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‘A Minority Within A Minority’: Chicago's South Asian CRE Community Refuses To Be Overlooked


One of the fastest-growing minority groups in commercial real estate is betting there is strength in numbers, banding together to launch Chicago's first industry group aimed at supporting CRE professionals of South Asian descent. 

SAIRE co-founders, Paul Purewal, Sandya Dandamudi, Rubina Bokhari, Prasan Kale, Ravi Jadia and Shreya Singh at the nonprofit organization’s May 8 kickoff in Chicago.

South Asians in Real Estate launched at a kickoff event earlier this month, coinciding with Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. While other groups exist for residential realtors from South Asia, SAIRE is the first group aimed at South Asian CRE stakeholders in Chicago, said SAIRE co-founder and GI Stone President Sandya Dandamudi

There is a major push within CRE to amplify opportunities for minority contractors, but it hasn’t always included people of South Asian descent, she said. 

“We're an overlooked minority within a minority,” Dandamudi said. “We want a seat at the table, which translates to, we want a piece of the pie and we want to be able to support each other and each other's ambitions.”

The organization formed after several months of conversations between the group’s seven co-founders: Dandamudi, Kinjal Patel, Paul Purewal, Shreya Singh, Rubina Bokhari, Prasan Kale and Ravi Jadia. The group will offer opportunities for networking, mentorship and professional growth, Dandamudi said.  

SAIRE’s kickoff coincides with a significant number of South and Central Asian immigrants who have come to the U.S. in recent years. The number of immigrants from these two regions to the U.S. jumped nearly 60% from 2010 to 2022, from 2.9M to about 4.6M, according to Voice of America News. Over the same period, the nation's overall foreign-born population increased 15.6%. 

“Starting this organization right now is actually more critical than before because we are seeing more immigration,” said Purewal, vice president of real estate development at ONNI Group. “We have the capacity and the voice and the power to start this group where it could be a great resource for other people who are getting into the industry.”

AAPIs constitute one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the U.S., with a population rising by about 33% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census data.

Yet that growth has not been reflected in C-suites and boardrooms across CRE and beyond.

Asian men and women combined to make up less than 3% of CRE senior executives, according to data collected by Florida A&M University and Front Street Commercial Real Estate. The issue is not limited to CRE. Asian-Americans made up 13% of the U.S. workforce but accounted for just 6% of U.S. executives and 4% of board seats at Fortune 1000 companies as of 2022, according to a report compiled by the Ascend Foundation, Ascend Pinnacle and KPMG.

SAIRE co-founders Prasan Kale and Rubina Bokhari at SAIRE's May 8 kickoff in Chicago.

Singh, senior development associate at Related Midwest, said in her roughly 10-year CRE career, she has often been the only South Asian woman in the room. In conversations with the group’s other co-founders, she said she found some older members have had a similar experience for two or three decades.   

Over time, nothing has changed, Singh said. But as she looked to other groups as models for SAIRE, she said she was amazed at how groups like the Hispanic Contractors Association and the African American Contractors Association had been able to help place many members into roles within the industry. The success of those organizations led her to believe there should be a similar group for the South Asian community. 

“It is time that the South Asian community does get organized and shares resources and finds ways to help each other advance and increase representation in the industry, similar to what all these other groups have been able to achieve,” Singh said. 

Getting key Chicago CRE players of South Asian descent in the same space allows for “hyper networking,” said Jadia, regional vice president at Zentro Internet. Members are able to speak to experts in certain industry sectors and take the knowledge they glean back to their own projects, he said. 

“Instead of being underwater and saying … ‘I gotta go network and figure out my way up,’ it's like, ‘Let me network first, learn about this and take this back to my own table,’” Jadia said. “Maybe that opens 10 more doors or maybe that gives me more credibility.”

Singh said the group is focused on developing a commercial real estate ecosystem for members to learn from each other, build upon each other's experiences and identify ways of working together. This can include providing tips to CRE industry newcomers to help them figure out how to navigate the corporate environment, such as what to wear, what to bring for lunch and how to connect with coworkers, she said. 

The group also aims to expose newcomers to different types of real estate roles they can aspire to by giving tours of the properties and projects other members are working on, Singh said. Informal coffee chats will help mentors develop intimate, direct relationships with mentees, she said. 

“We also want to focus our programming on helping the next generation develop professionally, as many of them might be the first groups to work corporate roles,” Singh said.

SAIRE co-founders Sandya Dandamudi and Shreya Singh

Shreya Kothari, a project manager at Cumming Group who has been in CRE for about five years, said she’s realized how small the CRE world is during her career and that “everyone knows everyone.” The more senior members of SAIRE are helping her build contacts and relationships to promote her professional growth. 

When Kothari runs into issues in her work, she can ask other SAIRE members how they navigated similar situations in their careers, she said. If she decides to consider another career in a different part of CRE in the future, Kothari said she would look to SAIRE members for guidance on making the switch. 

“At this stage of my life, because I'm not really exposed to that many people across [the industry], that is something that's really helpful,” Kothari said.  “If I do need something or I need to learn something, I can reach out … and it can be like, ‘Hey, there's this thing that I'm really struggling with, or I'd like to learn more about.’”  

In the long term, the group hopes to expand to other markets across the country, but it is currently focused on growing its Chicago presence, Purewal said. The group’s big picture goals include establishing programs for its members, particularly new immigrants, and getting more involved with the area’s academic establishments, he said. 

Singh said she’d be pleased to see SAIRE grow into a large organization. But more importantly, she wants significant participation from the group’s members to promote better representation in Chicago CRE. 

“I really want to see a commercial real estate industry in the city of Chicago that's much more equitable, and I hope SAIRE is able to contribute to those efforts,” Singh said.