“Robert always had interesting schemes to consider,” says Ruth Reffkin, mother of Compass Founder and CEO Robert Reffkin. She affectionately remembers the time back in the early 1990’s when Robert, who just moved from the Bay Area to New York City for college, tried to sway his mother to buy an apartment in New York—his first real estate initiative.
“His plan was we would get a two bedroom apartment that he lived in and there would be a place for me to stay when I come visit,” Ruth explains. “We didn’t do that…” But Ruth, always a champion of her son’s big ideas—his “schemes”—took the opportunity to meet with realtors to see if there was a two bedroom apartment that might fit the bill.
When Robert asked how her search went, Ruth was honest: “I saw some very beautiful apartments, but the agents were terrible,” she said. At this point, Ruth had spent most of her career working at New York Life, selling insurance and managing other insurance agents—she knew what a good salesperson looked like. And that day in New York, she didn’t see it.
“I could be a better real estate agent than them,” Ruth joked.
Perhaps on another day, in another city, or at another restaurant, the mother and son duo would have shared an “oh well” laugh and shifted gears in the conversation. But that night, Robert challenged Ruth: “Well,” he said. “Why don’t you?”
Little did either Reffkin know, but that simple question would change their lives, and the real estate market, forever. “Compass would not exist today if he hadn’t said that,” Ruth acknowledges.
Ruth did become an agent, and Robert famously credits his mother’s work as the inspiration for founding Compass. Yet it is Ruth’s personal story—growing up as an immigrant in New York City, moving to California as part of the peace and love generation, entering a male-dominated workforce, and raising a black son as a single mother—that shapes the company’s mission, culture, and values, and the reason it’s transforming our perception of realtors and brokerages.
Born in Israel, Ruth and her family moved to New York’s Upper West Side in 1952. A lover of science, Ruth dreamed of being a doctor. By the time she attended college, Ruth realized it was actually social sciences that interested her most, and she earned a bachelors and masters degree in sociology—“all of which qualified me to be a secretary,” Ruth jokes.
The 1960s civil rights movement shaped Ruth’s ideals and how she found her place in the world. She was invested in the cultural moment, even attending Woodstock before moving to California. Ruth remembers Woodstock for its sense of community and Janis Joplin’s voice, but had no idea what a big role the event would play in her life and in the world. “I love things in life that later on take on a different significance from the one in the moment,” Ruth says—like the fateful night many years later when her son would challenge her to become a realtor.
After moving to Berkeley, California, Ruth bought a house with a group of friends. She remembers living for herself, in the moment, before the idealism of youth began to ferment into adult reality: friends moved away, Ruth went back to school to get a certificate in early childhood education, bought the house, turned the first floor into a pre-school: The Unicorn School, and then she became pregnant with Robert.
During the first years of her son’s life Ruth Reffkin truly relied on the proverbial village. “I survived because of my friends who helped me, took me in, supported me, and so I strive to be that kind of person to others,” she says of those early years, while she raised Robert and ran The Unicorn School.
“We named it The Unicorn School because there was a poster that we love that said: ‘We are all like unicorns, rare and beautiful.’ And we wanted the kids to feel that way,” Ruth remembers. They even called their students—which eventually included Robert Reffkin—”little unicorns.” She could never have imagined the name would stick.
In today’s market, a privately held startup business is labeled a unicorn when it is valued at over $1 billion. At the time of its IPO, Compass was valued at nearly $7 billion, making Robert Reffkin a unicorn several times over. Before Compass even got its unicorn’s horn in 2016, Ruth remembers telling her son, “Robert, you’ve always been a little unicorn and you made it work.”
Ruth excelled in the educational sector, even becoming Director of Early Childhood Services of the Oakland Piedmont Jewish Community Center, overseeing 24 staff members and serving 300 families. “It was a big deal!” Ruth says emphatically. “But I still wasn’t making decent money…Basically, I could not afford to send my son to my own program, and so that was kind of a wake-up call.”
Around that time, Ruth met a recruiter from the New York Life Insurance Company who convinced her to work for the company. She became an agent, and eventually a manager—only the third woman to ever be a manager at that company. The transition was challenging, but Ruth met it with steely resolve. “A lot of times in order to be successful, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable,” she says, remembering the meetings and conferences where out-of-town colleagues would make crude and disparaging jokes about the diversity within her city.
“You know, so there I am, at a table with people whose opinion of me affected my career. And they’re making jokes that make me uncomfortable, and I have to decide at that moment: Do you say nothing? Do you pretend to laugh? Or do you stand up to them?” Ruth says. “It’s a luxury to be able to stand up to certain things.” After all, Ruth was a single mother who needed the job. Demonstrating in the office wouldn’t have exactly been the most practical plan.
