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‘Representation Is Inspiration’: 3 CRE Leaders On Forging The Path For Black Wealth — And Why It Matters


Capri Investment Group founder and Executive Chairman Quintin Primo III has made an outsized impact over his 32 years in commercial real estate. He is at the helm of one of the nation's largest minority-owned real estate investment management firms and sits at the center of one of the biggest real estate deals in recent Chicago memory.

His company partnered with The Prime Group to develop the James R. Thompson Center into Google’s Chicago headquarters, a move that could transform the city’s lagging central business district. But Primo and other leaders in Chicago's Black CRE community aren't stopping there. They aim to use their successes to inspire young people of color to enter the field and better their communities. 

J. Byron Brazier, Quintin Primo and Girard Jenkins

“The most important thing that I can do is to be an example to show others, younger versions of me, that vast wealth creation is possible,” Primo said. “Whether we have a dime in the bank or $100M in the bank, it's very important that we as people of color give back and show leadership and help make the world a better place in which to live.”

Primo and two other giants of Chicago CRE sat down with Bisnow in honor of Black History Month to talk about furthering diverse representation, fostering community-centric development and the industry’s role in building generational wealth.  

In a wide-ranging interview, Primo, Woodlawn Central lead developer J. Byron Brazier and Girard Jenkins, vice president of the Midwest and West for Washington, D.C.-based McKissack & McKissack, evaluated Chicago’s progress in increasing diversity in its CRE ranks and the hurdles that remain.

“With all of the historical redlining that's happened throughout the history of Chicago, it's almost as if the lines in which you kept the Black community in are the lines that are keeping everybody out, because they can't go at developing our community without developing our culture,” said Brazier, who is heading up an $895M mixed-use project spanning 8 acres of church-owned land in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

The three men discussed how they have established themselves as leaders in Chicago’s CRE ecosystem and kept sometimes painful progress accelerating while generating wealth for their families and communities.

“I'm here working with a firm because of generational wealth,” Jenkins said of his role at the nation's oldest minority/women-owned professional design and construction firm.

“McKissack & McKissack is a fifth-generational company now, and I'm part of this fifth generation. Something that was passed down from a slave who was a mason, a bricklayer who was taught by his master how to do this, and then he took it upon himself to teach his family and folks that were in his community. They kept passing it down until we got to where we are right now.” 

This roundtable has been edited for length and clarity.

Girard Jenkins and his family

Bisnow: Why is generational wealth such a focus for you personally and professionally?

Primo: It’s very important because it gives our children, our grandchildren, our family a head start with respect to realizing their mission and their goals and objectives in their lives. Most people of color have started from scratch. Most of my business associates that are Black and brown are all self-made men and women, for the large part. 

The amount of wealth that has been passed down in the United States and in Europe to primarily white descendants is staggering. The magnitude of our opportunity is much, much less when you think about a company like BMW that is half-owned by the public markets and half-owned by a single family, a company that's worth easily $30B to $40B. This type of wealth is staggering. We are at a 400-year disadvantage here in the United States. But there's still opportunities for us to indeed create wealth and pass that down to our families, which is of great importance.

Jenkins: Generational wealth doesn't necessarily always mean the dollars and the cents. Sometimes it simply means I'm passing knowledge from myself to my children, and then, hopefully, they'll be able to do the same thing for their children. My biggest claim to fame is that my son is now in the industry. Both of my kids — I have a son and a daughter — are professionals now. My daughter is an attorney, and my son has a master's in construction management. Me and my wife, we're doing what we're supposed to do as it relates to generational wealth.

Brazier: When I hear generational wealth, I also think of generational practices. Within the Black community, we have tons of culture. But one of the things that I'd like to see us work on is the customary way on how we operate one to another, which creates those generational practices. 

There's a collective generational wealth, and then there's individual generational wealth. Especially when we're talking about Black history, we haven't seen a sustainable, complete Black community for over 100 years, and I would say since Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That's a precedent that no longer exists because of the historic nature of the event. If we are to reimagine what cultural generational practices look like, we have an opportunity to do that.

Primo: Where the rubber meets the road is capital, and that's what we have lacked. You can make a lot of mistakes when you have money in the bank. We have not had that privilege for many, many years. It's very easy to look brilliant when you have money. It's more difficult when you're starting without any real resources and you create magic — that's really brilliance. Chronic lack of access to capital has been something that minorities, people of color, have been suffering from for many, many years. It's wonderful to see that we're beginning to create wealth in this past generation and our generation. But we still have a long, long way to go.

J. Byron Brazier at Apostolic Church of God

Bisnow: How important is encouraging the possibility of entering the CRE industry when young people are still deciding what they want to do?

