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Most Black Students Don’t Know About CRE. The Industry Is Trying To Fix That

When Murphy Cheatham graduated in 2001 from Grambling State University, a Louisiana-based historically Black university, he had never heard of commercial real estate as a potential career path. To him, a career in real estate only meant selling houses.

“I didn’t think about where you go to work, where you learn, where you eat, where you shop or the warehouses your stuff is shipped from as being real estate,” Cheatham said. “I had no idea whatsoever that commercial real estate was even a thing, let alone an industry.”

Asana Partners’ Katie Grissom and Viraj Patel with the firm’s two summer interns from the Project Destined program, Rettik Adhikari and Tiffany Turner.

Cheatham, who now finances real estate deals as a partner at Synergy One Lending, began his career at Motorola before working as an accountant for a single-family homebuilder. He was introduced to commercial real estate by a friend whose family owned office buildings, and in 2006, he was part of the inaugural class of Arizona State University’s Master’s in Real Estate Development program. 

Cheatham’s postgraduate introduction to the industry is common among Black commercial real estate professionals and a challenge for industry leaders who hope to make the overwhelmingly White industry more diverse. But he is taking action to change that.

In two weeks, Grambling will begin offering its first-ever real estate courses as part of a partnership with ASU’s real estate program that Cheatham helped arrange. Students from any major can pursue a concentration in real estate and choose from five real estate courses that will be taught virtually by ASU professors this fall.

The partnership is one of a series of new initiatives launching this year aimed at introducing Black students to career opportunities in commercial real estate to close the awareness gap about the industry that still exists today. Many of these initiatives are being launched by large commercial real estate firms, which have felt an increased sense of urgency over the past year to improve their record on diversity. 

“There is a big lack of awareness of the industry and that it exists as a career path,” said Cameron Webb, a senior director at Berkadia. “It’s not discussed in the Black community as much as it needs to be. It’s been the best-kept secret of the wealthy population.”

Young, White people are much more likely than their Black peers to have family connections in commercial real estate who can educate them on the industry and guide them into entry-level roles. When most business students studying at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other schools with diverse student bodies look at the courses and opportunities offered through their college, they are much more likely to learn about careers in accounting, consulting or other fields. 

Commercial real estate executives looking to create more awareness of the industry say fixing the issue means going beyond setting up a booth at a career fair. In order to make significant progress, companies must invest the time and money to create strong, lasting relationships with universities. 

The new strategies that companies are pursuing include helping HBCUs launch new real estate programs, endowing scholarships for students from underserved backgrounds, participating in training programs through nonprofits like Project Destined and offering internships to students of color.  

The ultimate success of these efforts will be determined by whether the workforce of commercial real estate companies becomes more diverse, but with many of the programs just launching this year, progress will be slow.  

“We have a lot of making up to do with the fact we have largely known this was not a career option that was widely talked about in underrepresented communities. We could see that in the number of applicants. It was pretty clear,” JLL Global Head of Early Career and External Campus Partnerships Giselle Battley said. “So we’re going to have to put in work, and it’s going to take time to see that reflected in our leadership ranks and in our numbers.”


Addressing The Issue 

The lack of knowledge among communities of color of the industry has persisted for generations, and the ramifications of that awareness gap are evident in the racial diversity of industry at the highest levels. 

Across the 17 largest brokerage firms, 11% of their leadership positions are held by people of color, and their boards are 12% non-White, according to a November Bisnow analysis. Sixteen of the 26 largest REITs had zero people of color in their C-suites as of November, and six had all-White C-suites and boards of directors. 

Other corporate sectors have more heavily recruited from HBCUs for years than the commercial real estate industry, recruiters and school officials told Bisnow. That, combined with the lack of existing familial connections, has left many students of color unaware of the industry as a career path — making it harder for commercial real estate to diversify its ranks. 

“Particularly I think in diverse communities, there’s largely a lack of understanding or awareness of commercial real estate as a career,” Walker & Dunlop Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Jason Golub said. “That’s a challenge, and it’s one we’re tackling.”

Berkadia Senior Director Cameron Webb

Webb, 30, who rose to vice president at Marcus & Millichap before joining Berkadia in 2019, didn’t learn about commercial real estate until his final semester at the University of Virginia.

While he was an intern at investment bank UBS, an adviser told Webb that if he could go back in time, he would embark on a commercial real estate career. This led Webb to begin cold-calling sales managers at D.C.-area commercial real estate firms. Marcus & Millichap was impressed with his initiative and eventually offered him a position in the firm’s mentorship program in 2013, he told Bisnow.

“None of my family or friends were in commercial real estate,” Webb said in 2017. “It just happened.”

Colette English Dixon, the executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University, said the lack of CRE legacies in communities of color is a huge early hurdle to overcome.

