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Transforming Miami's Waterfront

Pioneering developer makes New York-style loft living a hit in the Miami River area.

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With her 2 1/2-year-old daughter singing in the background, Lissette Calderon, founder and CEO of Neo Concepts LLC, makes multimillion-dollar real estate deals that are changing the face of the Miami River area in Florida. At 33, Calderon, a first-generation Cuban, sees no dichotomy between home life and work. Not only is her young daughter's crib in the office, but Lissette's mother, Maria Calderon, serves as director of sales for NEO Concepts. Lissette has just returned from Russia, where she and her husband have adopted another child. "Family isimportant," says the busy executive.

Raised in Miami by parents who left Cuba in the early 1960s, Calderon admits her favorite hobby was playing with Legos. "I would build entire cities. And when my family would go on vacation, we'd always look at real estate. I love it; it's my passion."

After graduating with honors from Wharton Business School, Calderon began her career as an investment banker at Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette in New York, where she fell in love with the loft-style living the SoHo district offered. Realizing she preferred development to finance, she moved back to Miami after a year to work with real estate developers Terremark and The Related Group of Florida. "I was already hooked on loft living and saw a real-estate niche that wasn't being filled in the area. I knew I had to start my own company."

Soon enough, she convinced her parents that she could do it; they sold some properties they owned and rolled the money into Calderon's project. "How could I expect a bank to loan me money if I didn't have our money in the project?" she asks. Even so, she was rejected by several financial institutions before Wachovia offered to participate. After that, finding other partners to invest in the Miami River area became easier.

Calderon's first solo project, the 199-unit Neo Lofts condominium, is everything she couldn't find when she moved back to Miami--an affordably priced loft space with tall ceilings and open floor plans in an industrial area. "I knew that I wanted to bring young, hip, loft living to Miami, and the river area was perfect for it," says Calderon.

Calderon is responsible for Neo's strategic vision and the direction of the company. She oversees and manages all aspects of the organization, including acquisition, development, construction, finance and accounting, marketing and interior design. "One of the biggest challenges is moving from a small company to a large one. What makes you great as a small company might not work in a big company, but we try to keep the organization flat, keep the procedures simple and encourage a sense of entrepreneurship."

With 40 full-time employees and more than 300 involved in on-site construction, Neo Lofts was completed and sold in 18 months, and Calderon and her team moved on to two other projects: Neo Vertika, in association with Epoch Corp., and Wind by Neo. The company is doing more than $100 million in gross sales and anticipates growing to a billion-dollar company. Not surprisingly, Calderon's vision goes beyond Miami. "We are exploring other opportunities and joint ventures in the Caribbean and other parts of the world."

She still has time to get involved in her local community, serving on the board of Amigos for Kids and participating in the 5K run to support breast cancer research. "I am blessed," she says. "And while it may be a man's world, it's not a hindrance being a woman. Women can have it all; we just can't have it all at the same time."