Diversity and Inclusion: “It Has to Be on the Agenda”
It’s no secret that the commercial real estate industry has a long way to go before it truly reflects the diversity of America.
For example, statistics from the 2013 Commercial Real Estate Diversity Report found that white men, who are 31 percent of the total U.S. population, held the majority of executive (77.6 percent), managerial (68.9 percent), professional (58.5 percent) and technical (59.7 percent) jobs in the industry.
To address those lingering demographic disparities, a panel discussion during NAIOP’s Chapter Leadership & Legislative Retreat, held last week in Washington, D.C., highlighted notable efforts by three NAIOP chapters to promote inclusivity in the workplace.
A Woman on Every Panel
Cindy McSherry, executive director of NAIOP Chicago, said that a short comment during a monthly board meeting about including women on panels led to a simple initiative that has generated real results.
McSherry said she realized that the lack of women in the industry unintentionally caused her to set up panels that were almost exclusively male.
“You go to what’s easy when you’re putting together a program, and often you know mostly men,” she said. “You have to be a little more thoughtful to bring in women. People noticed that little teeny tiny step. This is a conversation that’s not going to change overnight.”
NAIOP Chicago also launched a scholarship program to boost diversity with an equally simple decision —shifting proceeds from a chapter gala into commercial real estate-related scholarships at DePaul University, Marquette University and Roosevelt University. (The latter has a strong program for people of color.)
To mark the fourth year of the program, NAIOP Chicago put together a video to challenge the city’s commercial real estate industry to be more inclusive.
McSherry said messages promoting diversity such as those showcased in the video are powerful, but she stressed that the topic must come up more than once or twice a year. She urged NAIOP chapters to create a position on their boards focused on diversity and inclusion.
“You have to have this conversation at every single monthly board meeting,” she said. “It may not solve every issue, but it has to be on the agenda. That makes a difference.”
CRE Summer Camp
Expanding the pipeline of talent into the commercial real estate industry has long been a concern, said Debbie Koenig, executive director of NAIOP Georgia, and it’s important to reach potential employees when they’re young. But that hasn’t always been easy.
“Not many people in high school go, ‘I want to be a broker,’ unless it’s part of their family,” she said.
To address the pipeline problem, NAIOP Georgia launched a groundbreaking program in 2017: a two-week summer camp for high school students that’s focused exclusively on the commercial real estate industry. CRE Experience, which was held at Georgia State University in Atlanta, was developed by NAIOP Georgia and the university in partnership with Nexus Programs and the Real Estate Executive Council.
“We’re talking about young people who come in and think they want to be lawyers or other things,” said Koenig. “But we bring them to Georgia State to immerse them in commercial real estate. You have to make it applicable to the students. It also has to be interesting for the parents. You won’t get many parents who will let kids go to CRE camp unless there’s a scholarship or SAT prep available.”
Twenty-seven teens from six states participated in the program, “which included an SAT prep course, advanced software skills development, self-discovery exercises and presentations by a variety of guest speakers,” according to an article from the Summer 2018 issue of Development magazine.
Koenig said when camp graduation rolled around, many students were visibly excited about opportunities in the industry.
“They’d come up to me and say, ‘I can be an international lawyer in commercial real estate!’ There were students who absolutely changed their major because of this camp,” she said.
Koenig added that it might take a while before NAIOP Georgia knows how many students go into commercial real estate because of the camp. However, she thinks seeds have definitely been planted in the minds of many young people who took part in the program.
“If they go into a career fair and they recognize your company logo at your table, it eases the path and makes connections,” she said.
Georgia State was so impressed with the camp that it moved it to the honors campus for the second year in 2018. NAIOP Georgia was more prepared the second time, too; the chapter had a task force working on the camp six to eight months ahead of time.
That readiness requires a lot of work, though — along with a lot of outreach.
“This is the most volunteer-intensive thing your chapter can do,” she said. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of planning ahead. Be prepared for changes when working with different entities and be prepared to be flexible. Don’t wait to get started. Get a tight corps of people willing to get started. Reach out to local commercial real estate legends in your area.”
Young Weekend Warriors
Finally, SECO Development, Inc. Senior Vice President of Planning and Development Rocale Timmons, membership chair of NAIOP Washington State, described her chapter’s success with a condensed CRE camp. In November 2017, the chapter brought together 20 teens for its first weekend immersive experience, which was held in collaboration with the University of Washington.
“The program’s hands-on experience provided a brief introduction to careers in the built environment, with a focus on negotiations between brokers and sellers, architecture and mixed-use development,” according to Development magazine.
“We know teens have short attention spans,” Timmons said, making the shorter program perfect for young minds. “Getting them exposed to different places in the industry that they can intersect was extremely valuable.”
So what made the program successful? Timmons said corporate sponsors like Amazon, as well as contributions from lots of chapter volunteers, certainly helped. But offering a program that generated interest for young people was far and away the most important element.
“You have to have something teenagers want to work on,” she said.
However, Timmons said it’s an expensive program for an individual chapter to run.
“We set aside $50,000 for this weekend,” she said. “It was certainly a worthwhile investment, but it’s not as sustainable as we would wish. So we’re seeking partners.”
The weekend CRE camp also motivated NAIOP Washington State to add a standing diversity and inclusion committee.
“We decided it was necessary,” Timmons said. “We have dedicated at least one event per year to diversity and inclusion. We’re also looking to draft a white paper for best practices for diversity when it comes to hiring or diversity programs.”
As a final note, she said it’s important to define “diversity” in a way that’s most relevant for the local market served by a NAIOP chapter.
“We have started to go down this path where we also created a task force of members to figure out what diversity and inclusion means for our chapter,” she said. “We’re diverse in terms of product types and gender, but not so much on the cultural and race front. We needed to identify our blind spots. What could we do to uncover those blind spots? There is a business case for diversity of thought. Make sure everyone in your community is represented.”
Trey Barrineau is the Managing Editor, Publications for NAIOP. In this role, he supervises day-to-day operations of Development magazine.