional.” But, as with many things, looking back on her winding career, this second act has distinct roots in everything else she’s done.
“I knew how to do the train when I was really young,” she said. “Starting when I was 7, I loved looking at the CTA map and seeing where the lines ran. I would take the Ravenswood line downtown, or transfer to get to Comiskey Park, the beach or the Hancock Building. I had a love for Chicago and an understanding of its vastness from a very young age.” This knowledge would eventually translate and inform her real estate business, covering similar expansive ground and representing various projects throughout the Chicagoland area.
The second oldest of five kids (and the oldest daughter), Antje carried a lot of responsibility from a young age. “My parents were immigrants, and started with nothing, but they worked really hard. English was not their first language,” she said.
They lived in tiny, two-bedroom apartments in Lincoln Square and Albany Park. “My parents had to lie about how many kids lived there to secure the lease, and we had to be careful to make sure we didn’t get thrown out,” she said. “By the time I got to college, we bought the two flat we’d been living in West Rogers Park, and after my father rehabbed the basement, we each got our own bedroom.” Because of her childhood, she was exposed to the challenges — and rewards — of real estate and housing at a young age.
But before real estate came music. “Songs are stories — stories about love, life, challenges, hopes,” she said. “Turns out, that’s what real estate is about too. Each client has their own story and each sale is like its own song.”
Antje composed her first song at age 12, a hobby that, while briefly interrupted by a brief stint as a journalism major at Northwestern University, became her professional calling, attending Columbia College for undergrad.
She started teaching at Columbia following graduation while working on her masters. “I had to be super- hardcore, because I was the same age as my students!” she said. “I taught there six years. I taught almost every course related to composition, songwriting, theory and performance. I learned a lot, and I only left there because I needed a career portfolio to get the better jobs.”
Her career path next took her to the iconic Old Town School of Folk Music, where she worked as an instructor, developing and teaching their first ever year-long songwriting curriculum. “Like real estate and songwriting, teaching can be very personal,” Antje said. She remains in touch with many of her old students to this day — a then-building block that now helps enhance and inform her client relationships in real estate.
She released her first solo album on Old Town School of Folk Music’s concert stage and toured around the country in a tour bus owned by Willie Nelson, playing festivals and stages of all sizes.
However, three days before signing her major record contract, Antje walked away. “I lost my passion,” she said. “It’s important to be authentic, and being authentic wasn’t possible, which was painful.”
Enter: chapter two — real estate.
While working on her music career, Antje and her husband Andy had started buying real estate together. “My father had given me some old real estate cassette tapes that had planted the seed about investing,” she said. “A great opportunity presented itself, and we jumped in. We did a lot of work ourselves, first getting the property ready for renters, then becoming landlords and managing our units. It was a real DIY experience — which has only fed into my now career as a REALTOR®.”
Her real estate origins include many aspects of the industry: rehabbing units, valuing, buying and selling properties, managing investments, developing condos, being a landlord. Her understanding of the value of home beyond the dollar amount has been critical to this chapter, as she can bring all those experiences to the table — whether in the board room, in a negotiation on behalf of her clients or mentoring the brokers at A.R.E. Partners.
At the height of the market crash in the late 2000s, another opportunity arose that required a licensed broker — so she took the challenge, getting her license to expand her real estate expertise and serve the needs of her bank clients.
In real estate, she found a place where authenticity has been key to her success (in stark contrast to the music industry). “Whatever the scenario — whether I’m at home with my family or at a listing appointment, on the tennis court, in the boardroom, dealing with tenants, mentoring the A.R.E. brokers, in a receivership hearing — I am, at the core, the same person.”
And, in real estate, she found her passion again. “In real estate, I found a passion that I didn’t know existed, one that drew from the same well of experiences I had in my previous lives.”
One of the many things you will hear her talk about is how “firsts lead to forevers.” Attending her first CAR Inaugural Gala set her career on a different course — one that leads directly to where we are today.
“I didn’t understand the full scope of what being a REALTOR® meant, or what the association did for its members,” she said. “I was so inspired by being in that room that I proclaimed (out loud), ‘I will one day be the president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®.’”
After that, she started showing up for everything. “When it was a first for me, I would put myself out there,” she said. “And when it was no longer a first, I would reach out to others, invite them and include them — just like others did for me.”
“Once I was brought in, it changed everything,” she said. “I don’t do things if I don’t love them. But I also don’t just say no a lot, because when an opportunity arises, you have to consider it.”
This philosophy is how she ended up with her first investment property, getting her broker’s license and starting her ascension to leadership. At the local level, she chaired the association’s Professional Development committee for several years and served on the CommercialForum committee. She also got involved at state and nationals, attending Capitol Conference in Springfield along with the Legislative Meetings in Washington, D.C.
“It’s so awesome to be a Chicago REALTOR®,” Antje said. “We should be shouting it from the rooftops. There’s a difference between being a broker and being a REALTOR®. I believe strongly that Chicago REALTORS® are at the forefront of so many elements impacting our clients. The more we continue to enhance our REALTORS®’ development and education, the better we can serve our neighborhoods.”
One area she plans to focus on this year: bridging commercial and residential to broaden the definition of one’s niche. “I practice commercial because it feeds my head, and residential because it feeds my heart,” she said. “I thrive when I’m doing different things — and I’m always learning. My niche is super wide because it all feeds different parts of who I am and what I do — and I’m able to share those experiences with others, including my brokers at A.R.E. Partners and now all of Chicago REALTORS®.”
Building authentic relationships, mentorship opportunities and engagement are big for her — and a reason her approachable leadership style works so well (well-honed by her teaching career and experience in the music industry). “To give others an opportunity to co-list a commercial listing or work on properties they have interest in, but never had the opportunity to pursue, and to help their own development in different ways, including becoming more involved with the REALTORS® — that’s an incredible feeling,” she said. “I get excited to listen to other people’s stories and help them find their own strengths.
Another of her goals this year is to widen opportunities to engage with the association and bring in more fresh faces — just like hers, once upon a time. “We have over 18,000 members, but only 400 or so active committee volunteers each year,” she said. “We need more opportunities for engagement, more reaching out our hands to bring others in. When I got more involved, I became a better REALTOR®. And, when we’re better REALTORS®, we all benefit.”
Hearing so many of Antje’s stories and observing the way she interacts with all REALTORS® — those new to the industry and veterans — it’s not hard to see how her songwriting and performance career have translated to effective leadership: attention to detail, creative problem solving and relationship building all fuel her intense focus on those she encounters, getting to the heart and soul of what drives them and translating that into association programs and initiatives so that we can all be better.
“It doesn’t matter if you are standing on a stage in front of thousands of people or winning the contract on a multiple offer scenario in a seller’s market,” Antje said. “It’s not the venue but the passion behind what you do. It’s about how you perform. Helping people achieve the American dream of home and property ownership? That’s a hell of a lot like being a rock star.”