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Weekend Interview: Unispace’s Chely Wright On The Third Rail Of Corporate DEI And Avoiding Death By 1,000 Cuts

This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities that keep CRE interesting.

Chely Wright has said that “if you're a human on the planet, you inherently have an interesting story.” As a country music star-turned-corporate DEI advocate in commercial real estate, Wright can certainly count herself as the main character of the more intriguing tales. 

A Kansan singer-songwriter whose decades-long career has included hit songs such as Single White Female, It Was and Shut Up and Drive, she surprised the country music establishment when she came out as gay in 2010. When talking about her experience making such a personal and public announcement, a compelling reason for her decision was thinking of the young people in America who were being told they were “damaged goods.” That sense of advocacy helped lead her to work in the diversity, equity, inclusivity and belonging, or DEIB, field. 

She had been working across industries when, during the pandemic, Wright was approached by Unispace CEO Steve Quick, who asked her to start working at the workspace design and consulting firm around its own DEI efforts. Soon, that became a full-time job and an opportunity to tackle the issue within an industry that, as previous Bisnow reporting has suggested, has been slow to embrace the issue and has made sometimes halting progress toward a more inclusive workforce. 

Chely Wright, a country music star-turned-corporate DEI advocate, with her son at Disneyland.

Now, as chief diversity officer at Unispace, she is focused on DEIB efforts companywide amid backlash to these kinds of efforts. She compares her work and her career to a wide river: She was able to cross it because there were a few dozen people, like strategically placed boulders, that helped her navigate challenges and move forward. She hopes to create a type of culture and workplace where it is easier for workers to find those boulders and take those next steps. 

“When I come into this work every day, I really believe that you can take people on a journey,” she said. “But not everyone is on the same journey.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bisnow: What led you to Unispace and this particular industry? 

Wright: I came out of the closet in 2010. And in country music, as you might imagine, that was a pretty tricky needle to thread. I knew I was the first commercial country artist to do so, so I wanted to not just come out, but I wanted to come out well. And that included really embedding myself before I came out with organizations like GLAAD and HRC that could help me be an educated voice in the LGBTQ community. Frankly, being as closeted as I was, I really knew nothing, and this was kind of pre-internet. I really was kind of in this weird little bubble. So putting myself through the rigors of educating myself and aligning myself with advocacy organizations was a big part of my strategy. And so when I came out, that began my kind of foray into doing essentially DEI work in corporate spaces, higher education and faith communities. It was what I would affectionately call a side hustle.

Bisnow: How did you diagnose the DEI challenges at Unispace and in the commercial real estate industry? 

Wright: I've often said that country music is not dissimilar to real estate, in that it's not ever been known to be a bastion of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. That's the starting point. 

And that was what was so attractive about coming into this industry and into Unispace. 

I shared with Steve [Quick] early on, “Think of what we can do if we try.” It’s so fun to be in really uncharted territory. There have been thought leaders in the space, like CBRE and Cushman & Wakefield, that have been doing this work for a long time. But in terms of Unispace, it was an unplowed field. This was a job where I didn't talk much at the beginning. I did a lot of listening and a lot of understanding where the business was, where individuals were. What does belonging look like here? What is the language that people have around DEI? DEI felt like the third rail around here, which was OK. I just needed to know it.

My approach was very much like how I led my band and my production team around the globe for a couple of decades. It's paying attention and understanding where people are and then finding a way to meet them where they are. I wasn't afraid of the fact that people were afraid to say “Black and brown people” or people were afraid to use the word “gay.” Is it OK to use the word “queer”? Yes, it is. 

Bisnow: In terms of stats around diversity, can you give me a rundown of where things were when you started? And what do you envision as the goals of your efforts?

Wright: About nine months after I was in the saddle, we launched our first inclusivity diagnostic. It was really telling and also really hard to get people to trust that it was anonymous. I think there's a general distrust, not just at Unispace but just in corporate spaces, of disclosing that kind of information. 

