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From Refugee to Real Estate Developer: How Lezlie Tram Le Became an Advocate for Minority-Owned Small Businesses

May 15, 2023

Lezlie Tram Le, the owner of LT Commercial Group, is known throughout the Austin community for her fierce advocacy and support of minority-run small businesses. “My passion,” she said, “is helping small businesses owners who don’t have resources achieve the American dream.” She has helped hundreds of first-time small business owners navigate language barriers in leases and has supported them in contract negotiations and communications with landlords, brokers and contractors.

Le is so fiercely protective of these entrepreneurs because their story, she said, “was once my story.” And Le’s story began more than 30 years ago and thousands of miles away, in a Malaysia refugee camp. When Le was 8, she, her mom Bon Huinh and dad Tuone escaped Vietnam by boat. While they waited for asylum, workers at the camp taught refugees employable skills to use in their next home. For Bon Huihn, that was learning how to do nails and cut hair. 

Seven years after arriving at the camp, in 1998, Le and her family finally relocated to Texas. It was a huge culture shock. For starters, Le didn’t know English. “I remember being so stressed because I didn’t know how to say: ‘Where’s the bathroom?’” she recalled. A high school junior by then, Le spent her days trying to absorb the language and customs. “I was just trying to survive and understand what this country was about,” she said. Her mother, meanwhile, was spending her days learning the ins and outs of salon ownership. She worked long, grueling hours as a salon employee, and then in 2000, the family poured all their savings into opening the 900-square-foot Star Salon in a neighborhood center. 

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Le had no plans of working in the family business. After high school, she left home to attend dental hygiene school because, she said, “I had heard that dental hygienists make a decent salary.” But Le’s family kept pulling her back home for help. “When you are a small business owner, you are the cook, you are the waiter, you are the shop and you are the cashier,” Le explained. Her family needed help running the location, and her mom needed help translating. “English was a big roadblock for her,” Le explained.

One of the family’s biggest struggles was lease language, something that even people fluent in English have a hard time comprehending. Though Le had graduated from a U.S. high school and had picked up a lot of English, she didn’t understand what she was reading, either. She called the landlord for help. “How smart is it to call the landlord to tell him to explain to you what you’re signing?” she asked. One thing the landlord neglected to explain was the escalation clause that allowed for automatic periodic increases on their rent. Le and her family were shocked when their rent, taxes and maintenance costs went up every year. The landlord, Le said, “did not give us the full picture.” Today, she strongly advises her clients against asking a prospective landlord to explain a lease, and she’s adamant about being a part of all lease negotiations with her tenants.

The experience taught Le, who dropped out of dental hygiene school to help her family, how important it is for minority small business owners to have advocates. She experienced some of these hardships again firsthand when in 2005, at age 24, she opened her own 2,400-square-foot nail salon called Bellisimo in a neighborhood center in Austin.

Le thought that after years working for her family, she had a grasp on the salon model and small business ownership, but she came to see that owning a salon is not easy. The technician’s work is what customers come into the shop for, and people, unlike static objects like clothes and jewelry, are not something that can easily be managed. “You can train them to a certain level, but then ego gets in the way,” she explained. The experience of “wearing both the owner hat and technician hat drained me.”

To Le, the real estate market seemed to be a much more intriguing place. Around the time she opened her salon, she had invested about $150,000 in each of three fourplexes. She rented them out, and though it could be hard to be a landlord — “I remember one time I was six months pregnant and got a call at 1 in the morning that their toilet was broken” — the returns were much greater. She sold the complexes for a profit of about $50,000 per property.

She decided to get her real estate license, thinking residential would be her specialty. But after a few negative experiences — a seller trying to backpedal on a commission, another not paying back the money Le had fronted to clean a house — “I didn’t like the emotional aspect of it,” she said.

Then she saw a sign in the window of a neighborhood center for 5,500-square-foot space for lease. Having just quit Keller Williams and with nothing to do, Le took out a huge ad in a local Vietnamese magazine. “I wrote that ‘there’s a second-gen CiCi’s Pizza open that would be a great space for your restaurant business. If you want me to represent you, call me. I can show you the space.’” Phuong Tran, co-owner of popular Vietnamese restaurant Kim Phung, called, and Le negotiated a five-year lease. “That was my first deal,” she said. She was hooked.

