Miami — At a dinner table in Miami recently with investors and founders from LatAm, the conversation became about female founders in the region, and how there are so few of them. From every corner of the table people said, “Look at Brynne, what about Brynne, there’s Brynne.” While there are many more, Brynne McNulty Rojas stands out. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Habi, a proptech based in Colombia that’s backed by Softbank and Tiger Global, among other notable investors. Since launch in 2019, the company has raised $115 million.
Rojas recently moved to Miami with her family and I sat down with her to learn a bit more about who she is as a person and how she got to where she is today.
As her name may indicate, she’s not Latin. And while she was born and raised in New Jersey, both her parents are Irish. She went to boarding school at the elite Taft School in Connecticut before attending Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad. It was in a class at Wharton that she was exposed to the combined worlds of real estate and finance.
“It was the first time I realized the power that efficient housing policy and finance have in supporting wealth creation in families and in unlocking liquidity that can advance economic development as a whole,” she said. A mouthful indeed, but an articulate and eloquent one at that.
Rojas has always been into sports, playing on the varsity lacrosse team at U. Penn., so it’s no surprise that her competitive nature led her down what have traditionally been known as a male dominated fields in finance, real estate, and tech. But as she and I talk, the competition seems irrelevant and the fact she is a woman even more so.
After college she worked at Goldman Sachs in real estate finance, before heading off to Harvard Business School for her MBA. She and her husband then moved to Colombia, and Rojas landed a job at McKinsey as a consultant. Meanwhile, she was also moonlighting at her family’s foundation, The McNulty Foundation, which is based in NY and “seeks to inspire, develop and drive leaders to solve the most critical challenges of our time.”
With a few more jobs and internships speckled about, it was through her husband that she met her co-founder at Habi, Sebastian Noguera, a serial entrepreneur who is the co-founder of Merqueo, Colombia’s largest online supermarket, and who also led the digital transformation of Banco de Bogota.
“I fell into this. The opportunity was just there,” Rojas said. “The way to sell a house in Colombia was by hanging a sign on your window with a phone number,” she said.
Colombia, like other LatAm countries, didn’t have an MLS (multiple listing service) and the real estate market was fragmented. An MLS is an online listing of all available homes for sale and rent. It also lists what broker is representing each home, and it’s used in the U.S. for most real estate transactions.
“It took about 10 months to sign a contract for a home in Colombia,” Rojas added.
While Habi offers an MLS, it also offers other branches of real estate services, Rojas explained, including free home evaluations, a broker platform, mortgage origination, and home renovation.
Habi buys homes themselves and renovates them. While that doesn’t necessarily sound scalable (if you’ve ever renovated a property you know how long it takes and the myriad of things that can go wrong), by working with 20 home renovation companies, Habi has the process down to a T, Rojas said.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a house flip like you see on T.V. Habi makes minor renovations, but they do so because they want every home they sell to be of a certain standard.
“We want to bring each home we sell to a minimum Habi standard, so when people buy from us they know they are getting a ‘Habi’ home,” Rojas said.
In fact, renovations is the main way Habi makes money. While Rojas said that selling your home to Habi is often more expensive than selling it through a broker, “Habi guarantees to pay you in a certain time frame.”
But founding Habi, even with an experienced cofounder, wasn’t easy. For starters, Rojas got pregnant as they were raising money. “I found out I was pregnant the day before we flew to San Francisco to meet with investors,” she said. She didn’t know how investors would perceive the news, so she kept it a secret for as long as possible.
Habi then had their first transaction in 2019, and Noguera was ready to go on a buying spree and purchase a bunch of homes. Still pregnant, Rojas was in New York for doctors appointments and buzz was just starting regarding Covid-19. “I called Sebastian and said, there’s this thing coming and you need to stop buying homes,” she said.
When Covid-19 hit Colombia, Habi investors put them in a tight spot: lay off 30% of the employees, most of which they had just hired.
“What we ultimately did is have an all hands call and explain that we were under immense pressure and we were either going to do a 30% cut or, if everyone in the company agreed to take a voluntary 30% pay cut, we could keep everyone,” she said. They were able to keep everyone on staff and salaries have since returned to normal.
Even with these challenges, the company has been able to grow 20x YoY (year over year) from 2020-2021, and employ more than 500 people. While the company started in Bogota, it is now in Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, and Mexico City. In the short term, they are planning to expand to Guadalajara and Monterrey this coming year.
Founding a proptech that operates in LatAm is a far cry from what Rojas thought she was going to do when she grew up, but the challenge is exciting to her. “I always wanted to be a litigator because I like the idea of justice,” she said. “It’s a game, so maybe my interest in sports got me interested.”