It was an eye-popping introduction to the world of commercial real estate.
Walking through Philadelphia’s first true “vertical neighborhood,” the FMC Tower in University City, a cluster of high school students toured the trophy office space of Brandywine Realty Trust. They moved on to the 28th-story, deluxe amenity floor with its golf simulator, hydrotherapy spa, private theater, 73-foot-long rooftop pool, and a skyline terrace with fire pits. Then the students moved higher in the 49-story tower to the luxury apartments that, poised more than 400 feet above ground, offered panoramic views of the city.
By the end of the tour and its introduction to commercial real estate talk, students who previously knew little to nothing about CRE were reacting excitedly to the project and the profession.
The event was part of a 12-day CRE summer immersion program, sponsored by NAIOP with support from the Real Estate Executive Council (REEC), hosted by Villanova University and managed by NEXUS Summer Programs. Last summer, NAIOP, along with partners REEC and NEXUS, conducted the programs in Philadelphia, Atlanta and New York City. Now, the partners are actively seeking to expand the program across the country and striving to serve 1,500 high school students by 2023.
The NAIOP and REEC CRE Summer Intensive began with a one-city pilot in 2017 and a goal to address a deep and ongoing problem within CRE, namely a lack of diversity. White males comprise nearly 80 percent of senior leadership within the industry, according to a NAIOP benchmark survey.
“Commercial real estate, and NAIOP in particular, are working to attract and incorporate minorities and women into our businesses, particularly in leadership positions,” said Greg Fuller, 2019 NAIOP chairman and president and COO of Granite Properties. “Diversity by age is very important, as it provides diversity of thought. Given the technological advances that have been made in the last decade, our companies need these younger workers who intuitively understand technology.”
Consequently, the summer immersion program recruits high-performing, minority students who are about enter grades 11 or 12. University professors and industry experts provide the students with an intensive education experience that covers fundamentals of commercial real estate, information about how to excel in college, and guidance on how to deal with social and emotional aspects of college life, including stress, anxiety and gender or racial bias. Students ranked the most popular sessions from the 2018 programs and they included “Development and Construction,” “Marketing and Selling Real Estate,” “Public Engagement in Private Projects,” “Real Estate Venture Capitalist,” “Real Estate Curriculum — Technology,” “99 Motivators for College Success” and “How to Present like a Professional.”
In addition, field trips to commercial real estate sites and a team project/competition based on one of those visits clearly stoked students’ excitement in the industry. Students toured Tyler Perry Studios, the Porsche Test Track, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market and other sites. A spinoff, long-weekend program in 2017 and 2018 gave students in Washington State a shorter CRE immersion and opportunities to tour the Amazon Biodome, Oculus and Tableau for Architecture.
Students in the Villanova program were challenged to come up with a development plan for Festival Pier — a reclaimed site along the Delaware River. Students visited the site, met with the executive director of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (the nonprofit tasked with redeveloping the region) and learned about the region’s history, masterplan and community desires. In a little over a week, teams of students crafted and presented plans and financial analyses for mixed-use developments.
“We were blown away by the quality of the presentations and the students’ level of interest in the subject matter,” said Brandywine Realty Trust Vice President of Development Joe Ritchie, a NAIOP Greater Philadelphia board member and an organizer of the summer program. “On our board, we have folks who judge MBA competitions and they said the kids weren’t too far off the level of MBA presentations.”
Analyses of the 2017 pilot and the three 2018 programs show the summer experience had dramatic impact on the participants. Among participants in a session at Georgia State, none of the students had any previous knowledge of careers in CRE. Following the program, 37.5 percent said they intend to major in CRE in college, 18.8 percent plan to pursue a CRE minor and 50 percent said they are interested in a career in CRE.
Evan Batiste, a high school student from Middlebury, Connecticut, was among the participants in the Columbia University/Fordham University session who had no previous knowledge of CRE. But he loved the program and his team won the session’s competition to create an adaptive reuse plan for a Harlem brownstone. Batiste, a high school senior, decided to pursue a CRE career, has secured a college acceptance and is already thinking about ways to get involved in the industry.
“This program doesn’t just expose you to an industry; it gives you connections that will help you later in life,” he said. “If you need an internship, there are people who will help you find one.”
Among all the participants in the CRE summer sessions, 95 percent expressed interest in landing CRE internships.
In Philadelphia, Ritchie and his fellow board members are already plotting to make the summer program an annual event and to build on it.
“Our idea is to use the success of the program as a platform to expand how we might push diversity,” Ritchie said, added that talks have already started about establishing internships, scholarships and other initiatives.
For a look inside the CRE summer immersion program at Georgia State, watch the video produced by instructors and students.
Linda Strowbridge is a freelance business writer based in Baltimore, MD. A long-time journalist in Canada and the U.S., Linda now writes extensively about the built environment, economic development, green business and the insights of business leaders.