As a tenant rep, Le worked for Retail Solutions, representing primarily salon owners, restauranteurs and medical tech users. It was a natural fit, as she knew what small business tenants were looking for and what to advocate for.

In the 2000s, Le was one of the only Vietnamese female commercial brokers in the Austin area. While many Asian Pacific small business owners came to her for help, she was at a disadvantage when trying to negotiate on their behalf and even within her firm. “It was a very male-dominated field,” she said. “You felt like you had to walk on eggshells all the time,” and it’s hard when “you don’t do the things they do, like close at a bar.” To be successful, Le had to be resourceful.

In one case, she thought she’d found a great place for a restaurateur, but after weeks of calling the broker, she hadn’t heard back. So one Friday afternoon, “I took my business card and went to the office, and I knocked on the door” with cookies, she recalled. An older gentleman buzzed her in, and Le explained that she had a client that was pre-qualified with great financials and was interested in a vacant space at the center. The gentleman, who turned out to be the vice president, was impressed with Le’s creativity and assured her that the broker would call back on Monday. He did, and Le closed the deal. The experience taught her the importance of persistence. “You just got to get out there, get out of your chair and push through it,” she said.

After two-and-a-half years advocating for tenants, she switched to the landlord side. With an eye toward opening her own real estate company, she wanted experience from the property manager’s perspective.

In 2017, she opened her own company with the explicit goal of supporting start-ups. “I am an asset for my clients because I was a tenant,” she said. “I’ve been on the other side, trying to survive as a tenant, and I understand from the landlord and shopping center side what I can do for the tenants so they can be successful.” Clients like Loan Huynh, the owner of Simply Ramen & Gyoza, come to LT Commercial specially for those reasons. The company has represented Huynh in three locations. Le “specializes in making everything so smooth from the beginning: to find the location, making the negotiation until buildout, finishing out everything,” Huynh said.

LT Commercial proves you can both do good and do well. By the end of the first year of independent operation, Le’s company had closed nearly $30 million in commercial contracts.

In addition to her responsibilities leading the brokerage, Le develops 20,000- to 50,000-square-foot flex centers around Austin, and she’s facilitated about 85 developments. She condos them as units that small businesses can buy and walks potential occupiers through the opening process. “Sometimes a tenant doesn’t know construction, they don’t know buildout, they don’t know anything about the city ordinance or the permitting processes,” she said. So Le does as much upfront work for them as possible. “Instead of giving them a shelf-space condition, I bring the space all the way up to white box, showroom ready.”

She does these things because these were the challenges that held her back as a small business owner. “I remember the landlord only gave me four months [of free rent] but the buildout took me six months and the city didn't approve me until eight months,” she recalled. “I had to spend on rent when I hadn’t even generated any income.”

LT Commercial also has a full team that represents small business owners in leasing. And Le, who remembers what it was like to be a minority in the commercial real estate field, has devoted herself to giving other minorities opportunities. In commercial real estate, there’s a lot of opportunity to make a good living, but “you have to learn it,” she said. The problem is: “Many minorities never got that opportunity. Their family wasn’t part of it.”

Le provides internship opportunities to Anderson High School students. Senior Kristine Chau is one of two high schoolers currently working with Le. While Le has helped Chau understand things like zoning and permits, what she’s really given Chau is confidence to succeed. “I’m more of an indoor type, but Ms. Lezlie is out there all the time, connecting with people,” Chau said. “I’ve learned to be more open and reach out when I need it — and the power of following through,” Chau said.

To empower other minorities, Le mentors female small business owners in the area and served as the Asian Real Estate Association of America’s Austin chapter president in 2020. Her goal is to open within 10 years a nonprofit that trains minority young adults how to be developers. “We need more,” she said. “It’s a big business, but [the people in it] are very limited.”

When people she mentors feel down, she sometimes reminds them of her own beginnings. She felt unseen at times in high school, but today, the opposite is true, partly because Le’s face is on every LT Commercial Group leasing sign around town. “Typically, commercial brokers don’t put their faces on [signs], but for me, in order to stand out, I put my big face on them,” she said.

It's a visual reminder to minorities, who don’t always have role models in the industry, of what they can aspire to. “Just the other day, I was out with my friends, and we saw one of her signs,” Chau said. “It was so great. I’ve been lucky to have powerful Asian female role models, but most people haven’t seen that.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

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