Brazier: Representation is inspiration. The real estate game doesn't have much representation of people of color. They may have to see us out doing it more and doing it in a very big way. Flipping homes is very popular, but doing large-scale district developments, doing large-scale construction projects, we need to be on the forefront a lot more moving forward to actually get more young people within the industry of development and commercial development. 

Jenkins: It's very important to be able to see folks that look like myself out here doing it. You take a look at the city of Chicago and all of the different industries within it, and we are very limited in those spaces. However, it is important when those particular projects come up in their communities to take a step back and also look to engage with the clients and the owners to say, “Hey, how can we better impact our community? How can we engage with these communities to make sure that they are inclusive of what is going on in that project?”

Primo: The most important thing that I can do is to be an example to show others, younger versions of me, that vast wealth creation is possible. Opportunities are there that can be capitalized on, and that, once that wealth is created, then what to do with it. To take that wealth and do something positive for the communities in which we live. Whether we have a dime in the bank or $100M in the bank, it's very important that we, as people of color, give back and show leadership and help make the world a better place in which to live. That example needs to be mimicked and copied by our children, by our business associates and by others so that, at the end of the day, we really do have something better than what we started with.

Quintin Primo and his family

Bisnow: How would you evaluate the success of Chicago's CRE industry at promoting and integrating diversity?

Primo: The industry is very open right now to bringing in people of color to do significant things. We still have a ways to go on equitable development. Every major project in downtown Chicago certainly should have color represented in its ownership structure. If the city's involved in any way, shape or form, major projects should not only have a minority and women participation goal, but they should have similar goals with respect to ownership.

Other cities like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta have figured it out. I'm encouraged by Mayor Brandon Johnson's leadership.

Jenkins: The city, in some form or fashion, has opened their arms to be more inclusive on some of these major developments. We can't let up. We have to continue to express upon the powers that be, “Hey, if you're going into communities, let the community come in and let them be engaged.” We believe that if you do that, you’ve got a different perspective.

Brazier: I couldn't agree more. When you're talking about the central business district in Chicago, I think it's oversaturated. The only new places to actually build out are on the South and West sides. With all of the historical redlining that's happened throughout the history of Chicago, it's almost as if the lines in which you kept the Black community in are the lines that are keeping everybody out, because they can't go at developing our community without developing our culture. That takes twice as much time and twice as much money that they're not willing to spend. 

It's not a part of their model ... to build culture. There's an impasse here that's coming up in the future that says, “How do we access the land on both the South and West Side, mostly all city-owned, without displacing people and also without having to educate them?” Because we don't have a formula for that.

Chicago has to let go of some of the usual [developer] suspects and then begin to open their arms for innovation, begin to see how we can use innovation and use technology and also the community organizations that have a pulse within the South and West Side that can socialize some of these new processes. It doesn't mean that they can't participate. It just means now they have to share the prosperity.

Primo: Traditionally, the South and West sides have been grossly underinvested in and under-resourced. The benefits of investing in our communities, to those residents of the community, are unassailable. Yes, a dollar of investment goes a long way, irrespective of where it's invested. But at least in Chicago, why shouldn't those dollars flow to the South and West sides as much as they flow into downtown Chicago?

Then we're surprised at how [those communities] look and how they function and how dysfunctional they can be. They've been scarred by public investment and expressways. It's no surprise. People in these communities don't look like the people making the decisions, so the result is very obvious. What we can do is attempt to reverse that, to attempt to champion investment within these areas, to call out disinvestment. 

Jenkins: It's almost like we're in an area right now where if you're doing development in the Chicagoland area, those are the areas that you're going to be developing. You have to become more inclusive with the folks that live in those communities, culturally, to be able to educate and do the things that you need to promote positive development.

J. Byron Brazier with a colleague

Bisnow: What projects or initiatives have you been involved in that have had significant impacts on building generational wealth or empowering communities?

Jenkins: I'm often finding myself back in the classrooms talking to the students. I'm currently working at Tuskegee University, my alma mater. I fought very hard for this particular project because I wanted to feel like I was giving something back. We're into our third or fourth week now with about 15 students as part of our regular meetings every week. We're putting them right into the room where we are talking with the architects, the owners, the construction managers, the tradesmen, so they'll be able to listen in: This is how a meeting is run, this is what expectations are. That has been so empowering, personally, to be able to give back in that respect.

Primo: A major project, which we have not yet built but we think will have a significant impact on its community, is the redevelopment of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center in Washington, D.C., in the Shaw District. It will ultimately be a $300M-plus redevelopment that will have the NAACP as lead owner and tenant. It will have Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Alvin Ailey school, the first outside of New York, which will be located in our project. Carla Hall, of Top Chef fame, will have a Southern-style restaurant in the project. Dave Chappelle is expected to open up a comedy club in the project. 

