Editor’s Note: Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA – Melony Swasey helps people buy and sell homes in one of the Northeast’s fastest growing markets. Upon meeting her, you can quickly tell that Melony is an intellectual. Driven and pensive, kind and strategic, she has all the characteristics of one who thinks deeply about her work and life. Melony took time to talk to me about what it was like for a child of Jamaican immigrants to grow up in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the United States, work her way to Cornell University, and build a business from scratch. Melony’s story shows one way a first-generation American has made her way in a world very different from that of her parents.
The interview has been edited for length and content.
So, what do you do?
I’m self-employed, I am a real estate agent, I help people buy and sell homes primarily around the Boston area. I also help landlords with their investment properties and help tenants find a place to live. There are many hats that I wear so I don’t quite think of it as a job, but as a business, as it is. I generate the activity and the income that I bring in from my own means, then I split that commission with the firm.
I advise people on one of the most critical decisions of their lives.
Anybody can show you a house and see if it’s pretty, or not pretty. [Let’s say] you’re buying a house because you’re having a baby, but you’ve got an in-law. The house has to accommodate their bodies in 10 years. We need to think big picture. Not just the sentimental aspect of home, but the practical stuff is important.
I’m an advisor, there is so much I need to know on a month by month, week by week basis of what the market is looking like. It’s super strategic, and that’s what’s fun for me.
On an average week I have at least 4 or 5 events a week. People’s schmoozy things. I build relationships with people and I make a living from that. It combines my fascination with service, how to do service well and to attract the kind of clients that I want. It satisfies the part of me that wants to tell people what to do. People pay me to advise them on what to do, how to make smart decisions about one of the biggest assets in their lives. I enjoy understanding people, helping people prioritize, helping people strategize… that for me is fun.
This is completely in a different direction from anything that I would have thought for myself.
The person who had been my real estate agent actually convinced me to try it out. We argued about it for a number of hours. But we stayed connected, and she put a call out for a networking lunch, and I was the only one that went. Finally, now she had a captive audience and by the time I left the event, I remember thinking “What?! Am I really going to do this?”
It was hard for me to make the decision to go down that career path. To me, it was failure- not that I thought I would fail at real estate – but I went to an Ivy League school, I’m a first-generation American, and I got out of what people call ‘the hood.’ It’s a huge accomplishment just to graduate high school in Paterson, NJ. So to end up, now, choosing to pursue something outside of my chosen field felt like failure.
At the time, I felt like I could be one of those people interviewed on NPR. Instead I’m going to be, like, a used car salesman.
And I was wrong.
It calls on everything in me.
Spiritually, emotionally – I don’t know if it’s a deep avocation – but real estate satisfies so much of who I am.
But for me looking back now, it made so much more sense than I ever would have known at the time. I’m someone who thinks about business, I think about how to grow your business.It’s really important to me the quality of service and connections that people have as both a consumer and a purveyor of services.
I dig it, and it digs me.
How’d did you get to the Ivy League? Being brazen, basically.
I was brazen. I grew up under my sister. She went to an all women’s campus at Rutgers University and I had an early experience of what it was like to be in an academic setting. My sister was my first exposure to an intellectual. This was always a driving aspect of her life. I grew up with that, that was my identify of being female, actually. I understood that college could be an option for me.
My father has a third grade education, my mother got her GED and started taking classes at a community college. They were not “educated”. My father, because of the effects of colonialism, was terrified of education. He always wanted us to have a trade. I had all these intellectual interests but didn’t feel like I had to go to college. I actually wasn’t pushed to- I was pushed to behave in the world.
A lot of my identity comes from watching my mother and sister adapt.
I was interested in Jamaica and what made us move. What it means to be American. We were all put in charge as very young kids. I felt like I knew what to buy because of what was on TV. I was always compelled by marketing- how to “become American.” How to be that. As a child of immigrants you learn to interpret on all kinds of levels.
At some point I decided to do the college thing just to get out of Paterson. I applied to schools but I didn’t know anything about Cornell and the Ivy League. As a fluke, someone I had known from our church in Philadelphia just said the word ‘Cornell’ and it sounded nice to me.
I explained in my letter why Cornell needed me at their school.