So you ask where we were when I started. I couldn't find anyone in the business who identified openly as gay. Think about that. A global business, and at that time, I think we had 800 to 1,000 people. I was asking around, you know, publicly and widely and privately, “Where are our gay people?” And we just didn't have any out people in the business. 

Now we have scores and scores of people who are openly gay. We have transgender people in the business. Going from that point when I started to where we are now, it's phenomenal in terms of leadership and representation. I'm proud to say that about half of our workforce is women and about 42% of our executive leadership are women. We've come a long way, baby.

Bisnow: You have to strategize around recruitment and retention. How do you do both of those things and create a more diverse workspace?

Wright: People talk a lot about low-hanging fruit, right? I wish we could eliminate that from our lexicon because it really tees it up for performative box-ticking. I’d rather think of them as obvious things and non-obvious things. When you go to someone else's house, you’ve probably noticed things that are weird. Why do they have their TV hanging there? Or their kitchen is a mess. When it's our own house, we don't notice it. 

So when it comes to the obvious and non-obvious things we need to do, for instance, our contracts and subcontracting agreements were very biased toward men. In fact, when I became a consultant for Unispace, the consultant agreement that I got called the consultant “he” throughout the entirety of the document. Nobody ever looked at it through the lens of equity. It's a thousand of those kinds of things, death by a thousand cuts, right? 

Now when we get CVs or place job descriptions, we’ve updated the language. I think it all comes down to unconscious biases. Are there some people who are acting out negatively on conscious biases? Yes. But it's really rare. It's really rare that when people know better, they don't want to do better. We can have employee resource groups, we can have diverse hiring plans, but those things all tend to be the icing on the cake. When the recipe of the cake is not right, it doesn't matter how we ice the cake; it's not going to work.

Wright spending time with artists, colleagues and friends

Bisnow: Has there been a shift in doing this kind of work due to what we have seen as a backlash, including the affirmative action decision and the campaign against Bud Light? 

Wright: I'm a dreamer, Patrick. I'm an artist and songwriter who moved to Nashville to go make records in 1989. But I'm a pragmatist as well. So one would be foolish to not acknowledge the kind of concussive response and overcorrection and pushback towards DEI.  

So in many ways, Covid was a great opportunity. I mean, clearly, there were obvious negatives: Millions of people died and the world went through something that was devastating. 

But the silver lining was that transformation in the workplace and transformation in terms of level-setting. How we see one another and how we value one another in terms of that paradigm between employers and employees. This wouldn't have happened for another 100 years had Covid not happened. So there's a blessing in that. But then there's also this kind of market correction for DEIB. 

There will be companies who will back off of this, lower their budgets, get scared. I think we will see who meant it and who was performing it. Some will back off because they're afraid of backlash, because they were only doing it because they thought they had to. Let me brag about my boss, Steve Quick. I haven't been asked to reduce my budget by a single dollar. I haven't been asked to back off of any of our initiatives at all. In fact, he said we're not taking our foot off the gas. It's important to the business, it's important to him. And frankly, I think he takes it personally because he has made a personal commitment to our workforce, to our clients, to our potential hires that we mean it.

You know, we're not a monolith at Unispace. But at the end of the day, if we don't have the courage to kind of lock arms and do this work together and hold space for a lot of the very strongly held beliefs that our team has, then we're not doing it right. My job is to help make everyone at Unispace feel like they belong, whether they are Catholics who are pro-life, whether they are feminists who are pro-choice. I have to create environments where everyone gets to feel like they come to work and they get to be who they are authentically, and it's not an easy job.

Bisnow: So you said you haven’t had your budget reduced by a single cent. Where do you see those dollars best spent? What are strategies and initiatives that really work? Highlight some things at the corporate level that you’re doing that make a difference, as opposed to being, like you said, lip service. 

Wright: I believe the connective tissue of humankind is storytelling. In corporate spaces, when I first came out and began doing this work, storytelling was seen as a soft skill. But a couple of years in, I realized this is where I’m most effective. There are Ph.D.s who have the charts and data, and that’s important, but storytelling is what moves mountains. That’s how culture changes. 

