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Diversity Is On Display At ICSC, But Not Everyone Is Buying It

LAS VEGAS — An awkward moment occurred at a panel on diversity at the International Council of Shopping Centers' RECon convention here last week.

JLL CEO of Americas John Gates said he encourages his midlevel and senior executives to remove unconscious bias, embrace diversity, provide mentorship to women and minorities and for the promotion of diversity to be part of the company’s workforce culture and values.

Yet, when an attendee asked him how many of these JLL leaders or hiring managers were in attendance at the panel, Gates paused, then responded “None.”


Gates’ answer is a reflection of what many of the minority attendees say is indicative of their experience in the retail and commercial real estate industry.

“You can say you embrace diversity and all that but how many of your colleagues or other leadership do, too?” said Myeisha Greene, a real estate broker out of Kansas City, Missouri, who was attending the panel. “Commercial real estate is an old boys network built on relationships. It’s hard to find that bridge to break in.” 

The commercial real estate industry continues to struggle and grapple with hiring, developing and retaining minorities and women in the workforce.

Generally, the commercial real estate industry lags far behind other professions when it comes to minority hiring and advancement. The industry has a reputation as a predominantly white, male-dominated profession. 

Women make up about 35% of the commercial real estate workforce in the U.S., according to a report by CREW Network, an organization with the goal of advancing women in commercial real estate. In 2015, the study found women earned 23% less than their male colleagues — $115K compared to $150K for men.

When it comes to minority advancement, 78% of senior executives in CRE were white men, 14% white women, 2.9% Hispanic men, 1.6% Asian men and 1.3% black males, according to a 2013 Commercial Real Estate Diversity Report. The 2013 report is the only report on diversity that analyzes minorities in leadership positions in  commercial real estate.

At ICSC, the largest commercial real estate retail convention in the world, The Real Deal reported significantly fewer women attended the annual conference than in years past. 

“For us minorities and women we can’t afford to fail,” Greene said about breaking into the industry. “Once we get in, we have to learn quickly. If we don't, that's it. We are done. We face a lot more pressure.”

ICSC's Tom McGee, former NFL player Emmitt Smith, Chicago TREND's Lyneir Richardson, the NFL's Jocelyn Moore, CREW Network’s Wendy Mann and JLL's John Gates

Promoting Diversity

The ICSC diversity panel discussed how the commercial real estate industry could adopt a hiring practice similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, where teams are required to interview a minority candidate for coaching positions. It was ICSC’s first diversity panel since the organization launched the Partners in Diversity & Inclusion program last fall. 

The program is a forum for ICSC members to discuss the state of diversity in retail real estate and explore how to build more inclusive workplace cultures, according to an ICSC spokeswoman. 

The goal of the initiative is to help the 70,000 member companies to recruit, develop, retain minority and female employees, and promote strategies to strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts in those companies.

But despite having A-list speakers that included ICSC President Tom McGee, Hall of Fame NFL player Emmitt Smith, Chicago TREND CEO Lyneir Richardson, NFL Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs Jocelyn Moore, CREW Network’s CEO Wendy Mann and JLL’s Gates, ICSC' Going Beyond the Rooney Rule panel was lightly attended.

Some of the earlier panels held in that same room attracted hundreds of people, with many standing along the back and sides. Yet the panel on diversity brought in fewer than 75 people, mostly women and people of color.

CREW Network’s Mann commended ICSC for hosting an important diversity topic and dismissed the size of the audience in the room.

“Given that this is the first time that ICSC did something like that, I think it was a fine room,” Mann said. “You can’t really compare this with other panels, but the bigger question is who should be in the room?"

“The fish rots from the head down,” Mann said in a later conversation with Bisnow. “The CEO, the senior leadership and C-suite executives have a responsibility to commit to diversity and not just push it down to HR or talent acquisition.

“If those leaders don’t embrace it, it won’t permeate down to the rest of the company.”

Kansas City, Mo.-based real estate brokers David Wright and Myeisha Greene

Unlike the NFL, where a commissioner can levy fines or penalties on teams for not interviewing a minority candidate during a coaching search, the commercial real estate industry has no such penalty or enforcement measure. 

Would ICSC ever penalize a company for not meeting its diversity requirements?

“The NFL is an organization and commercial real estate is comprised of companies like every other industry," McGee said. "It’s incumbent upon each individual company to set their standards and how they are going to promote diversity.”

McGee said it is panels like the Rooney Rule discussion that help share information and best practices and help organizations understand what to do. He reiterated it is up to individual companies to hire minorities and women.

But many said that is not enough.

Smith, a former NFL player who started E Smith Advisors LLC, a commercial brokerage company, said very few corporations are adopting anything similar to the Rooney Rule. 

“I know for a fact there are a lot of qualified minority candidates but it’s still a challenge to break through the bigger industries,” Smith said, adding that his biggest pet peeve is companies that use the excuse that are there are not enough qualified candidates in the minority community.

The Rooney Rule should not just focus on entry-level candidates, Chicago TREND CEO Richardson said. Richardson is pushing for companies to adopt something similar to the Rooney Rule when they fill their boards of directors. 

It is usually the board of directors that holds the company accountable for hiring practices, retention rates, mentorships and sponsorship programs.

“If we are not instituting our Rooney Rule at the board of directors level, we are missing an opportunity,” Richardson said. “I love the ICSC foundation, but I think it’s incomplete if we don’t go to the trustee level.”

The attendance on the panel Rooney Rule: Opening Doors to the Front Office panel at the Westgate Hotel during ICSC RECon in Las Vegas.

CREW's Mann said companies should be hiring a diverse workforce that reflects the changing community now more than ever. Communities are more diverse. There are more women and people of color entering the workforce.

Not only that, she said, but companies that want to work with big commercial real estate companies are more diverse, too. 

"There is a business imperative to this because the clients are changing," she said. "More clients want to work with a company that values and promotes diversity."

Mann said the industry has an opportunity to embrace the Rooney Rule concept and also puts the onus on women and people of color to do their part.

"If you have the skill and work talent, you can succeed," she said. "But you also have a personal responsibility to get an advanced certification and putting yourself into the right circles and to ask to be in that project or take part in other initiatives."

Odest Riley Jr., a 40-year-old Inglewood resident, is a graduate of the Real Estate Associate Program, which promotes diversity in the commercial real estate industry. The REAP program began 20 years ago and teaches and connects minority professionals with commercial real estate companies.

Riley said he appreciates ICSC's diversity push but believes more needs to be done.

"Diversity is good, but my goal is to get a seat at the table [with the big companies]," Riley said. "It's good to come here. It's good to see people that look like me but I also want a seat [at] the table. I want to say I went to RECon and got a deal out of it.

"This is a generational relationship business," he said. "People do business with who they like. It's not like they dislike me but they don't know me. ... It's all about access."