Latest DEI Efforts By Gensler, CBRE Serve As A Call To Action For Predominantly White CRE Industry
In the early days of her design career, Courtney Taylor said she sometimes felt she had a higher mountain to climb when forming connections. A chance meeting with a White client with whom she felt comfortable right off the bat revealed where that disconnect was coming from.
“His partner was an African American man, so I had an aha moment,” she said. “That’s why he was automatically able to connect with me because he already had a familiarity. He already had a history, he already had a language. That gap between us wasn’t a huge void because he already had a working relationship with [someone] like me.”
The interaction occurred years before Taylor joined Gensler, but it stuck with her. She now co-leads Gensler’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which in 2020 launched the firm’s Mentor Program. The initiative is described as helping underrepresented team members reach their full potential, but its benefits transcend the mentee. The program also fosters understanding on the part of the mentor, committee co-lead and senior associate Khoi Hoang said.
“This mentorship program is a two-way street,” he said. “[The purpose is] to create a relationship with leadership but also now there is somebody in leadership who can understand and learn … and see the world through another person’s point of view.”
More than 100 employees across Gensler’s Texas offices participate in the program. Mentees are paired with a mentor of their choosing with whom they meet on a regular basis to get advice and work on some of the intangible skills that aren’t necessarily part of their job description. The idea is that the mentee now has someone from leadership in their corner, Taylor said.
“I didn’t have that when I started out,” she said. “They start to have that advocacy … they start to build that equity where they have access to knowledge and information and emotional intelligence that they may not have otherwise had if that relationship wasn’t in place.”
The mentorship program is Gensler’s latest effort to address systemic racism in the architecture and design industry while also taking steps to hire more diverse employees. According to the firm’s Diversity Report, 3% of its workforce nationwide is Black or African American, 10% is Hispanic or Latino, and 18% is Asian. All of these figures outpace industry averages; however, the firm acknowledges it has a long way to go in improving representation.
Pedro Pesantes said he joined the program as a mentee when it first launched in 2020. As a design technology specialist, he said much of his work is done in the shadows of the firm. He hoped his mentor could help him gain more exposure and eventually land a promotion.
“When things go really well and you don’t hear about me, that means I did my job,” he said. “It’s tricky to get exposure in the office, especially during Covid [while] working remotely [and] not being face to face with the team.”
Pesantes said he and his mentor meet often. He suggests ways Pesantes can get more face time with leadership, such as through joining studio calls or writing articles for Gensler’s website, while also making sure Pesantes is actively working toward his goals.
“Having that accountability has been key to my success,” he said.
Another program that aims to improve diversity in the predominantly White commercial real estate industry is CBRE’s HBCU Bridge Program, which will award at least 100 scholarships to students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities when it launches this spring. Students will be immersed in a six-week program that includes an executive speaker series, specialized workshops and career development sessions.
“We’ve come together with [Project Destined] and have an opportunity to do something far greater than what we’ve done in the past,” said Tim Dismond, CBRE’s chief responsibility officer. “The program is a holistic approach that includes connecting students with CBRE leaders, collaborating with academic advisers and showcasing different career paths within the real estate industry.”
This is the firm’s latest partnership with Project Destined, an organization that aims to put minority students into leadership roles by providing training in financial literacy, entrepreneurship and real estate. During the pandemic, more than 350 Project Destined students participated in a CBRE-sponsored virtual internship program. More than 75% of those students landed jobs or internships after the program, co-founder of Project Destined Cedric Bobo said.
“If you ask any of the students [we work with], what they need is a chance to build skills and relationship capital and then have an on-ramp to a job,” Bobo said. “What makes this project unique is that they’re going to get incredible training that feels like the access they require.”
CBRE, like Gensler, has made a full-throated commitment to diversify its workforce, and these types of programs come with a built-in pipeline of talent, Dismond said. According to CBRE’s Corporate Responsibility Report, about 8% of its employees nationwide are Black, 8% are Hispanic or Latino, and 6% are Asian.
“It’s important to our company that the diversity of our workforce reflects the places where our employees work and live,” Dismond said.
The CRE industry has a ways to go before that happens, but Bobo hopes programs like this will encourage other industry players to invest in diversity by shining a light on an untapped pool of talent.
“When you have a partner like CBRE doing this, it’s not just the dollars they contribute, it’s a call to action for the industry,” he said. “Because when the best do it, lots of folks follow.”