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The Innovators: BCREN Founder Dustin Sutton

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.

Philadelphia-born Dustin Sutton moved to San Diego nearly two decades ago and found his way into commercial real estate when he was hired to manage a building for Cal-Prop Management in San Diego. Sutton was the assistant coach of a high school basketball team at the time, and the head coach knew the Cal-Prop owner was looking for a new leasing agent. 

“After seeing behind the curtain of what commercial real estate is, I thought that it was an industry that I could do well in, that my skills were applicable to and that I could start pursuing a career in,” Sutton said. 

After years at Cal-Prop, Sutton ended up moving on to positions at American Rental Property Solutions and Realty Income Corp., where he managed over 1,000 properties across the western U.S. He was given the Rising Star award from the Building Owners and Managers Association San Diego in 2019.

As he moved through the industry, though, there were times in his career when he questioned whether he could really be successful in commercial real estate because he saw few other Black people in the field. 

Black Commercial Real Estate Network's Dustin Sutton

This summer, Sutton, now a business development and real estate manager at Meissner Jacquét Commercial Real Estate Services, co-founded the Black Commercial Real Estate Network, a nationwide community of Black professionals working in CRE.

BCREN started with Sutton reaching out to about 20 other people on LinkedIn, he said, quickly connecting with JLL Senior Vice President Derith Jarvis and Colliers International Senior Vice President of Multifamily Services Mark Allen, who are now his co-founders. 

“That's when it really exploded,” Sutton said. 

Since the summer, BCREN has grown to roughly 380 members. Sutton said it is centered on the idea that the organization would be something different than a professional association.

Sutton was looking for a way to create relationships with other Black people working within CRE and when he didn't find an organization that met that need, he started his own. That makes him a Bisnow Innovator.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bisnow: What prompted you to decide to build a CRE group for Black people working in the industry?

Sutton: It started in June, after everything happened. I don't even really know what to call it but everything with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There was just so much emotion going around.

I wanted to take that emotion, that energy, and do something that was constructive and positive. I thought the way I could do that was take a proactive approach and connect with other Black real estate professionals. I thought, let me just connect with or create a small community so that we can discuss our experiences. 

When I reached out to all the other people on LinkedIn, I really just wanted to connect with other Black people in commercial real estate to talk about our experiences and our challenges as Black people working in the CRE industry, to create a safe space and an outlet to have meaningful connections. BCREN was just really meant to be a community. I really thought it was just going to be a coffee group for five or 10 people locally in San Diego

Bisnow: But clearly it has resonated with more people than that. 

Sutton: When you're quite often the only Black person in the room, it does weigh on you to some extent. You don't have a lot of other people that understand exactly what that is. 

There have been times I've been at a CRE conference and I'm the only Black person in the room. I’m frustrated, but what am I going to do? Leave? And then there will be zero Black people there? 

Every step along the way, it's been a concern of mine and it’s something that I've acknowledged. But I had never felt I was in a position of authority or in a position to effect change. I am a real estate manager. I do business development. I'm not a CEO or high-level executive. I do a lot of volunteer work and I'm active in the community, but in the commercial real estate industry, I honestly hadn’t seen myself as being in a position to really make a significant impact. 

"We’re already in the industry, so it’s all about figuring out how we can support each other, how we ensure each other's success ... "

Bisnow: How is this group different than other groups that already exist for Black people working in CRE? 

Sutton: I contacted other groups, but the problem for me was they weren't in San Diego. And this is nothing against them! They just weren’t where I was.

Also, sometimes they were offering things I wasn’t necessarily looking for. I wasn't looking for career development or a program to get involved with. I was just looking for a network of people that I could see and connect with. I think the simplicity and the elegance of this is that it's a network, plain and simple. That's what it is. 

I also wanted to reach out to a broad group of Black professionals at commercial real estate or commercial real estate-adjacent industries, like insurance or real estate law. I remember thinking there had to be other Black people in CRE and maybe I just wasn’t seeing them — maybe they work in accounting and that’s why I’m not seeing them at real estate conferences.

Bisnow: How do you connect? How is BCREN supporting members and growing right now? 

Sutton: For the time being, because everything's still virtual, we have a monthly call where we have a presenter or two. They discuss their journey, and that can mean anything, from challenges that they've had to a project that they're working on to basically anything that they want to share, and anything that they want to discuss. We give them a platform. 

We’re already in the industry, so it’s all about figuring out how we can support each other, how we ensure each other's success and how we help the next generation find the path and achieve their own success in this field. 

So many things have come out of the network already. People make connections, they’ve gotten jobs and partnered on deals. I got connected with a young guy in his early 20s through BCREN. He was looking for a position in CRE but he also wanted to talk about career trajectory. We had a call, I thought he might be a good fit for an open position I knew about, I made the connection and he got an interview. 

He thanked me and was really excited to see a network like this, that he was starting to feel hopeful about his future in CRE because of it. That shook me to my core because that's been a feeling that I had at times throughout my career.

When you don't see anybody else that looks like you, you do wonder, What are my chances of success here? This all feels so impactful to me and I'm so thankful that other people are seeing it and feeling it.