“Individuals aren’t in the industry to share that experience with their children or their nieces and nephews,” she said. 

Van Sapp, the dean of St. Augustine’s School of Business, Management and Technology, said he’s seen the lack of CRE knowledge firsthand in his introduction to business class. The textbooks he assigns freshmen don’t delve into CRE topics, and many students come from small towns that don’t have exposure to institutional-grade commercial real estate, he said. 

“They know what real estate is, residential real estate,” Sapp said. “But commercial real estate is something different. I think the industry as a whole, probably, has to do a better job marketing what the industry is.”

Sapp has served on the executive board of the HBCU Business Deans Roundtable since 2019 and was the organization’s president last year. During that time, JLL was the only commercial real estate firm to partner with the group.

“There’s other industries spending their time and effort at these schools,” Sapp said. “I think a lot of companies really don’t know how to get started. I’m going to take the positive route and say that’s probably it.”

ASU's Master's In Real Estate Development program Executive Director Mark Stapp with Murphy Cheatham

Battley, JLL’s campus partnerships leader, said she’d like to see more CRE companies participate beyond career fair appearances.

“You have to have relationships with administrators to get your finger on the pulse of HBCUs,” Battley said. “It has been my secret sauce, but I would love to see expansion, and they’d love to have more sponsors from commercial real estate.”

Many colleges lack a dedicated real estate emphasis in undergraduate studies, while others only offer certificate programs. Commercial real estate firms have increased outreach opportunities in recent years, but don’t have the recruiting prowess of financial giants, Asana Partners Managing Director Katie Grissom said.

“A lot of times real estate is not as proactive in recruiting, certainly at least from our research, not at HBCUs,” she said. 

Bridging The Gap

Commercial real estate companies have ramped up their efforts to introduce students at HBCUs and other business schools to the career opportunities available in the industry this year, including several new programs launching this month on campuses across the country.

The efforts have gone far beyond showing up at career fairs with a booth and handing out flyers as companies have sought new ways to build meaningful relationships with students and schools.

Grambling, through the new ASU partnership, is offering five new classes this fall: real estate fundamentals, real estate appraisal, real estate law, real estate land development and real estate investment. The virtual courses begin Aug. 19, and final exams will be held the second week of December, Cheatham said.

By offering real estate courses at the HBCU, Cheatham said students aren’t just introduced to the industry as a potential career path, but also can become at least partially fluent in real estate concepts and jargon. He said young people who begin talking to real estate companies through internships or job interviews without first having exposure to the industry in the classroom can often feel like “a deer in headlights.”

“We need to include kids of color to have a viable conversation about commercial real estate,” Cheatham said. ”They need to know what a cap rate is, IRR, rental rate, what’s GP versus LP equity … I’m not trying to solve racism. My thing is just equipping people to have a conversation.”

Grambling and ASU are also working with nonprofit Project Destined to offer a paid, eight-week virtual internship program for up to 50 students of color, who will work with one of several big-name corporate partners including Brookfield, Related, JLL, Walker & Dunlop, Berkadia and CBRE Global Investors. 

Walker & Dunlop Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Jason Golub

Walker & Dunlop in March announced a partnership with another HBCU, North Carolina Central University, which is launching its first-ever real estate program. Walker & Dunlop sponsored two yearlong academic fellowships that will cover tuition and room and board for two NCCU master’s students focusing on real estate.

This fall, Walker & Dunlop and NCCU are launching a Business Catalyst Program. The program will be available to sophomores with a 3.0 GPA or higher, and it will include a set of activities that supplement students’ formal coursework: mentorship sessions with professionals, a mock interview and résumé feedback, a group session on social media awareness, and panels on career preparedness and professional development.

Golub said he sees the NCCU partnership as a model that it aims to replicate with other universities. He said the strategy he has been emphasizing since joining Walker & Dunlop in September is “to go deep rather than wide.” 

“You could go to 100 job fairs every year, sit there with a booth, hand out flyers and you won’t make a lot of impact. The number of students who understand what commercial real estate looks like won’t change meaningfully,” Golub said. “For me, there is value in developing longer-term relationships with a handful of schools, really providing value to those schools and educating students about different careers in commercial real estate.”

Through its partnership with the HBCU Business Deans Roundtable, JLL held a five-day virtual workshop in April for HBCU students. It had targeted 20 to 30 students and ended up doubling that with 60 students participating. It plans to hold the workshops twice a year, Battley said.

JLL is also working on partnerships with HBCUs to offer real estate courses, but Battley said they aren’t ready to be announced. The courses and professors available to students within their colleges can have a great influence on the careers they pursue, she said, admitting commercial real estate hasn’t had the same presence in the classroom as other industries. 