I was groomed to care about quality. My father is a tailor and my mother was a domestic worker for a very wealthy family. I grew up helping my mother at work- learning the best in service has been bred into me.
I explained that they shouldn’t pay attention to my grades compared to the grading system of the schools right next door. Even our math and science books were scratched out books from the 60 and 70s. I explained where my family came from. I was very interested in social anthropology- what were the forces that made us move from Jamaica? I was first generation, I was born here with older siblings born in Jamaica.
I already knew what I wanted to study, even though I didn’t know what a syllabus was and had not hardly even read books, honestly. I immediately created my major – radical feminist culture and anthropology – “I’m going to be an academic” [I thought]. That changed!
What’s your daily work life like?
I feel blasphemous telling you about today… I’m wearing sneakers today. I stayed in bed late, which for me is like 8 o’clock. I’m sitting with you which is fun but is also work. After, I’m going to go outside and take my dog out to the park. I have a bunch of messages that I should be doing right now. I’ll probably spend until 2 just hanging out and then I’ll be going to an arts event tonight.
On a typical day it could be, 6:30 AM yoga class, in the office by 8, doing any number of administrative tasks and then appointments, I’ll have lunch with someone, a colleague or stop into a person’s house and then there’s the work of keeping transactions alive, there’s the work that I might do on a typical day of going out to look at property, checking inventory.
A lot of what I do is based on relationships.
I just closed a transaction in Moss Hill for a $1.2 million single family. Lovely house. We put together a very delicate negotiation to have that deal happen. My buyer needed to have that under contract because this house is the pretty much the only thing that satisfied their specific needs. But we needed to sell their place to make this happen. I needed to know for sure that we were under contract for their condo in Newton.
We were able to put the new house under agreement with the terms that allowed us to get the condo under agreement, but I didn’t want to wait through the weekend. I had already done a handful of showings on it and a broker’s reception; we got interest at the broker’s reception. I put in a call for offers for Friday night, before the open houses, which were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. The fact that we had interest before the open houses tells you what this market is like. We got three strong offers just from that and chose a very, very solid buyer, but the next morning the buyer backed out. But I had lined up five strong offers, I wasn’t going to pull this off market without knowing that I had accounted for various contingencies. I needed a solid queue. Within 12 hours, we nailed it. We were able to keep it under agreement without the agent even knowing we’d lost a buyer and gotten another buyer. This agent allowed me to put this under agreement knowing that we couldn’t buy it without selling their place, because he knows my reputation, my level of integrity. It’s all a relationship business. They know I’m serious, they know I’m working full out. They understand what’s important to me. It’s trust.
What I hate is that my entire life revolves around my business. I can’t think of any aspect of my life that doesn’t revolve around work… I am always thinking.
I am so on all the time.
I am prepared to engage with people so I don’t get to carve out time just for me. I haven’t seen my dog in several weeks and that is really hard. I am the be-all for everything. If something goes wrong when I’m away I have to fix it when I get back.
So my business is lovely, it’s solid. I’m never quite in a place where I feel satisfied, so I’m constantly thinking about how to best myself, improve myself. My mother was always saying – “oh, that’s very good! How are you going to do it better next time?” So often, I see my parents’ grooming in my work.
I know that my next thing is to have my own home, another is to then have an investment property and that will be my launch pad to travel more. There is an artist in me- an appreciator of life- the energy that runs through all beings.
How do I set up my life so I can be tapped into that energy?
For me that would be a fulfilling life, and to do that with a partner. In my mind, I’m almost 40- I don’t have a child, I don’t have a plan for that, so I get to celebrate that. As much as it saddens me, you have to look at it from the other side: I’ve created a life where I can pursue things on my own terms.
I want to be work with a developer doing great design- environmentally friendly design- bringing those types of properties to market. I want to figure out a way to parlay this work into something else; I’m fascinated by innovation. Technology that changes the way you live and brings us together on a common ground. I can see myself being an influencer in terms of community on some level.
I’m doing everything from scratch, just as I built my business from scratch during the recession. And that’s what I’m really good at, as the child of immigrants.
I know how to make things happen.
Learn more about Melony’s work at her website: Good Boston Living.
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Feature photo courtesy of Nancie Koenigsberg.