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Amid Pandemic, New Grassroots CRE Networks Gather, Celebrate Diversity In Same Virtual Room

For San Diego real estate professional Dustin Sutton, the seeming invisibility of other Black professionals within commercial real estate was plainly visible his entire career. 

“Since I’ve been working in the industry, it’s something I’ve always noticed,” he said. “I haven’t had any Black mentors.”

This summer, Sutton decided to change that. A property management and business development specialist for Meissner Jacquet, he used LinkedIn to launch Black Commercial Real Estate Network, or BCREN, a new professional networking group. Discussing the formation of the organization, it was hard for him to contain his excitement when asked what it represented for him and how it has changed his view of his profession.

“I don’t know if you can hear the smile on my face,” he said.

Black Commercial Real Estate Network's Dustin Sutton

Sutton’s role in creating BCREN — inspired by the increased racial awareness during the summer, largely sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody — exemplifies a new generation of professional networking groups utilizing social media to connect CRE professionals, meeting a deeply felt need for these kinds of gatherings outside of corporate diversity and inclusion groups.

Another group, this one for Asian Americans in CRE, the Asian CRE Network, formed this year as well, motivated by a long-held desire of Southern California co-founders Corina Irvin and Jerry Won for representation and camaraderie, as well as a need for community made more acute this year. 

While the work that larger CRE firms have done to encourage diversity and inclusion is commendable and necessary, and groups such as CREW, founded in 1989, have long been pushing for and promoting diversity, the cultivation of new ground-up forums created by and for groups that are underrepresented in the industry, without any of the pressures of interacting with co-workers and superiors, is important. 

“If you look in the upper echelons and you don’t see someone that looks like you, you wonder if it’s a place for me,” Sutton said.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s most recent statistics, Black people made up 2.18% of executive and senior-level positions in the U.S. real estate industry as of 2015, disproportionate to their 13% share of the overall population. 

In June, Sutton started the Black Commercial Real Estate Networking Group on LinkedIn and thought he’d find 10 or so people in the San Diego area to grab coffee with. After connecting with a dozen or so people from major local firms such as JLL, Cushman & Wakefield and CBRE, he quickly connected with Derith Jarvis, a senior vice president of research and strategy for JLL in Dallas, who was in the midst of starting a similar group with about 30 members. They joined forces and BCREN took off. It hit 100 members in two months and now totals roughly 190.

The group has its own website, hosts two Zoom calls a month, and hosts a group presentation every other Wednesday focused on a deal someone is working on or featuring CRE-specific attorneys talking about their area of interest. 

The Asian CRE Network grew out of the friendship of Irvin, principal at Peninsula Commercial Real Estate in Torrance, California, and Won, currently CEO of Just Like Media, a podcast production company, who previously worked at WeWork.

They each served on the Asian alumni organization of the University of Southern California (both were class of 2004). They experienced the lack of diversity in CRE and decided this year to do something about it.

Asian CRE Network's Corina Irvin and Jerry Won

“We created something that we wish we had when we were much younger and getting started in the industry,” Won said. “We want to help build our network and provide one for those coming into the industry.”

“We were chatting in March when the pandemic hit and talking about a network for meeting and support,” said Irvin, who is also part of a group called Filipinos in Institutional Real Estate. “The pandemic pushed us to start something sooner rather than later.” 

The group started on Facebook, with friends inviting friends, and now, with a membership of about 250, hosts weekly conversations and a podcast, which is beginning planning for a second season of 10 episodes. The focus on storytelling is key, helping showcase how different Asian Americans got involved with and grew within the industry. 

Won says it’s so important to focus on the context. There are plenty of resources and media out there with a focus on how to be successful and learn, but within CRE, it is mostly about relationships and experience. For many, especially immigrants or those without family connections, there are systemic barriers to which there seems to be no real key. 

“Telling people to leverage their relationships assumes that have the same relationships as others,” he said. “It’s important to create a space where people feel welcome.”

A constant refrain from the founders, and from conversations among members, was the lack of representation, especially when it came to mentors and role models that showcased potential career paths. 

“There wasn’t anyone Black and in CRE in my direct network,” Sutton said. “There wasn’t anybody who made me think, ‘I can do that.’” 

Sutton reiterated the value of these groups outside of a corporate or office setting.

“To me, it’s more than a networking group; it’s therapy, it’s a little bit Tony Robbins-get-you-fired-up,” he said. “I come out of the calls inspired. I’ve shed tears on multiple occasions, I’m not too proud to say that. We’ve had some really candid and open conversations.”

“In corporate-sponsored employee resource groups, people still worry about reputation and perception and their careers,” Won said. “It’s great and important the work that companies like C&W do, but we’re independent, and that means we don’t have to worry about someone from HR slapping you on the wrist and saying not to talk about something. We don’t need to do something inauthentic to achieve a specific mission.”

Both groups expressed significant interest in serving as mentors and examples to the next generation in CRE, with plans to speak to college students and at job fairs — Irvin was about the meet up with a USC student interested in CRE. These are networking groups that, beyond advancing their own careers, feel it is their mission to advance the careers of those who come next. 

“One of the younger members of our group is in his 20s and during a one-on-one conversation told me, 'Thank you, this is the first time I’ve seen so many Black faces in CRE,'” Sutton said. “He said it in an offhand way, but then said, ‘I feel more hopeful than I ever have about having a career in this field.’”