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HIGH PROFILE: Jessica Flake Dearnley stays busy with real estate, charity work

Jessica Dearnley keeps her plate full with her work for the homeless, in real estate and her multiple degrees. Try not to blink. by Werner Trieschmann | October 24, 2021 at 2:29 a.m.
“The homeless end up having mental health issues or substance abuse problems just from the emotional trauma of being homeless. The one thing that bothers homeless people the most is not being looked at in the eye. I always believe that everyone deserves to be looked at in the eye and respected.” -Jessica Dearnley (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Should you want to keep track of Jessica Dearnley, it'd be in your best interest not to blink.

Blink.

Dearnley leads Little Rock's Flake and Company, making her the only female in Arkansas to head up a major commercial real estate firm.

Blink.

Dearnley is involved in a number of charitable organizations. She just served as host to Jericho Way's recent Sleep Out in the Rock fundraiser. The one-night event was held in MacArthur Park to raise awareness and money to support the homeless.

"Depaul USA Jericho Way is a public and private partnership that is a day resource center for people who experience homelessness," says Mandy Davis, director of the Little Rock operation. "Jessica and her husband, Matt, wanted to get involved and help with Sleep Out in the Rock. They came through for that. It's a fundraiser that raises vital funds for our operations. It was a great success."

The issue of homelessness is one that concerns Dearnley, who wants to fight it not just with money but with a change in attitudes.

"I want to help find solutions to our community's homelessness issue," Dearnley says. "The homeless end up having mental health issues or substance abuse problems just from the emotional trauma of being homeless. The one thing that bothers homeless people the most is not being looked at in the eye. I always believe that everyone deserves to be looked at in the eye and respected."

Blink.

Dearnley has a family and a business but that hasn't stopped her from adding to her already impressive stack of educational credentials that includes a master of business administration degree from the University of Miami and a master's in accounting from the University of Arkansas. She's a CFA (chartered financial analyst), CPA (certified public accountant) and CCIM (certified commercial investment manager).

She is working on a master of science in finance with a specialty in real estate. This comes from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.

"It is virtual, but we can visit and go to classes and meet with our professors," Dearnley says. "The faculty has been exceptional. I have been through a lot of programs, and find the instruction outstanding. It is an international program as well, so we have people from China and I get to learn so many perspectives. It is my belief that it's always important to continue education."

Blink.

Think that's enough? Naw. Let's add some weight to the bar and to Dearnley's schedule. In the last few years, Dearnley has taken up the sport of powerlifting.

"I competed for the second time in June, and won my age and weight division," Dearnley says. "In a way, it adds stress, like [my classes] at Johns Hopkins, but there is a goal and end in sight each time and I remind myself that I am competing against my own past accomplishments, not others."

Blink.

Of her packed-to-the-gills life, Dearnley is pretty straightforward in acknowledging that it's not for everyone.

"It's a lot to take on at once but that's what I always do," Dearnley says.

DISCIPLINED

Born in Little Rock in 1974, Dearnley says one of her first memories is her parents telling her that she had a new little sister on the way. It would be her only sibling.

Dearnley's father, John Flake, is a longtime leader in commercial real estate in Little Rock. Flake helped develop the Simmons Bank building in downtown Little Rock among many other notable projects. Dearnley took an interest in her father's business early, listening as he negotiated the details of complex deals.

"He worked a lot," Dearnley recalls. "He was always on his phone and would come home and be on his phone again. I was always eavesdropping. He didn't realize that someone was listening."

Dad worked while Dearnley's mother, Karen, "volunteered all the time and was president of several boards." Later, her mother would run Mount St. Mary Academy. As her parents were busy with a calendar chock-full of meetings, this activity left a lasting impression on Dearnley.

"I was always worried about whether I was doing enough with the time I had," Dearnley says.

Dearnley, growing up in Little Rock's Prospect Terrace neighborhood, was independent and self-directed. Even when not yet in middle school, she kept her appointments and lived close enough where she could walk to her piano lessons and ballet classes.

"I've always been very disciplined," Dearnley says.

She could also keep herself entertained.

"I had a wall in my backyard that I jumped off of, and a tree house. I loved playing in my backyard. I was shy and introverted. My daughters say I would have been the awkward kid."

School was something to be taken seriously and Dearnley admits, "I was hard on myself if I got a bad grade." Bad grades were few and far between and it was the same for Dearnley about breaking any rules.

"I got a detention once for talking in class. I was traumatized and was crying. There was a boy who was serving detention with me who said, 'I've had 50 [detentions] and you are crying over one.'"

Instead of finishing her high school education at Mount St. Mary's, Dearnley spent her final three years more than 1,000 miles away at Brooks School, a co-ed boarding school in North Andover, Mass.

"The decision to go came from me," Dearnley says. "A counselor placed me [at Brooks] and, at the time, it had an enrollment of around 300. It was hard to think about leaving my family but I wanted to go away to school."

It didn't take too long for the Little Rock native to adjust to her school in the northeast. She even picked up a new passion that was particular to that part of the country.

"I was on the varsity ice hockey team," Dearnley recalls. "I had never skated before but I loved it. I went to ice hockey camps to get better. I played on the right wing and I was good at speed. It was something I never tried before. I always choose the hardest path. I love the challenge of it."

