Online academy aims to boost diversity in CRE

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A 2020 gender and diversity study by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network found that while more than half of respondents said changes had been made in the industry around diversity, equity and inclusion at work, only 16% said that 25% or more of their colleagues were people of color.

black stone

The work of the REAP Project is centered on advancing these cultural initiatives in commercial real estate, and one way of doing this is through the ULI/REAP Online Academy.

REAP President G. Lamont Blackstone explains that the organization is three-fold: “The base is the academy, the continuing professional education program focused on commercial real estate.”

This is complemented by a networking component and the organization’s career center.

REAP launched its first in-person academy in Washington, DC, in 1998. Since then, it has expanded the program to eight additional cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York. In 2020, REAP had just launched in-person academies in New York and Chicago when COVID hit. “[A]about a week after the launch of these two academies, the lockdown came and we had to put them on hold,” Blackstone – who is also a director of real estate services firm GL Blackstone & Associates – said. “And then, later in the year, we retooled.”

The REAP project has partnered with the Urban Land Institute to create the ULI/REAP Virtual Academy. The eight-week program launched in fall 2020 and has been running online ever since. “However, when public health conditions permit, we plan to return to the academies in person,” Blackstone said.

The course consists of on-demand modules, live webinars and panel discussions. REAP cohorts receive a one-year ULI membership, providing even more networking opportunities for participants beyond those encouraged through the program, which include breakout rooms and a dedicated Slack channel. Past instructors have included senior executives from Starbucks, JLL and Cushman & Wakefield.

Last year, the ULI/REAP Virtual Academy hosted 225 fellows representing 24 states, Washington, DC and Canada. – PROJECT HARVEST

The re-equipment required due to the pandemic has also helped to break down logistical barriers that may have previously prevented participants from being involved. When in-person academies were held, people from New Jersey were interested, but Blackstone acknowledged that logistics played a role in restricting who could commute into town for the course. Now Project REAP is looking to expand its offerings to Garden State professionals, particularly the Virtual Academy, according to Blackstone. “[W]With the virtual academy…we can serve and accommodate fellows who live in central Jersey, as well as southern New Jersey,” he said. “Whereas with the academy in person, that would probably have been highly unlikely.”

REAP’s program also lends itself to hosting, taking into account industry trends for its modules. Blackstone pointed to the potential for synergies between REAP and New Jersey due to the type of “rising sectors” that are well represented in the state. For example, a section on industrial real estate is included among the live session topics planned for the next cohort of REAP – during this time the sector has seen high demand and record vacancies in the Garden State.

“We’ve had a few modules on the life sciences industry already, and obviously life sciences is a very big industry in the state of New Jersey as well,” Black-stone added.

In all, 23 people from the state went through the three virtual academies that took place. As for getting the message out, “we’re looking at every avenue, every conduit in the state of New Jersey that might be of interest,” Blackstone said. Last fall, he wrote an op-ed for the state’s Association of Urban Mayors. And moves like this pay off:

After seeing NJ’s participant count drop to three, it jumped back up to nine for REAP’s most recently completed cohort.

In fact, continuing to grow the group’s reach in the Garden State is exactly how a recent REAP Project graduate got involved.

‘Can I apply?’

Nash Laird

Newark Symphony Hall President and CEO Taneshia Nash Laird also serves as chair of the NAACP’s New Jersey State Conference Economic Development Committee. It was in this capacity that Blackstone contacted REAP so that Laird could spread the word through the state’s NAACP channels. “And then I said to him: can I apply?”

“Well, first of all, Taneshia is a great ambassador for all that she embraces,” Blackstone said. “And she’s highly respected in economic development circles and more generally in state policy circles, and she’s also unique in that she understands the potential intersection of culture and commercial real estate development.”

It was in the interests of the prospect that Laird said she wanted to be involved. At historic Newark Symphony Hall, she’s overseeing a $50 million renovation project that the venue aims to complete in time for its centennial in 2025. “I know it from a particular angle,” she told About the material. “I know from the perspective of an appointed official responsible for making sure these projects happen…but I said, ‘I want to know from a developer’s perspective,’ because that’s what what I do in this job.”

One lecture Laird pointed to came from an asset manager who was building sound stages in Hollywood. The work, she said, and the thought process behind it, “was exactly what we were looking to do.”

“[O]One of the things that I really liked about the project was that it wasn’t just about people presenting “how to maximize profits”, and that’s it, right? There’s a guideline, the social impact of it, and I guess that makes sense with what the REAP project is, period,” Laird said. “I really enjoyed that aspect. It was really about how are we going to continue to grow the communities that we’re in and that we invest in; and we’re going to continue to grow the people.

In addition to the fundamentals – “the process, the financing, … market analysis, rental and lease analysis; it was the full spectrum of commerce, as you think of it” – Laird said she enjoyed the diversity of the program, which covered different sectors and included a presentation on historic preservation from L+M Development Partners Inc., using the company’s work at the former Hahne department store in Newark as a case study.

“And the other things is it’s clear that everyone the REAP project was able to present was really passionate about helping people like me,” Laird said. “I’m not a typical person in this industry, I’m a black woman. And so…it was great to see a number of black women there.

Laird thinks the positivity will continue with his work at Newark Symphony Hall.

“I always say – when it’s successful, I really think that experience is one that’s going to contribute to success,” she said. “[T]The fact that I know the language is going to be really helpful during this process. And not just relying on experts to tell me; that I have an understanding, because I not only took this program, and I saw case studies that they presented to us. And that was also something that was kind of invaluable. And is worth well beyond the initial $850 financial investment in the course, she said.

Bottom line: “It’s basically like going to graduate school and getting a graduate certificate in commercial real estate,” Laird said.

REAP’s virtual hub was one, like many companies, out of necessity, but it gave the group a broader platform and reach. And down the road, those open doors could be literal.

“[W]We were able to enter and penetrate markets that we hadn’t previously served at all with the academy in person,” Blackstone explained, highlighting a group of fellows from the Charlotte, North Carolina area. It’s that kind of interest that, in time, he said, could see an in-person academy established in the subway. But even when in-person academies restart,

Blackstone sees a place for both formats. “Even though we want to go back to the in-person format, you know that because in-person formats have some advantages that you can’t fully capture with a virtual model. We will want to be hybrid,” he said. “We will want to keep both as formats.”

In 2021, the Virtual Academy saw a total of 225 fellows representing 24 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada, representing the largest cohorts in the group’s history. This is perhaps another sign that the pendulum is starting to swing when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in commercial real estate. Either way, Blackstone says REAP’s mission benefits the industry as a whole, including in the Garden State and nationally.

“At the heart of the REAP project’s mission is the development of human capital. And that, I believe and assume, is something that should be of significant interest to the commercial real estate community in the state of New Jersey,” he said.

The ULI/REAP Virtual Academy is currently accepting applications for its Spring 2022 Academy until March 30. Classes begin April 25.

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