“Accounting and consulting are things that are talked about very heavily in the classroom,” Battley said. “A lot of professors have come from the Big Four environment, so they’re hearing about it. We need more representation of people who have experience in the real estate industry in classes.”

Patterson Real Estate Advisors CEO Lance Patterson in April endowed a scholarship and launched an internship program at his company for students at Georgia State University. The paid, part-time internship will start this fall, Patterson said, and he said he plans to involve them in meaningful work that will show them how the industry operates. 

“You’ve got to let the kids know our industry exists, maybe give them a taste of it,” Patterson said. “I think exposure is really the starting point.”

Boston-based developer The Fallon Co. in July partnered with nonprofit Street2Ivy to launch a five-week course for 16 students at Wentworth Institute of Technology to teach them about commercial real estate topics, bring them to CRE offices and have them hear from influential industry figures. 

Street2Ivy founder Tavares Brewington said the program has focused on teaching students about the different types of commercial real estate they interact with in their everyday lives, and how a career in CRE can allow them to shape the built environment in their communities. 

“Once you say that to them, a lightbulb goes off,” Brewington said. “[They say] ‘Yeah, these buildings are commercial real estate, but I can really have an impact on my environment by being an investor and a decision-maker on how these things get built and what amenities they’ll have. We can impact our environment through CRE.’” 

Building A Foundation

JLL Global Head of Early Career and External Campus Partnerships Giselle Battley

While it will take time to see the outcome of these new industry efforts, there are early signs that these efforts could move the needle.

Project Destined has seen an uptick in interest since George Floyd’s murder in June 2020 and the subsequent racial justice protests, CEO Cedric Bobo told Bisnow. That moment sparked urgency among companies to increase diversity, and they wanted to find partners that could help them get there quickly. 

“We’re seeing a lot more interest in action and being able to plug into something that they know will deliver,” Bobo said. 

In February, Charlotte-based Asana Partners became one of Bobo’s new partners, and it has since hired two summer interns through its partnership with Project Destined. 

“Most colleges just don’t have a ton of options as it relates to commercial real estate as electives,” said Grissom, who leads Asana’s retail leasing and runs the Project Destined partnership. “That is really limiting to expose our industry to young people who don’t have families that own real estate.” 

Project REAP, or the Real Estate Associate Program, launched in Washington, D.C., in 1998 and provides people of color that have a bachelor’s degree and interest in the industry with mentorship and courses that range from brokerage to financial analysis to asset management.

The program is now in nine U.S. cities, Project REAP Chairman Lamont Blackstone told Bisnow. Some 500 of the program’s graduates now work at top companies, and some have gone on to start their own commercial real estate businesses. 

Before a few years ago, only those who held a bachelor’s degree and had at least three years of professional experience could be accepted into the program. After hearing from sponsors that opening the program up to new college graduates would help significantly in hiring, REAP dropped the experience requirement altogether.

“We're now explicitly marketing our academy as a program not just for talent that has completed a bachelor's degree, but also for graduating seniors,” Blackstone said. “So that's one consideration in removing or stripping away that cloak of invisibility with regard to the commercial real estate industry.” 

Since 2005, CREW Network — a commercial real estate association for women— has hosted CREW Careers, daylong events around the country that expose girls in high school to careers in real estate by diving into developments in their communities. In 2007, CREW also started UCREW, a program aimed at showing college students career opportunities in the industry. 

The national organization has also given out more than $1.1M in scholarships to women looking to start careers in commercial real estate, CREW Network President Tiffany English told Bisnow. Between 2008 and 2010, 20 to 35 applicants applied for CREW scholarships each year. In 2021, 122 applicants applied to CREW scholarships, a CREW spokesperson said. 

“Truly it is a testament to the interest from young women interested in the industry,“ English said. “When people are engaged, they're more likely to pursue the options that are provided to them.” 

Just like CREW’s scholarships, Cheatham said launching real estate courses at Grambling is just the beginning. He hopes it will lead to a full real estate degree program at the university that students can declare as their major, and he would like to see other HBCUs use his partnership as a model. 

“Ultimately my goal is to increase the pool of qualified diverse candidates in this industry,” Cheatham said. “It’s not just to have this one group of classes, it’s to really build a foundation and give students the full idea of everything that’s possible within real estate.”

Despite the concrete steps being taken, it will be difficult to gauge what success would be on an industrywide level, Battley said. For now, a victory may just mean increased awareness and a sincere push for improvement from the industry. 

“I would caution everyone: It's a marathon, not a sprint,” Battley said. “My hope is that we’re starting to create more awareness. When all the firms are doing the same thing, it’s a greater good for all of us … it’s going to take a few years of concentrated effort to see that big boom.”

Dees Stribling contributed reporting to this article.