Most organizations in the commercial real estate industry express some level of commitment to diversity, but turning lofty words into concrete, measurable action has often proven challenging.
A session at NAIOP’s 2020 Chapter Leadership and Legislative Retreat, “Advancing Diversity from Intention to Impact,” showed how programs initiated at NAIOP chapters in Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Ohio and San Francisco are doing the hard work and generating real results. This is the first part of a two-part series.
NAIOP Greater Philadelphia
Joe Ritchie of NAIOP Greater Philadelphia, who is vice president of development at Brandywine Realty Trust, shared details of a program for minority high schoolers that his chapter put together in collaboration with Drexel University.
“It’s basically a summer camp,” he said. “They spend 100% of their time living on campus as a college student and learning about real estate.”
The Drexel Summer Real Estate Program is a 10-day residential program for current high school sophomores and juniors of color. It introduce teens to careers in commercial real estate fields including architecture, development, investment, construction, brokerage and urban planning/design. The program is a combination of classroom learning, site visits and industry events where participants learn the basics of real estate through case studies.
“We present the kids with case studies and they divide into groups,” Ritchie said. “They work on them and present solutions to judges, one of whom is the actual developer.”
Ritchie says the program has been a huge success.
“After the course, more than 65% say they want to go into the industry,” he said. “We think it’s been great. We’re hoping to build internships off of it.”
Ritchie said the program worked so well because it had support from the highest levels of NAIOP Greater Philadelphia.
“Our board was 110% behind us,” he said. “It was one quick conversation and everyone jumped in.”
The chapter puts in a lot of footwork to find students for the program.
“We ourselves go directly to the schools and go to school district events,” Ritchie said. “We go to churches, too. We also reach out to social organizations, such as Jack and Jill, and fraternities and sororities. We go everywhere we can be where we might encounter a parent.”
Once candidates are found, Ritchie said they go through a rigorous application process that involves transcripts, applications and teacher recommendations.
Building a curriculum geared toward teenagers was another major challenge for the chapter.
“We are real estate professionals; we’re not educators,” he said. ““Translating what we do in the industry every day to a 16-year-old is tough. It was a bit of a learning curve. It’s really key to have that kind of partnership. Drexel did a lot of lifting to make this successful.”
Ritchie said he was already in contact with Drexel University President John Fry each month regarding an ongoing development project, so that helped facilitate a conversation about establishing the program. And Drexel has a longstanding commitment to a diverse student body.
“Like many universities, they’re looking for talented kids of color,” Ritchie said.
He said NAIOP Greater Philadelphia wouldn’t have been able to pull off the program without the support of the university, and he urged other chapters looking to launch similar programs to find the right collegiate partner.
“We raised all the funds for the program, then provide funding to the university as a restricted grant,” he said. Ritchie said NAIOP Philadelphia raised $60,000 for 19 students in the inaugural program in 2019.
“A lot of that cost is food and lodging,” he said.
While a day-camp setup would have been more affordable for the chapter, Ritchie said it wouldn’t be as impactful.
“I think they would lose a lot if it were off-campus,” he said. “First, they would miss the bond with each other. The other benefit of being on campus is getting used to and comfortable with the college experience. We want them in real estate, but we also want to develop them as adults.”
The chapter raised funds by getting members to directly sponsor the program. Money also came from an annual “Battle of the Bands” event the chapter puts on.
Ritchie urged commercial real estate professionals who want to start a similar program to take a look at the one at Drexel.
“Here is a way to start,” he said. “I firmly believe that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. I am one of very few African American corporate real estate executives. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. We’re trying to get more folks in the right place at the right time.”