Mario Gandara had a successful business going — that is, until customs shut him down.

Fresh out of UCLA, the future real estate mogul was moderately successful but aimless, selling sports jerseys from Korea out of the back of his car. But when customs agencies from all three North American countries caught wind — Gandara was importing through friends across the continent — he had to change course or face consequences.

He chose the former, but he didn’t realize at the time just how much ambition it would take to get where he is today. Ultimately, the road he traveled took him straight through the University of Washington School of Law, where he earned his J.D and MBA in 2009.

“I realized that if I don’t know what I want to do, I need to do something and move forward with positive momentum,” Gandara said. “It wasn’t that I envisioned a law career, I just really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. And I knew that with a B.A. it was going to be an uphill battle moving forward in terms of what I wanted for myself.”

As vice president of NAI Capital and based in Southern California, Gandara deals in commercial real estate in one of the hottest markets in the country. Before that, he worked for other top companies including Investment Real Estate Associates, Grubb & Ellis and Chicago Title.

Despite his role as an industry leader today, the road was not easy for Gandara, who watched UW Law classmates go on to successful legal careers while he fought to pursue a different route. With few connections in the business, little experience and a lot of unreturned phone calls, it took all he had to not give up.

As Gandara put it: “I knew where I wanted to go — but I just didn’t see there was a clear path to get there.”

Doubling Down

Shuttering his sports apparel endeavor solidified his decision to go to law school — an inspiration he can’t fully explain but felt nonetheless. Gandara moved to L.A., crashed on a friend’s couch and spent his days poring over materials preparing for the LSAT. He tallied a solid score and was accepted into UW Law.

Emboldened by the milestone but aware he didn’t want to practice law, he leveraged the law school’s concurrent degree program to pursue his MBA as well.

Given UW Law’s unique position as a leading research institution, the School of Law offers expansive dual degree opportunities that allow students to personalize their study of law by adding knowledge, skills and analytical tools from other disciplines.

In law school, Gandara leveraged internship opportunities at two local law firms and, in his last summer, at a top real estate firm. After the internship, he said, he knew he wanted to get into real estate.

Gandara returned to Southern California, where he began an arduous journey in the profession. It would be two years before he had the opportunity to sell a property.

Just because things are getting tough, you can’t give up and fall back.

Mario Gandara

“You can’t look back,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily difficult to face yourself, but you can’t regret your decision, and just because things are getting tough, you can’t give up and fall back.”

Gandara said he probably called just about every firm in San Diego and just couldn’t get an offer. He read voraciously and studied the industry day in and day out. “I ate, slept and drank real estate — that’s it,” he said.

Upon expanding his search to Los Angeles, he got a bite and finally broke through, and after bouncing around to a couple of different companies, he joined NAI Capital in 2011 and his career took off — though not without a few growing pains.

“The only thing you can control in this business is your time,” Gandara said. “When you’re starting out, you waste a lot of time, and that’s a huge mistake. You have to work hard, and you have to be persistent.

“I didn’t get paid my first year in the business, and I knew I couldn’t keep jumping around. So, I essentially trained myself and learned through my mistakes.”

When he finally reached his breakthrough moment — a client offered him a building to sell, off which he made a gratifying profit — he was ready. And he credits his abilities to communicate, think critically and navigate the complex legal world of the real estate to his education and experience at UW Law.

Today, Gandara is a powerful force in the Southern California real estate industry, brokering major deals with some of the biggest commercial properties in the country. Looking back on his journey through UW Law, he remains positive for law students like himself who have similar ambitions to do something different with their law degrees.


“If you’re a law student and you’re interested in getting into brokerage or another industry, it is much easier to communicate and you’ll really stand out with that J.D. on your resume, and people will put their guard down,” Gandara said. “It just really helps out with a client’s confidence at the outset.”

Learn more about UW Law’s dual degree programs.