DEI: Getting woke in the city that never sleeps

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By Arthur Schurr

“A company that does not implement a diversity program with real initiatives and real results will soon find itself unable to compete. The real estate and construction industries are notoriously resistant to change, but that is finally shifting on many fronts.” 

Life isn’t fair. Neither is real estate. And nowhere is that truer than commercial real estate (CRE) in New York City. Arguably the nation’s toughest market, New York City CRE has suffered inequity since its inception. But things are changing. And study after study shows that above all moral and ethical incentives, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is good business. Those fighting the good fight seek to make the CRE industry a leader in DEI. Sadly, they have their work cut out for them. 

“Unfortunately, the broader increase in diversity across the business sector has not yet been reflected in the CRE industry,” reads “Beyond ‘Best Efforts’: Why Commercial Real Estate Needs to Catch Up on Diversity,” a 2019 article from Urban Land. “CRE opportunities are extremely difficult for qualified diverse candidates to access, from entry-level roles through senior leadership positions…more than 75 percent of senior executive jobs within the CRE industry nationwide were held by white men. In comparison, 1.3 percent were held by black men. 

“White women were highly under-represented, holding only 14.1 percent, and nonwhite women held less than 1 percent of senior executive jobs. ‘…Being a minority or being a woman is a significant barrier to professional advancement,’ the report states. ‘Being both a minority and a woman is a double impediment. Minority women are significantly less likely to advance from mid-level manager to senior executive than either white women or same-minority men.” Regrettably, New York City reflects the national trend. 

Though many well-intentioned statements have been released, the root causes for scant DEI are pernicious. From closed-loop, nepotistic hiring practices to change resistance to outright discrimination, the CRE industry generally hires from within, making it extremely difficult for “outsiders” to break in. And these practices have caused another significant problem, the aging of the industry. At present, the median age within CRE is 60 years old, substantially older than the average for funeral directors, textile mill workers, and religious organization employees, the three oldest industries according to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistic report. So, what’s an industry 
to do? 

Filling a Vacancy

SHERI BEST & BETTY CASTR0

“A company that does not implement a diversity program with real initiatives and real results will soon find itself unable to compete,” explains Sheri Best, an industry veteran and Marketing and Business Development Director at Carter, Milchman and Frank, Inc. She’s also a board member with the Commercial Real Estate Women New York (CREW NY), an advocacy group dedicated to advancing women in real estate. “The real estate and construction industries are notoriously resistant to change, but that is finally shifting on many fronts.” 

Andis Woodlief agrees. And she would know. A principal at Contractor Compliance, LLC, and a CREW NY member, she also helped craft seminal industry DEI doctrine. “An important barrier to entry has been access to decision makers. CREW NY is ‘dedicated to the advancement of professional women in commercial real estate through networking, education and leadership development.’ And one important thing we do is to help break down those barriers and facilitate that access.” 

JULIA ROCCO

“I represent three groups on the diversity wheel,” adds Julia Rocco, Kimco Realty Corporation Senior Director of Asset Management and also a CREW NY board member. “I am a woman, over 40, and lesbian. Because I’m feminine, perceived as heterosexual, and relatively young-looking, people openly express their biases in a way they probably wouldn’t if they were aware of who I am. So, in addition to overt bias, marginalized groups often face daily microaggressions and indignities. Initially, I advocated for women and the LGBT community, but now that’s broadened to helping all underrepresented groups.” 

It’s no accident these three women found each other through CREW NY. Banding together, last fall they established CREW NY’s Social Equity Braintrust (SEB), a combination think tank and forum to “chart new pathways toward achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion” in the CRE and construction industries. And on October 2, 2020, SEB hosted its first event. 

Return on Assessment

ANDIS WOODLIEF

“We created the SEB to figure out what questions to ask and to ask them. Of course, it was very important who would be giving the answers,” explains Woodlief. “So, we invited industry thought leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

Rocco adds, “We wanted them to identify the tools and strategies we would need to increase diversity within our organization, our members’ organizations, and the community we serve.” 

To provide that vital information, the panel welcomed an impressive lineup of diverse leaders and stakeholders. Introduced by New York Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul, the panel included Columbia University Supplier Diversity AVP Tanya Pope, Carlyle Airport Group Holdings JFK Terminal One Executive Chair Dr. Gerrard Bushell, Diversity at Work author and Human Equity Strategist Peter Trevor Wilson, and KEI Marketing & Consulting Senior Consultant Carl Evans. As designed, the speakers provided meaningful, illustrative, instructive, and implementable pathways to DEI. So much so, in fact, that it prompted the need for a second event, exceeding even the planners expectations. But it wasn’t just the speakers that impressed. 

TANYA POPE

Attendees included NYU Schack Real Estate Institute Dean Sam Chandan, NYC Chief Diversity Officer Wendy Garcia, Ernst & Young Government and Public Sector Associate Director Darryl Ramsey, Turner Construction Executive Vice President Pat DiFilippo, Cushman & Wakefield Tri-State Region President Toby Dodd, and NY Building Congress Chair Elizabeth Velez. For event planners, the caliber and composition of speakers and guests was no accident. 

“We wanted to mirror New York’s demographics as closely as possible,” adds Best. “By sharing diversity goals, challenges, and triumphs, these thought leaders can help us pursue real DEI and change our industry. That’s why we created the SEB. And given the response, it looks like we were right on target.” 

Naturally, their effort has the full support of its parent organization. Current CREW NY president and Cushman & Wakefield managing director Betty Castro explains that, “DEI has always been a core passion of CREW NY and we are excited to advance our mission this year and continue the critical work that is necessary in the CRE space and beyond.” 

Past CREW NY president and Envoie Projects LLC, owner Allison Robin echoes that sentiment, “In order to build a powerful network, it needs to be diverse and if we truly want to advance women then we also need to focus on inclusion and equity through vehicles like the SEB.” 

Without question, CREW’s SEB is not the only DEI initiative in NYC’s CRE. Numerous efforts dot the landscape. But that only charges the SEB founders with even greater enthusiasm. 

“This is not about credit or attention. This is about effecting change,” Best adds. “And we can’t do it alone. We don’t want to do it alone. We want to partner with other organizations and efforts to identify local, regional, and national DEI endeavors and work with them to bring real, implementable solutions, not lip service. And we’re happy to share resources, materials, and outcomes with all that are truly interested in making DEI the norm in CRE.” 

DR. GERRARD BUSHELL

To that end, Woodlief, Rocco, and Best look to use lessons learned from their first event when they host the SEB’s second event scheduled for Spring 2021. 

Life isn’t fair. And neither is New York City’s commercial real estate industry. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Through efforts like CREW NY’s Social Equity Braintrust and others like it, diversity, equity, and inclusion will hopefully become standard real estate industry operating procedure very soon. 

Arthur Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer who reports on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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