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CRE Training Group Project REAP Releases Call To Action On Strengthening Diversity At Top Firms

The persistent lack of diversity across commercial real estate has long vexed the industry, despite much public acknowledgment it needs to improve. One group is seizing on a moment of global awakening to directly call on some of the world’s biggest companies to create change, and laying out seven actions they should use to make it happen.

Project REAP, which stands for Real Estate Associate Program, runs a 10-week real estate training program for multicultural talent to give them the skills and networking opportunities to establish themselves in the industry. It is the U.S. commercial real estate industry's largest racial and ethnic diversity initiative.

This week, it is issuing an urgent “Call to Action” to the C-suites of leading commercial real estate firms and Fortune 500 companies, outlining some of the steps it considers necessary to increase the number of people of color across the industry.

“I am perhaps more hopeful than I’ve ever been,” Lamont Blackstone, the chairman of Project REAP, said in an interview with Bisnow. “In the aftermath of the three murders — Ahmaud ArberyBreonna Taylor and George Floyd — the notion of social justice, racial justice and racial inequity has really dominated much of the national conversation."

This call to action will be sent this week to more than 40 companies with real estate components, Project REAP officials told Bisnow, including Amazon, CBRE, Related Cos., JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Starbucks, Colliers International, JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, Marcus & Millichap and the Bozzuto Group.

Project REAP is also writing to Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, Starwood Property Trust, Simon Property Group, SVN, Walmart, McDonald’s and Bank of America. Top trade associations are also on the list.

Any company that wants to publicly pledge to take on the initiative would be welcome to do so, and Blackstone said he is pushing the underlying message that diverse companies are more profitable and successful than homogeneous ones.

"The time for action is now," states the call to action, written as an open letter. "The ghosts of the past still haunt the landscape of our industry: the 1921 Tulsa, OK massacre and its destruction of Black wealth, the history of racially restrictive deed covenants, redlining and the urban densification of segregated communities. Inequity of opportunity is not sustainable. Communities of color must feel they have a real stake in the built environment."

Osayamen Asemota-Bartholomew

The key initiatives of the Call to Action outlined by the organization are as follows:

  • Embrace Diversity – Ensure a multiracial, multiethnic, multigender workforce at all levels to catalyze superior performance of the entire corporate team.
  • Be an Ally – Commit to partnerships with REAP and similar organizations; collaborate with historically Black colleges and professional organizations that serve and support minority communities in real estate, architecture, engineering and law.
  • Be Intentional about Diversity – Adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule in hiring and promoting (i.e. conduct meaningful, not pro forma, interviews with underrepresented minority candidates for all open positions, including top-tier positions and board seats); recruit multicultural professionals from partner organizations; ensure diversity on BOTH the interview team and candidate pool.
  • Align Supplier Diversity to CEO Compensation – Implement fully or develop a strategic Supplier Diversity plan and tie key performance indicators to your CEO’s compensation.
  • Invest With Diverse Sponsors – Corporate and public pension funds should increase their allocations to fund managers of color serving the CRE sector. 
  • Invest in Your Investment – Encourage new minority hires to participate in relevant industry organizations, including ULI, ICSC, National Multifamily Housing Council, IREM, BOMA, NAIOP and others serving the CRE industry. Pay membership dues. Support diversity and inclusion programming in trade associations.
  • Share Your Network – Introduce new minority hires to your professional network; develop mentorship relationships within and without the company and invite all team members into your social circle.

Blackstone, who owns a development consulting firm, said he disputes the claim many corporate leaders still make that they cannot find talent from diverse backgrounds to fill positions.

“The evidence is there that when opportunities are provided to talented minority professionals, they can rise and perform,” Blackstone said.

IKEA Group North America Real Estate Cluster President Angele Robinson-Gaylord, a Black woman, is an alumna of the Project REAP program, as is London Kemp, who is also a woman of color and the global head of corporate real estate at Netflix.

Project REAP Chief Program Officer Osayamen Asemota-Bartholomew, whose father is Nigerian and mother is from the Dominican Republic, told Bisnow that while many companies are aware of and acknowledge the importance of diversity, they still practice discrimination when they offer roles to alumni of diversity training programs.

"There is implicit bias there, it will be as if ‘Oh, these are minority students, these are the roles we have,' then I will go on the website, see other jobs and question, ‘Why were these other roles not provided to me?’” she said. "Many times over the years I’ve heard from commercial real estate companies ‘We have a hard time finding diverse talent.’ Well, it’s because the strategy is wrong."

She pointed specifically to a need for greater focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities like her alma mater, Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

Since widespread demonstrations began last month, many businesses have spoken out about the need to improve their diversity and address racial injustice. Related CEO Jeff Blau last month acknowledged the lack of diversity in the industry, and said it has “a lot of work” to do.

“Our industry has historically not been very mixed. You can go to a REBNY dinner and look at the composition of the group and I would guess it's 80% white males, maybe more,” he said on a Bisnow webinar.

Walker & Dunlop, the largest Fannie Mae lender and one of the largest multifamily finance firms in the country, has set goals to improve the gender and racial diversity of its management team. Company CEO Willy Walker said during a Bisnow webinar last month that the firm will aim to increase the percentage of women in its top 20% earners bracket from 7% to 15% and the rate of minorities in its top earners from 4% to 15% by 2025.

“So many things that have happened lately, there has been a magnifying glass on embracing diversity," Asemota-Bartholomew said. "A lot of times, when it comes to diversity, it was, like ‘we’ve checked off the box, we've hired a woman.' But we can’t just stop there. We are asking organizations to not only embrace diversity from a multi-gender perspective, it has to be multiracial and multi-ethnic. And you need to be intentional about diversity. Don’t just do it because it’s a trendy thing to do right now.”