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The Awkward Feeling of Being the Only One in The Room and How to Change It

Everyone in the CRE industry, no matter their position, can play a part in promoting diversity and inclusion and reducing the “awkwardness in the room.”

Throughout my career in managing commercial real estate, including everything from office buildings and retail to multifamily, industrial and currently data centers, as an African-American male I constantly found myself in the awkward position of being the “only one in the room” too many times to count. Awkward for me and awkward for the majority of the mostly white males I encountered in the room whether it was a company meeting, attending a real estate conference or just an afterwork social setting. Prior to entering the field of commercial property management, particularly in a major metropolitan market, I cannot say I was not warned that the industry would not be the most accommodating to me to say the least. Of course, there are others who have had the same experience, you only need to replace my demographic, with any other category besides white male. However, I can only convey to you my personal experience as it pertains to diversity and inclusion in the commercial real estate industry. Consequently, from my vantage point, I will also offer suggestions, policies to implement, and even a “Dynamic New Way of Thinking” that I believe could assist commercial real estate community in making significant strides in increasing diversity and inclusion in the industry.

To anyone half paying attention, there has been a seismic shift in the demographic make-up of the U.S. population. According to the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., the declining white population is pervasive across the nation. “Since 2010, the population share declined in all 50 states (though not Washington D.C.) and in 358 of the nations’ 364 metropolitan areas. Moreover, as of 2919, 27 of the 100 largest major metropolises have minority white populations including New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Miami, as well as Dallas, Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., which reached this status by 2010.” These are all cities where prime commercial real estate is located and that serve as bellwethers for the commercial real estate investment community. For the forward-thinking leaders in the industry, these statistics should not be looked upon as ominous, but as an opportunity to advance the industry in a direction commensurate with the changing demographics, and to exponentially grow their business, ensuring its’ posterity.

The numerous incidents against persons of color in the U.S., including the George Floyd killing and other African-American males by police, hate crimes against and the murder of Asian-Americans and backlash against the LGBTQ community, have brought to light the urgent need for diversity and inclusion in all aspects of life in the United States. Few would argue that the commercial real estate industry is not woefully behind in the amount of diverse candidates in its’ ranks or is making a concerted effort to improve in this area. My personal experience in the industry working for several commercial real estate companies in two major metropolitan markets has been a feeling of that there was no compelling reason or incentive to increase the diversity of the employee make-up. Now there is and it must be a priority in the discussion of how to maintain the long-term viability of the commercial real estate industry and successfully move the industry forward by providing opportunities for all.

Increasing diversity and inclusion in the commercial real estate industry will be no easy task. In every industry, organization or governmental entity, there are those leaders at every level who are resistant to change. In any case, change requires action, specifically on the part of the owners and hiring managers of commercial real estate companies, as well as those seeking to become part of the organization. The onus to affect this change in diversity and inclusion within the commercial real estate industry ranks does not just fall to owners and hiring managers, but in some respects, even more so to those seeking to enter the industry. My personal experience was that to successfully enter the commercial real estate industry required acquiring the requisite credentialing, seeking out those in a position to provide an opportunity, confidence knowing I could do this and the right mindset. By no means did I ever think the opportunity to enter the field would just fall into my lap. Speaking of the right mindset, I will start with a “Dynamic New Way of Thinking” as one of my three action areas for the commercial real estate industry to increase diversity in its ranks.

A “Dynamic New Way of Thinking” involves the industry accepting the reality of the country’s changing demographics and the belief that there are numerous persons identifying themselves as other than white male who are confident and qualified candidates. By providing opportunities to them, it will allow your company and the industry to grow exponentially. After all, many of your clients may be diverse. This “Dynamic New Way of Thinking” starts with company owners and industry leaders, but must permeate into the thinking of everyone within the organization. Policies on hiring to increase diversity and inclusion within companies, governmental entities and the various organizations supporting the commercial real estate industry must be developed, written, or revised where existing and assertively implemented to affect change. Just as importantly, the effect and results of these changes must be properly and intentionally measured and transparently made available to everyone concerned. Finally, everyone in the industry, no matter their position in the organization, can play a part in reducing the “awkwardness in the room” in their own way. It is as simple as hiring the most qualified candidate regardless of which demographic category box they check, inviting all of your colleagues to the afterwork event, and taking it upon yourself to approach the person standing alone at the conference to make them feel welcome. I encourage each of us to summon our own creative imagination and discover the differences in others which will benefit you and the commercial real industry as a whole.

Robert Fuller serves as senior facility manager with CBRE in the New York City metropolitan area. He has 20 years of experience in commercial real estate, having worked in New York, Washington, D.C. and metro Philadelphia markets.

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