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CRE's Next Generation: Colliers' Sayo Kamara On Carrying The Torch To Advance Minorities In CRE

This series asks rising stars in commercial real estate about their thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry, including inequality, climate change and technology.

Some leave everything behind to come to the Big Apple hoping to make it big on Broadway. Sayo Kamara hoped to make it in commercial real estate.

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Sayo Kamara, an associate director in Colliers' New York office

Four years ago, he packed four bags and his dog and moved from Dallas to Brooklyn to take an internship with Lee & Associates. The then-24-year-old was given a desk and a notebook, he said, and had to support himself with no outside financial help or generational wealth. So for the first year, each day after work, Kamara took the subway to wait tables at the Capital Grille at the Chrysler Building.

“I would try to network and get to know the people while doing this,” he said. “I kind of realized that I wanted to connect with someone who I could relate to and looked like me … I literally googled successful African American commercial real estate brokers in New York."

His internet searching led him to Colliers Executive Managing Director Eric Yarbro.

"He was the only name that showed up, so I started cold calling him,” Kamara said. 

It took a few calls, but eventually, Yarbro answered. Kamara said he became his mentor, and the next year, Kamara joined Colliers. Since that fateful move in 2017, he has represented major landlords and tenants, such as Brookfield Properties and Macmillian Publishers, as a broker. 

Now 29, Kamara hopes to not only continue to rise through the ranks in his own career but to open doors for other people of color, a mission that his mentor, Yarbro, talked about constantly. 

“I think that over the last year has been unique of course — the George Floyd incidents — I specifically remember calling [Yarbro] after, and he urged me to continue to push and stressed how important it was for us to continue to do what we are doing in the business and create opportunities for others,” he said. 

Yarbro, a champion for diversity and inclusion in the industry, died unexpectedly less than a month after the George Floyd incident. 

“Obviously with [Yarbro's] untimely passing, it created a huge void in the industry,” Kamara said. “He was the pioneer in advocating for minorities decades before the events of George Floyd and argued it’s not only good for society to have people of color in the commercial real estate industry, but as our world continues to evolve, it makes a lot of sense economically.” 

With more and more people of color rising through the ranks of the businesses that could become clients for brokers like Kamara, he said it is important that commercial real estate changes, too. 

“I simply think that the world is changing, and as the world changes, we adapt,” he said. “The decision-makers are changing, and the leaders are changing.” 

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Sayo Kamara at a networking event

Kamara has already seen companies inquire about the makeup of his company before deciding to work with him, he said. 

“I’ve seen it on pitches where they’ve specifically asked about who you work with, they want to know what your team is like, and I think that that representation matters from a thought in being able to relate to your client,” he said. “That’s how brokers can win much more business in the industry, is if there is a diverse set of people at the table. 

But true diversity won’t happen unless those in the industry make exposing those from different backgrounds to the fields a priority, he said.

“It’s simply exposure,” he said when asked about what the biggest source of inequality is in commercial real estate. “I was first exposed to commercial real estate at 23 years old, I feel like I am lucky, because a lot of people find out the business from minority backgrounds way later in life, and by then it is kind of harder to pivot into a different career after you’ve already created an identity.” 

The issue goes beyond hiring open positions, he said. It is incumbent on the industry to proactively educate people who traditionally aren't exposed to commercial real estate.

“You have to catch people earlier, but I also think that you can take opportunities from people who would be successful in this business who have already been successful in something else, who also can be in those spots that those kids can aspire to,” Kamara said. 

Kamara said that programs like Project REAP, Project Destined and the Real Estate Executive Council are all working for that goal. He said he introduced Project Destined to Brookfield, leading to the two companies’ partnership

There were many times in Kamara's first couple of years in the business where he wondered whether he could make it at all. When everyone else had left the office, Kamara would regularly sit with Yarbro and talk about those doubts.

“Eric had this quote he would always say: ‘Just hang in there,’” Kamara said. “I definitely say resiliency is a big thing on the broker side of the business, no matter what background you come from. For me, it’s just having to have good people around me to keep me in a positive state."