We will have 30% of the units be affordable, which will benefit the community, and they will be affordable for low-income and very low-income residents. The project will have at least 30% participation from minority contractors. We'll have workforce requirements for people from the community to be involved in it. A very visionary development that will have immeasurable impact on the community in terms of retail offerings, in terms of housing, in terms of jobs and careers, and will hopefully affect generations to come.

Brazier: For me, Woodlawn Central is a legacy project. This generational practice we're attempting to create is what I believe will then create more generational wealth or a precedent for generational wealth. The idea was to make it replicable, to take something that was complicated and simplify it so that every Woodlawn around the country would be able to say, “OK, here's the precedent. Here's the representation. They even wrote out a model and a guide to how they approached it.”

It's about understanding that no one's coming to save us. Those who want to participate are not participating with our best interest. We have to make sure that our interests are aligned with the survival and sustainability, both economically and socially, for our communities.

Within the Black community, the church is the only and longest-standing organization that has the ability to do something at this level. The survival of our communities solely and squarely lies on the shoulders of the church, and so if the church does nothing, then the community does nothing. We’re committed to making sure that the profits that come into Woodlawn Central get reinvested into the community to continue that circulation of our dollar, that circulation of entrepreneurship and creativity, and bring more private capital into the community to invest it in the same way.

Jenkins: What they are doing in that particular community, I think that's a model, that's a road map. In our communities, the church is a cornerstone of everything that we do, and it has been for many, many years. When you see a church stand out front like that and be the footstool for everything that goes on in that community, that's the model.

Quintin Primo at a Bisnow event

Bisnow: What are the major hurdles you still see in creating generational wealth, whether that's for you or for the Black community at large?

Jenkins: Sometimes, you may get interference from some politicians or from the city because of antiquated laws that are still on the books. It's going to take the wherewithal of individuals to say, “Let us delve into this and see how can we make a change. What can we do to restructure a particular law that would allow us to venture more into the investment side of our own communities?” 

Brazier: Public policy is not on our side. We need a lobbying mechanism or apparatus that lobbies on behalf of all of the Black community, both South and West Side. There's only so much public money to go around, and having to kind of bend the knee and kiss the ring in some of these policy places also breaks down the integrity of the infrastructure of public money. 

There’s also the lack of community equity. We have to be able to get equity into the hands of the community so that the community can then shape itself. The community equity position is something that needs to flip, whether it's policy-driven, whether it's privately driven through some kind of endowment. This whole generational wealth piece comes from an equity position.

Bisnow: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or professionals looking to make a positive impact in the real estate sector, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds?

Brazier: Having the technical and educational background is important, but don't stop there. Make sure you understand everything about land banking, package development, horizontal development, vertical development and operations. Learn everything about the industry, know who's doing what, immerse yourselves completely into it. The first step to being successful is being able to linguistically live in all of the multiple spaces of real estate, because it's not just selling and buying. There's a lot of layers to the industry, and you should know every part.

Jenkins: Understand your unique perspective in terms of who you are and what you do. Be mentored by professionals, by folks that have been doing it or folks that can give you solid advice. Don't be afraid to get out there and learn those things. We’re all going to make some mistakes, but immerse yourself into that culture of learning about everything that goes on within that community or everything you feel like is going to be needed to bring something to fruition from the ground up. 

Primo: Get a job in the industry. Work through existing relationships to achieve that. Work your butt off. Join industry organizations. As the old saying goes, you can create your own luck. Certainly do not walk around with a chip on your shoulder. Do not play the victim. We can acknowledge the 400 years of injustice that has been done to specifically Black people in this country, but we don't have to be burdened by it. We don't have to be a victim. We can acknowledge it and move on and be stronger for it. There is an incredible opportunity within the commercial real estate space, and it's increasingly open to people that look like me.

Girard Jenkins and his children

Bisnow: What do you hope your legacy will be in the real estate industry, and how do you envision it benefiting future generations? 

Jenkins: I would like my legacy to be one that shows how I was committed to the communities that I work in, that I live in, that I do business with, and I want them to know that my level of commitment was always there. Mine is simple. Not the big, giant skyscraper or anything like that. I want people to be able to take something, run with it, learn from it, and then pass that on so that we can start our communities to be more engaged with one another.

Brazier: I would want my legacy to reflect innovation, being a part of the trailblazing process of bringing in our communities to embrace technology and artificial intelligence and augmented reality and virtual reality into our everyday lives. To not be afraid of new wine in new wineskins. 

Primo: I want my legacy to be that I had the guts to do something different. I had the guts to think differently. I had the guts to take a whole lot of risk. Seven out of 10 times, I failed in taking that risk, but three out of 10 times, I won. And for anyone to create generational wealth, one has to take risks. So if I'm nothing more than an example of a Black man that took risks and ultimately won, I think that's a good legacy. Hopefully, those that come after me will be 10 times, 20 times as successful as I and my partners have been.