From flipping burgers to CEO: How a young girl from 'very humble beginnings' immigrated from Cuba and founded Miami's top brokerage

  • As a child in the early 1960s, Mayi de la Vega immigrated from Cuba to South Florida. 
  • From an early age, she was taught the importance and value of hard work, first through a job at Burger King, then working for her father's aerospace equipment company.
  • After leaving her father's business she worked her way up from a start as a lowly broker at Coldwell Banker.
  • Now the founder and CEO of Miami's top brokerage, ONE Sotheby's International Realty, her clients include celebrities ranging from Pharrell Williams to David Beckham.
  • She says she got to the top — the brokerage's total sales volume hit $1.46 billion in a recent year — by making "one decision at a time."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When she was a child in the early 1960s, Mayi de la Vega immigrated from Cuba to Hialeah, Florida, with her father and stepmother. When they arrived, they didn't have much.

"We started from very very humble beginnings to make a new life," Mayi told Business Insider. "There was no money to buy even a magazine. To be able to get one was a huge treat."

At 14, eager to make her own money, Mayi landed her first job at a Burger King in the greater Miami metropolitan area. Her hustle soon found a reward close to home: her father. "My dad saw that I found this job on my own, so he offered me a job with the company he was working for," she said. 

For nearly two decades — through high school, college, and beyond — Mayi worked alongside her father, and when he retired, she struck out on her own in the real estate industry. She would go on to become the founder and CEO of ONE Sotheby's International Realty, ranked as the top residential brokerage in Miami-Dade county by The Real Deal in 2019, with a total sales volume of $1.46 billion from July 15, 2018, through June 15, 2019. Here's how she did it.

From Burger King to business acumen

May's job flipping burgers gave her a first taste of hard work and discipline, she said.

"My first job at Burger King was an eye-opener, and early on I realized I needed to study and work hard in order to prosper and succeed," she wrote in Time magazine in 2018.

"I didn't find my calling until I majored in business at Florida International University. I applied what I learned in school to encourage my father to start a company that sold aerospace materials to companies including Lockheed Martin and Boeing," she wrote in Time.

By 1981, Mayi's father had rounded up enough money to launch Intercontinental Metals.

In her quest to build the company with him, Mayi was in charge of  managing all operations and accounting, per her writing in Time and interview with Business Insider. She also said she was also able to travel around the world to conduct business, growing both her network — and a passion for architecture.

The transition to real estate

Mayi's work with aerospace materials came to a close in the early '90s, when her father sold his company and retired. 

"I thought, what I am going to do now? I love working with people, I love to travel, I love architecture and design," she said. She decided to take a shot in real estate, and became a Coldwell Banker agent in the posh Miami enclave of Coral Gables. 

"Like anything in life, when you want to do it really well, the balancing act is really hard," she said.

She spent around a year at Coldwell before moving to a boutique brokerage in the nearby neighborhood of Cocoplum.

"I was living in Cocoplum, and they dominated that market," she explained. "I started working seven days a week and started building my clientele by doing open houses every single Sunday from around 12 p.m. to 6 p.m."

In 2003, after her perseverance had yielded her a fair market share, she launched her own boutique firm, Stuart de la Vega, which she grew to around 35 agents. 

The path to Sotheby's

About five years later, amid the Great Recession, a golden opportunity arose: The Sotheby's International Realty franchise for South Florida was up for grabs. 

Given the economic climate, Mayi had trepidations about demand for Miami properties: "I thought, 'What do I do? Do I go forward? Do I just back out and not do this? Who is going to want to buy real estate in the middle of this crisis?'"

"I remember at the time, they were asking, 'Do you think you could meet a growth commission income?' I think a minimum of $3 million back then," she said. "And I was so scared, I thought, 'Oh my goodness gracious, how am I ever going to do that?'" 

But, she said she had a sense that Miami's luxury market would prosper in the coming years.

So in December 2008, she acquired the franchise rights to Sotheby's International in South Florida and founded ONE Sotheby's. Mayi declined to disclose the purchase price, but she told Business Insider that it was a leap of faith.

She said she had lost money in the stock market that year, like so many others and was "kind of tight financially to be able to put all this together and spend the money I needed to spend."

Growth mode, celebrity clients and the coronavirus

What began as a single ONE Sotheby's office now stretches across 18 locations on the eastern Florida coast and encompasses 1,000 agents.

Mayi told Business Insider that ONE Sotheby's 2019 results were even more impressive than the figures reflected in its top ranking by The Real Deal, because off-market or new development sales weren't included. 

In addition to its impressive numbers, the brokerage has also handled sales and purchase for big-name clients including David and Victoria Beckham, Pharrell Williams, and DJ Khaled.

As Mayi, now founder and CEO of the brokerage, reflects on her career, one word comes to mind: discipline. 

Among other improvements, she beefed up the brokerage's "infrastructure," upgrading its website and marketing materials. A key to her success has been providing her agents with "an amazing platform for them to grow their business," citing detailed training programs and networking opportunities via a global network of Sotheby's affiliates as two tools that she gives her agents.

And while the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent economic volatility have posed challenges to real estate professionals across the board, Mayi told Business Insider that she's been using this time to support her agents and help them adapt.

Mayi's agents will need all her support, too, as the South Florida market is staying unseasonably hot this winter. Per a third-quarter market report jointly conducted by appraisal giant Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman, condos and single-family homes in Miami's coastal mainland saw the median sales price grow 13.5% year-over-year and closed deals rise 6% during that same time.

Mayi has a clear goal for the months ahead: "We're going to continue to grow along Florida's east coast."

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