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HBCUs Are At The Center Of CRE's Push To Diversify. Schools Hope They Keep Pushing


Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the nation are experiencing a surge in interest this year as much of the business world, including the commercial real estate industry, has vowed to do more to promote inclusion.

The incidents that sparked this interest — the killing of George Floyd last May and the unrest that followed — have created a seismic shift, with companies eager to build their talent pipeline by engaging with, and donating to, the nation's 101 HBCUs and other minority-led higher educational institutions.

But as the memories of last summer begin to fade, some involved with the schools are concerned that so, too, will corporate America’s interest.


“It reminds me a lot of what happened back in the '60s with the different assassinations, civil rights. There were a lot of doors opening, and then a lot of those doors closed,” National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Foundation President Ty Couey said. “We're seeing those doors cracking [again].”

Commercial real estate firms and other corporations are pushing to be more involved with HBCUs this year, offering a variety of recruitment and internship programs to their students, including some firms that had never before recruited from HBCUs' deep talent base.

“Before [George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic] it was a lot more difficult and more follow-through to obtain interest in our institution and other HBCUs,” Bethune-Cookman University Career Development Director Davita Bonner told Bisnow. "Now we are receiving more opportunities with companies reaching out to us."

Howard University Senior Vice President Debbi Jarvis, who heads up corporate recruitment at the prestigious Washington, D.C., school, said two of the largest commercial real estate brokerage firms in the U.S., JLL and Cushman & Wakefield, have hosted virtual recruiting events at the university since last summer. Jarvis also said Howard is in talks with CBRE and the CRE Finance Council for other partnerships.

“The conversations have been pretty much around increasing the pipeline. They really want to be part of Howard not just, 'OK, get the students. Thank you. See you. Bye,'” she said. “They're really engaged. Not just here today and gone tomorrow.”

HBCUs were established after the Civil War and were expanded with various legislative efforts throughout modern history, including the Higher Education Act of 1965, which injected federal money into those institutions. For much of their existence, HBCUs struggled to receive a level of federal, state and local funding on par with major colleges and universities, even though 20% of the nation’s Black graduates emerge from HBCUs. Federal funding for HBCUs did improve in recent years under both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

HBCUs have already seen a spike in donations this past year following the social unrest. Corporate and private philanthropists donated 31 gifts of $1M or more to HBCUs last year, up from just two in 2017, according to the publication Higher Ed Dive. And MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, made headlines when she left $500M of her estimated $4B fortune to a host of HBCUs, including Morgan State University and Hampton University.

Commercial real estate firms are establishing more programs aimed at HBCU students and graduates than they have in previous years. Blackstone last year announced a plan to expand its college recruitment to include HBCUs, while other firms have placed HBCUs at the center of their renewed focus on diversity.

CBRE set up recruitment programs focused on HBCUs last summer, including a speakers series and an internship program that trains HBCU students in different parts of the industry. A CBRE spokesperson said two HBCU MBA students have been extended internship offers thus far “with more aggressive recruiting in the coming years for this specific program.”

JLL officials in an email said the firm has recruited from HBCUs for years, but they have plans to launch new programs this spring to “enhance these efforts.” The firm did not elaborate on those programs. Colliers U.S. CEO Gil Borok chairs the company’s Black Equality Taskforce, which engages with HBCUs.

Walker & Dunlop hired Jason Golub as vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion in September, and he has helped focus the firm’s attention on North Carolina Central University, an HBCU that is establishing a real estate MBA program. The five-year partnership, Golub said, includes two annual fellowships for students pursuing a real estate MBA — with Walker & Dunlop paying for their tuition, room and board — as well as numerous internship opportunities and allowing company executives the chance to co-teach certain classes.

“There's a lot of noise in the system for sure. There's a lot of people doing different things,” Golub said. “But for us, the best indicator of this being a long-term commitment is the type of partnerships we're developing. I think the commitment here is to build something that is not reactive and is going to fade away in the short term.”

Collete English Dixon, the executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University, said she has seen more interest among banks, wealth management and private equity firms involved in commercial real estate in recruiting Black graduates and students. Inquiries among CRE firms with Roosevelt doubled in 2020, she said.

“There have been new ones that I have not really engaged before, and that's great,” said English Dixon, who previously held an executive role with Prudential Real Estate Investors before heading into academia.

“They have these programs. They just never reached out to us about them,” she said. “Some of these are firms I’ve known through the years but never reached out to our students specifically. The last 11 months have been pretty interesting.”

Executive Director of Bennett Institute Real Estate of Roosevelt University Collete English Dixon

While companies are active in recruiting HBCU students now, there is a risk that both parties can fall back into complacency in the future, especially if corporate involvement in HBCU outreach remains superficial and limited to handshakes during career fairs, The Myers Development Group CEO Jerome Myers said. Myers graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2005 with a degree in civil engineering. Today, he develops and invests in apartment complexes in the Southeast.

“I think the demand is greater, but here's the issue: People just want to take from the vine, they don't want to nurture the vine,” Myers said. “I don’t see that happening."

Couey, who heads the National HBCU Alumni Associations Foundation, connecting HBCU alumni back to the network of schools, said corporate efforts to diversify — or at least the focus on building their talent pipeline through HBCUs — could easily fade over time.

“Corporate America, they're beginning to step up. But I look at it as a one-shot thing. It has to be a continuous thing,” he said. “There are things happening, but is it permanent? Is it sustainable? Or will people drift back into the corners like they did after the '60s?”

Bethune-Cookman’s Bonner said that for this level of cooperation between HBCUs and companies to last, the effort will need to be not just on those who head up corporate relations with HBCUs, but at every level of the university system and the corporate C-suite. 

“I don’t know if I can’t say it may diminish. That's a possibility,” Bonner said.

Social unrest put racial justice at the forefront of the nation's consciousness in the summer of 2020.

Even without the tragedies of 2020, there already was a change taking shape in corporate America and its realization that diversity was beginning to matter, Jarvis said, pushed in large part by the fact that the U.S. population is expected to become minority White by 2045.

“I think that it is the realization of where the world is going, that diversity matters. It is inevitable,” Jarvis said. "The workforce is diverse, and many companies are realizing that the more diverse they are in their thoughts and leadership, their reach and their success is part of or is impacted by the creativity, if you will, that comes from having a diverse leadership. Because that's who their customers are."

Companies were hiring HBCU grads at a greater rate between 2016 and 2019 than traditional colleges and universities, according to a LinkedIn study. During that period, hiring HBCU graduates increased nearly 6% a year while the hiring growth rate from traditional colleges and universities was 1.3%. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the job market, HBCUs continued to see more corporate interest in graduates than traditional universities and colleges, LinkedIn found.

“There is more corporate presence in this conversation than in the '60s, but part of that is because companies are now far more diverse than they were in the '60s,” Roosevelt University's English Dixon said.

English Dixon said she is confident that the recent actions by the commercial real estate industry represent a paradigm shift, rather than a trend that could go away.

“This is a more robust engagement than I have ever seen around this. Collectively, we have enough voice that this should not be a flash in the pan this time,” she said. “But read your newspaper. There are some who are staunchly against this. It will only happen with intent. It will only happen with consistent attention.”

CORRECTION, FEB. 20, 1:10 P.M. ET: A previous version of the story incorrectly named Collers CEO Jay Hennick as heading the firm's Black Equality Taskforce. It is U.S. CEO Gil Borok. The story has been updated.