When I think about how to allocate our really hard-earned money — getting an actual budget to do this kind of work, it’s hard to do — I think about how to spend it wisely, and I think storytelling opportunities, like having a speaker come in and talk to our teams, is really effective. When I think about internal processes, we have a share-your-story campaign where we talk about what it’s like to be a parent or a caregiver, or a woman or a Black person or a queer person. Those are really effective.

I think one of the smartest plays is external partnerships. We have corporate external partners like Disability In, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. These are all organizations that are in the trenches every day to help uplift and create access and opportunity. We pay for those partnerships, to be formal partners, to get learnings from them. It’s the difference between going to a general practitioner or a cardiologist: We get their expertise and then we take that on board. And it doesn't always work. There's no silver bullet, but we get to take those best practices.

Wright at a river in upstate New York with her family.

Bisnow: So playing devil’s advocate: Where’s the ROI here? How do you respond when someone says, “Bottom line, why are we spending this money? Storytelling is great, we want people to bring their authentic selves, but how do you measure what you’re doing and say, ‘See, this is success’”?

Wright: A really important question. For Unispace, we’re unique in that we’re business-to-business, we’re selling something to clients. A lot of the companies that we work with won't do work with a company anymore that isn't doing supplier diversity, that isn't focused on measuring their workforce through a diverse lens. They are hard questions in their RFPs. When I first came on board, I asked to see all the RFPs we submitted in the past couple years, and maybe 10% were asking about their supplier diversity workforce metrics. Now, almost all of them do. So that’s table stakes, the ticket to entry. That’s the ROI right there. 

But internally, the ROI is attrition, attrition, attrition. Look at the cost of people not feeling like they belong. When people don't feel like they're valued or that they belong or that they're sincerely welcome and encouraged to be their authentic self at work, they will leave after nine months to 18 months. The cost isn’t just the day-to-day logistics and operational costs of getting someone new trained and in the saddle. Those people who leave have relationships, personal, direct ones with clients, and if they leave, our client doesn’t feel as attached to staying at Unispace.

Bisnow: With recruitment, in your experience, what are the things that can really make a difference? You're right to focus on attrition and retention. That's a huge issue. But just getting people in the door can be very hard in this industry.

Wright: I think it's directly related to the talent that you have. The power of LinkedIn and the power of people within Unispace who are proud of where they work, talking about that pride. They're telling their friends and their networks of people. And, conversely, if they're not loving it here, they're telling their networks that they don't love it here. If we’re doing that, I think that’s half of the battle. 

We don’t have a sophisticated, diverse recruiting strategy beyond that yet. We’re working on it, but I’m mindful that I don't want to do something an inch deep and a mile wide. And so I've been really careful. 

Bisnow: You also have another side hustle in real estate. Can you tell me how you got started in that type of investment and what your strategy and portfolio look like? 

Wright: In the late '90s, I began buying single-family dwellings in Nashville, and then around the Kansas City area. People have always said, “Oh, you flip properties.” Nope, I buy them, and I keep them and I rent them to people. And it's something I really enjoy. I do it all myself. Of course, I have a great kind of collection of subs and tradespeople. The key is being able to have people who can help you take care of your properties. 

In terms of finding the tenants, running credit checks and interviewing people, I do all of that myself. My strategy is to buy in emerging neighborhoods that I think are going to pop. And I've been really lucky. My sweet spot is a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,200 SF single-family dwelling that is in good shape. Treat the property as if it were the home you live in, take care of your tenants, be very responsive. I've had real success with it.

Bisnow: What's your weekend routine or favorite weekend activity? 

Wright: My favorite weekend activity is riding bikes and hiking with my kids upstate.

Bisnow: Give us a bold prediction for the end of the year. 

Wright: My bold prediction for EOY might not be so bold, but I predict two things. Interest rates will begin to fall, and the Kansas City Chiefs will be on track to winning the Super Bowl … again.