HORIZONS

For college, Dearnley set her sights on Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

"I felt I had already had a liberal arts education [at Brooks School]," Dearnley says. "What I was missing was the science and technical side. I was impressed with the school when I visited it. I constantly kept thinking about expanding my horizons and wanted to see what was going on in the big world out there."

Dearnley would eventually graduate with a double major in cognitive psychology and creative writing. Around this time, Dearnley was exposed to the inner workings of Washington, serving as a page for Arkansas representatives to the House and Senate and then later as an intern at the White House.

"I worked in 1995 in the Public Liaison Office for the White House. It was at the same time as Monica Lewinski. I had heard about her through the gossip of other interns. I had a different pass than Monica. My pass got me into one office and one building. She had a different pass."

The view of how the sausage was made in U.S. government was a memorable one for Dearnley. It was not something she could see herself doing in the years to come.

"When I was a page, I enjoyed the running around getting water and documents. The empathetic side of me saw that the staff lived in unrelenting stress with very little gratitude or reward. I strongly admire anyone willing to devote their lives to public service."

'RENT' IN NYC

In the mid-1990s, Dearnley was living and working in New York when she met her future husband, Matthew.

"I met him in 1996 at a Christmas party at his parents' house. His mother put together a party for kids from Little Rock living in New York City at the time. He knew his way around New York. He was fun. For our first date, we went to see 'Rent.' This was before anybody knew what 'Rent' was. He was just like that. He invited me to go skiing with his parents and he didn't even ask them for permission."

Out of college, Dearnley filled her resume with various jobs, including work for the Royal Caribbean Cruises, and working in wealth management before deciding to come back home to Arkansas and work for her father's real estate company.

"My dad had asked me to move back," Dearnley says. "I wanted prove myself. I'm still trying to prove myself. He pulls me in to what he is doing. He is good at that."

In the end, there didn't seem much downside in coming home and stepping into the business that had the family name.

"If I am going have this much stress, I may as well do it for my family," Dearnley says. "It felt better working with my father. [My dad] loves development. He is always on to the next opportunity and next deal. He loves to mentor people. He has constant ideas and he is 74."

The current climate for commercial real estate is still being rattled by the pandemic that sent so many office workers home with laptops to log in for an endless series of Zoom meetings.

"There are people who will never go back to an office to work," Dearnley says. "Other firms want their workers back. They want and need that collaborative environment. It gets lonely working at home. But I am very cautious. I always look for the problems. It's the accountant in me. I can talk anybody out of a sale."

Flake and Company co-founder Thomas Schmidt notes that Dearnley's financial expertise is a huge asset.

"Being a chief financial analyst as [Dearnley] is, that carries a large stick in the real estate world," Schmidt says.

"We produce financial reports for our clients," Dearnley says. "I want to provide a great product."

It shouldn't be a surprise that Dearnley is not settled on one path to follow in the real estate business.

"I'm not set in my way of doing things," Dearnley says. "If there is a better way to do this, let me know. It sounds cliche but I want my business to put people first -- the people in my team around me and my clients as well. I want to make sure the firm has the right reputation."

Dearnley is only satisfied pushing forward and moving on to the next thing. She even hints at one day dusting off her creative writing degree for a story that she feels needs to be told.

If you want to catch that, you definitely don't want to blink.

SELF PORTRAIT

Jessica Dearnley

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 31, 1974, Little Rock

• IF I COULD JUMP ON A PLANE RIGHT NOW, I WOULD GO: Climb Mount Denali and ski down it, then head to La Grave and Chamonix, France, so I can speak French in between "turns."

• I CAN'T RELAX UNLESS: I have written down my work to-do list, have had a very heavy-lifting training session or intense sprinting/sled-pushing, told my children how much I love them, and (finally) said prayers for peace and forgiveness.

• ADVICE I WOULD GIVE ANYONE INTERESTED IN WORKING IN REAL ESTATE: Like any asset class, return is related to risk. There is a lot of speculation and optimism that values will continue to increase. Be sure to have a good capital structure and sufficient cash flow that will weather economic downturns. Watch the documentary "Overdose: The Next Financial Crisis." I watched it again recently and got chills as I am seeing some of the exact same issues today.

• ADVICE I WAS GIVEN WHEN I WAS YOUNG THAT HAS REMAINED WITH ME: The way you live your days is the way you live your life. (From my mom.)

• A GREAT MEAL MUST INCLUDE: Engaging conversation and great company.

• THE GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Warren Buffett, Martin Luther King Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand.

• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Driven.

“The homeless end up having mental health issues or substance abuse problems just from the emotional trauma of being homeless. The one thing that bothers homeless people the most is not being looked at in the eye. I always believe that everyone deserves to be looked at in the eye and respected.” -Jessica Dearnley
(Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
“The homeless end up having mental health issues or substance abuse problems just from the emotional trauma of being homeless. The one thing that bothers homeless people the most is not being looked at in the eye. I always believe that everyone deserves to be looked at in the eye and respected.” -Jessica Dearnley (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Print Headline: Jessica Flake Dearnley

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