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An Interview With: Herman Bulls, Bridget Chase, and Dawn Marcus

Washington DC

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By Betsy Rosso for Bisnow on Business

They bring skills from the Army, interior design, health care administration, and journalism—not to mention leadership strategies, a vision of what’s possible, and a mission of inclusion. Largely unheralded in the broader real estate community, but important in diversifying that community, leaders of African-American Real Estate Professionals have now created a 200-member organization that reaches up to 800 of their colleagues each year with educational and networking events and a shared sense of empowerment.

And their influence is spreading. Together with similar organizations that have started in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago, they spurred a first annual Commercial Real Estate Diversity Summit last summer in Atlanta that drew a large crowd and plan another in 2007.

Founding President Herman Bulls conceived the idea for AAREP in the early 1990s while serving as a Trustee of West Point, his alma mater. Typical graduating classes there included fewer than 5% people of color, and many of them did not attend reunions or remain involved with the school. He suggested reaching out to minority graduates by holding events just for them—then realized the same approach could work in Washington commercial real estate.

Bulls and colleague Hugh Allen combed their rolodexes and invited 50 colleagues to an interest meeting after work. To their surprise, 70 showed up. Bulls realized that there were more African Americans working in the field than he’d realized. “AAREP provides a safe haven for people to experiment and learn,” Bulls says. “I’m proud that several people I know are in real estate because of this organization. They can call someone and ask, ‘How do you do this?’ Information is power.”

As President of the Public Institutions Group of Jones Lang LaSalle, and CEO of Bulls Capital Partners (a Fannie Mae DUS multifamily lender), Bulls has come a long way from needing exposure, and now looks to help newcomers. “A day doesn’t go by that I’m not counseling, mentoring, and talking to someone.” One tangible way Bulls developed to help emerging professionals was by teaching them golf. “It’s usually a higher socioeconomic sport. So we started an annual golf tournament, which sells out every year. But we also provide instruction for people to help them understand the game in a non-threatening way.”

Bulls believes that although commercial real estate has been slow to diversify, the growing climate of diversity in corporate America has been beneficial for AAREP members. “Clients and institutions now want to see people who look like their own stakeholders.”

As a graduate of the Army’s intense Ranger training and a serviceman for 12 years, Bulls developed high-quality housing for military families. One of his three sons is currently serving in the Army in Iraq. “Working with the military and universities takes a certain patience. If you think you’re going to make your buck and go, you’re not going to be successful. If you can show people that you care, that you have ideas to help, and have patience, you can do both.”

Current AAREP President Bridgette Chase is a native Washingtonian who saw AAREP as the perfect entry point into commercial real estate after years of experience in health care, interior design, and residential real estate. Chase had been inspired by the possibilities of building and renovating property since she was a teenager, but was never sure how to turn that into a career.

“When I was in high school, a friend’s mom purchased a home for $1 on Capitol Hill before it was what it is today,” Chase said. “They were trying to encourage people to renovate abandoned row houses and move in. She rehabbed the home and it was absolutely fabulous—a three level row house with English basement. I thought to myself, ‘The rest of these homes could look like that?’ It was my first exposure to real estate—seeing something transformed before your eyes.”

Developing the ability to visualize this kind of transformation strengthened Chase’s proficiency as an interior designer and later as a residential realtor. ”I could walk into a home and have a vision,” Chase said. “There were a lot of homes in DC in need of rehab. Sometimes potential purchasers can’t see it, but I could explain it. I could say, if you did this, this, and this it could transform this shell into a fabulous home. ”

Chase wanted to expand her talent for imagining the potential of a building into the commercial market, but wasn’t sure how. “AAREP is one of the best entry points to commercial real estate. This is not an industry on our radar screen. Less than 1% of people in the industry are African-American. We have the skills sets and abilities but don’t know about it or can’t find a point of entry.” Now Chase works as vice president of the advisory services group at Capitol CREAG in DC.

One of Chase’s proudest moments at AAREP was creating the Minorities Internships in Commercial Real Estate program, a partnership with Howard University’s business, architecture, and engineering schools. Some builders request interns every semester they’re available. While Chase works on a variety of projects, her heart is in affordable housing. “Affordable housing is necessary because people regardless of where they are in the socioeconomic ladder, they should still be able to have safe, clean and affordable housing, ” she says.

Dawn Marcus, AAREP’s president in 1998-1999, understood the value of AAREP because of her involvement in a similar organization directed at her gender: Commercial Real Estate Women. “It’s always beneficial to have like people working together toward a common goal of moving their careers ahead,” she says. Marcus served as president of CREW in 2004.

While Marcus has also been involved in traditional organizations for real estate professionals, at AAREP she feels like the environment is less of a competition. “At AAREP you can talk about issues that pertain to your career without worrying about race. People talk about how to get a fair chance based on ability, not color. That’s a support mechanism that doesn’t happen in other organizations. There’s more of a sense of camaraderie.”

In her role as communications manager with Hines Interests Limited Partnership, Marcus has brought relationships she developed at AAREP to benefit Hines. “I’ve been able to show my firm the value of my membership by bringing business and relationships to the company. The hardest thing about working in real estate,” she says, “is that it’s still a relationship-based business. That’s one reason why AAREP is important—it helps members not only understand what’s going on in the industry, but how to help each other and themselves through building relationships.”