“It was a very different world for me and I had to adjust to it. And there were times when I just didn’t say anything because I was too intimidated—because I was already different.” Ruth decided she would take action to stand up to the prejudice she experienced in the workplace in her own authentic way. “So what I started doing is hiring with diversity in mind, though we didn’t call it that at the time,” she says.
One thing Ruth valued about her career at New York Life Insurance is the vigorous training they gave each employee. When she eventually decided to shift careers into real estate Ruth knew full well how to use her tool belt of sales skills. “The thing about real estate that I like better than life insurance is you’re not tied to an office setting, which you have to be a certain way.” Being a realtor with her own clients and her own schedule really allowed Ruth to be her most authentic self in her career. “I found clients who liked me the way I was,” Ruth says. “They don’t need me to wear Chanel.”
The most authentic part of Ruth’s brand as a realtor (and a human being) is her ability to bring love, compassion, and integrity to each of her relationships. “Giving love to each other, taking care of each other, and being generous to each other and our community is what informs all of my relationships,” Ruth says. “Whether I’m selling somebody life insurance or a home, or a piece of cake, I need to feel it’s right for you. It can’t just be right for me to get that income.”
Ruth’s golden rule when she’s working with clients is listening. “I think in all sales you have to really key into the person and their needs, their wishes. You have to care about them. You have to listen.” As a company, Compass has built its reputation on their ability to listen to agents—to hear and understand their needs.
When Ruth first became a real estate agent she often found herself working for brokerages that offered little support and did not respond to agents’ needs. Years later, Robert wanted “to build a company that would give agents what I could have used when I was starting out,” Ruth says. As he was getting started, and still to this day, Robert asks Ruth many questions about everything she and other agents would need to improve their businesses. Like his mother, Robert listens, really, truly, to the things his mother and other agents say they need.
According to Ruth, the three most valuable tools Compass provides its agents are Collections, the tool that allows agents and buyers to share what they like about different properties; the CRM (Client Relationship Management system), which really allows agents to own their own client relationships; and health insurance. “Robert didn’t know that agents had to buy their own health insurance, and when I explained that to him he said ‘WHAT!? WHAT?!’ he was freaked out and he made that a top priority.”
For a long time these were the kind of conversations Ruth and Robert were having, and many takeaways from those conversations eventually became incorporated into the Compass business. “I’m not afraid to tell him anything,” Ruth says of their communicative relationship. “And I’m his mother; I don’t need to sugarcoat anything.”
One of the reasons that Ruth thinks Robert and Compass have experienced great success is because of the company’s “Collaborate Without Ego” principle. “Somehow Robert is confident enough that he doesn’t need to feel like the smartest person in the room. And if you don’t feel like you have to be the smartest, then you can surround yourself with people smarter than you, which is a good way to be successful. If you’re only surrounded with people who are inferior to you, how are you going to grow?”
Ruth remembers a party the company threw when they opened their office on Manhattan’s West Side, where Robert and a couple of other C-suite executives decided to play bartender. Ruth knew her son wasn’t much of a drinker and knew little about mixology, so she looked on with amusement while Robert shook, stirred, and poured drinks throughout the night. “It was funny. It was cute,” Ruth said.
Later in the evening, two newly recruited agents pulled Ruth aside and said that the owner of their previous brokerage would have never done that. Ruth didn’t understand what they were insinuating. “You mean he didn’t come to parties?” she asked. “They said no, he never would’ve served us. He would’ve seen it as below him.” Ruth couldn’t help to find it hilarious, “So I said, yeah, we’re a family here. Nobody’s better than anybody else.” And to the new agents this was an incredibly meaningful gesture. “Well, you know,” Ruth says, “I raised him that way. I raised him in the community and we care about others. He knows full well that he would not be where he is…” Ruth trails off. “You know he has a book coming out?” she asks.
It’s no surprise that Robert Reffkin’s newly released book is called No One Succeeds Alone. As his mother’s son Robert understands the true value of each relationship we make, the importance of authentic connection; how to show up with love, and prioritize taking care of each other and our community—that’s the proverbial village that helped him build Compass.
A realtor’s mission might be to help people buy and sell homes, but Ruth Reffkin treats the job as so much more. For Ruth, it’s not about the house, or the buyers, or the commision—it’s about showing up, listening, and helping people find their way. This is why Ruth places a premium on mentorship, friendship, and treating people like family. When Robert told his mother Compass’s mission, “to help everyone find their place in the world” Ruth remembers saying,“Yes! That’s it!”