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You can build a house.

You can build a bridge.

And you can build a reputation.

For Erika Villegas of ERA Mi Casa in Chicago, that has meant building a part-time position with an independent brokerage into a wildly successful full-time career with a highly collaborative and community-minded international brand.

But along the way, Villegas has also been building a legacy, one that not only honors her family, but strengthens it for the future.

For the record, Villegas refers to real estate as her passion—not her career. But in pursuit of her passion, Villegas has collected a number of impressive accolades along the way. A consistent top producer in Chicago, Villegas is also ranked among the nation’s top 250 Hispanic real estate professionals. She serves as chair of the Young Professional Network of the Chicago Association of REALTORS® and is a charter member of ERA Real Estate’s Young Leaders Network. In addition, she is also a board member of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

Villegas was introduced to real estate in 2003 when she and her husband were helping her mother sell her house. At home with her newborn son, she was looking for something to do, and was struck by the professionalism of their real estate agent.

“I had always worked and real estate seemed like a flexible option for me that also served a great purpose,” explains Villegas, who started out working part-time before going full-time in 2009 when her son entered full-day kindergarten.

It was in pursuit of another great purpose that she strengthened both her personal and professional connection to her community. As part of a grassroots advocacy effort, Villegas worked to revise a law that was originally focused on minorities to be applied city-wide. While the intent of the law was to reduce mortgage fraud, it initially targeted zip codes that were predominantly made up of minority residents. Local real estate professionals supported the crackdown on fraud, but were opposed to the discriminatory targeting.

As the daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Villegas understands the challenges faced by minorities wishing to achieve the dream of homeownership. For that reason, she works with any client, at any price range. “Clients with challenges are often turned away, but I have found that these people become the most grateful clients who will refer your name to everyone they know. Doing the right thing always pays off,” she says.

With the goal of becoming the No. 1 agent in her neighborhood, Villegas set out to create connections to her community on a variety of platforms, advertising in old-school newspapers as well as online portals. She also hosts a monthly wine social that brings together women in the community—many of them business owners—to network and socialize, in addition to communicating regularly with past clients, providing helpful information and market insights—and right before Thanksgiving, pumpkin pies. Last year, Villegas invited her clients to come to an open house at the office to catch up, connect and collect a pie.

She likes to be responsive to the evolving needs of her clients as well. In 2014, many of her clients had purchased investment properties, so she coordinated a seminar to help them maximize their investment.

Villegas’ sweet spot in her marketing efforts is the face-to-face opportunities she creates. She is also very hands-on when it comes to causes close to her heart. An active volunteer with her son’s school, Villegas, her husband and son have traveled to Guatemala on two separate occasions to help build schools. During the holiday season, she hosts a party to collect toys for the Salvation Army. And she always carries snacks and drinks in her car for homeless people in her community.

In every facet of her life, Villegas works to instill in her son the importance of helping others and in making a difference.

Having watched how hard her parents and grandparents worked to make a better life, Villegas constantly strives to pay that forward.

“I know I have it easier thanks to them, but they inspire me to continue their legacy—to work hard to be a better person.”

Ensuring the continuity of that family legacy informs every aspect of her life, particularly her involvement with the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals. “NAHREP’s mission of promoting sustainable homeownership for Hispanics perfectly aligns with my personal mission,” says Villegas. “The overall optimism of NAHREP’s leadership is very uplifting, and now, as a member of the board of directors, I play a personal role in advancing that optimism.”

A recent client experience perfectly illustrates that critical combination of optimism and personal involvement. “When your 95-year-old client invites you for lunch to celebrate her closing and requests White Castle, you bring it!”

Clearly, Villegas brings the burgers and a whole lot more. But she also works hard at having balance in all aspects of her life, being present for both her clients and her family.

“I make a point of turning my phone off for a few hours so I can give my family and friends undivided attention. I also take at least two evenings off each week to have dinner with my husband and son,” explains Villegas.

At a recent YPN event, Villegas stressed how important it is to be able to articulate your value proposition. “What have you done? What can you bring to the table? What name are you creating for yourself?”

As someone who walks her talk, Villegas has undoubtedly made a mark…and is nowhere near finished.

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