DEI efforts proliferate in real estate, but more to be done (updated)

Jessica Perry//September 19, 2022

DEI efforts proliferate in real estate, but more to be done (updated)

Jessica Perry//September 19, 2022

The concept of diversity, equity and inclusion dates to the 1960s. As times have changed what it represents has also shifted. But our current understanding of DEI has been in the lexicon for a while. Perhaps a point driven home by the fact that 92% of commercial real estate firms worldwide have a diversity, equity and inclusion program or initiatives in place, according to The Global Real Estate DEI Survey 2021. Outside of companies themselves, professional associations and organizations are also working to institute DEI efforts for their members and the overall industry.

And while not every course is the same – for instance, 47% of GRE survey respondents said their company had a formal DEI program, while 45% said they enact “some DEI initiatives and/or policies to improve DEI” – the goals are shared in kind. “Talking about diversity [in the industry] and how we can make things better for everyone, and why diversity is important—not just because it’s a good thing to do, but it’s also good for business,” said Kristine Hurlbut, CoreNet New Jersey Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee co-chair. “It brings new perspectives and new innovations by being able to bring in these diverse people with different backgrounds that have different ideas and different initiatives.”

Part and parcel with bringing those new people in is finding new people. But it’s also important to think about creating new scenarios. As Hurlbut pointed out: “commercial real estate’s all about relationships and networking.” In fact, that’s how she met co-chair Elizabeth Geary-Archer of FCA Architects. “So, who would’ve thought that just going and talking to this person at a NAIOP event would turn into this opportunity for me?”

CoreNet New Jersey’s DEI committee launched about nine months ago, according Hurlbut, who is also senior vice president of leasing for Red Bank-based Denholtz Properties. “[W]e’re trying to do good work, trying to make a change in the industry, but it’s hard, you know, the progress is slow,” she told NJBIZ.

Mara Winokur, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Northern New Jersey, expressed a similar sentiment. “DEI initiatives are a kind of work which, really, it takes a very long time and part of it’s organic and part of it’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears – to be honest. You don’t always see the results right up front and it’s hard to benchmark where we are.”

Architecture Blueprint Floor Plan Construction redevelopment
The Global Real Estate DEI Survey 2021 pegged the split between men and women working in the industry in North America at 59% and 41%, respectively. – PIXABAY

The Urban Land Institute of Northern New Jersey’s Women’s Leadership Initiative got started four years ago and Winokur said the group – led by co-Chairs Stephanie Turkot, assistant project manager at GZA, and Amanda Forsburg, senior project scientist at Langan – has grown exponentially since then. Being a member of the group isn’t just about leading DEI efforts, though, as Winokur pointed out, “it’s really a great place to get involved for women in the CRE space.” ULI NNJ currently has about 380 members, of which 26.7% are women, which Winokur noted is below the global average.

The GRE study pegged the split between men and women working in the industry in North America at 59% and 41%, respectively. That figure marks an increase from CREW Network’s 2020 Benchmark Study Report, which found women occupied nearly 37% of the industry—a percentage that at that time hadn’t changed much over 15 years.

Beyond the shift in gender diversity, the GRE study found that 7 out of 10, or 69%, of professionals in North America are white, with Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and Black or African American professionals combined accounting for 26%.

“Oftentimes, you’ll walk into a CRE event and it’s mostly men and if you’re a woman and if you don’t know people it can be very intimidating,” Winokur said. “So we’re trying to bridge that gap and kind of serve as ambassadors and leaders for other women that are looking to make those connections and amplify the voices of women in real estate that can serve as a role model for other women, specifically, and other minorities who are … part of this diversity equity and inclusion initiative that we’ve really brought forth over the last number of years.”

One of the ways CoreNet’s DEI committee is looking to foster feelings of inclusivity is by trying to work with other groups within the organization – like the Asian Pacific and Hispanic committees – to create networking opportunities. Additionally, in 2023 Hurlbut said they’ll be partnering with CREW – she and Geary-Archer are both members – on some joint events.

“[I]t’s important to also try to create those relationships when they’re not necessarily organic,” Hurlbut said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do—is what we’ve had conversations about that specifically. So, making sure that we’re including people when you’re networking.”

One of the barriers to cultivating those connections is the generational nature of CRE. Cushman & Wakefield had initiatives that predated its formal DEI program, but that was instated in 2020. Across its global workforce the company has a 40% female population. Additionally, 42% of its people managers and new hires, 22% of its executives and 40% of the board of directors are women. And for New Jersey Executive Managing Director Peter Bronsnick, DEI has been a priority of his since he got started

“There’s no formula for success or how you enter our industry. It’s a bit the ‘Wild West,’” he said, adding that by comparison, other careers – like that of a lawyer, medical professional or even investment banker – offer specific, structured paths. And DEI efforts actively seek to tap into that new view by crossing those generational boundaries and introduce more young people to the industry. CoreNet is reaching out to high school and college students “to let them know that commercial real estate exists,” Hurlbut said – and to let them know that it offers multiple pursuits. As part of those efforts, dubbed Lunch Break, students from Red Bank Regional High School stopped by the Denholtz office.

“If you’re not introduced, if you don’t take it in college—I didn’t know what commercial real estate was when I was in high school. So given the opportunity to understand: this is commercial real estate, this is what we do. We own buildings, there’s engineers, there’s architects—commercial real estate has so many different career paths.”

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ULI NNJ is also trying to reach out to youth and create opportunities for diversity within the industry. The group’s Urban Plan program operates at both the high school and university level, allowing students to develop a fictitious RFP for an infill development, even building out different scenarios with Legos. “And it’s tied to a pro forma,” Winokur said. So, on top of setting up real life implications for students and instilling leadership skills, it also offers insight on an industry that is mostly vague to younger people. “And we try to do this in schools where there’s a lot of diversity, too,” she added. “We’re trying to reach those young kids and kind of let them know, these are professions that exist within the CRE space.”

Bronsnick said that Cushman & Wakefield also partners with universities. “[T]his business requires a lot of ramp-up time, regardless of what path you want to take and there’s not really a great playbook that exists in general,” he said. Those efforts are taking place across the global real estate firm; in New Jersey, Bronsnick said he and his colleagues have had conversations with Monmouth and Rutgers universities—both of which have real estate programs.

Outside of schools, Bronsnick said his office has partnered with Newark All Stars. Recently, two interns from the program worked in the office this past summer.

Visibility is also vital. Overall, CoreNet NJ has between 200 and 250 members, Hurlbut said, and the DEI board comprises mostly women.

The GRE study found that 52% of all junior, full-time employees in North America were women. But the gap between gender representation grows as you look higher up: women comprise just 21% of board of directors positions. For executive management (20%) and senior-level (29%) positions, the figures are about the same and leave plenty of room to grow.

“I think it’s really important that we serve as role models and mentors. And we have a number of initiatives on the drawing board right now for mentorship programs, internship programs, scholarships for members of the DEI community to try and grow that pipeline of people that are coming into the industry and give them access,” Winokur said.

According to the CREW report, only 56% of survey respondents said they had access to a mentor or sponsor in the last two years. The number was significantly lower for people of color, at 21%.

“I feel like our committee itself is building leaders, just getting involved with the [group],” said Turkot. Across the board itself and various subcommittees the members are building social skills, sharing contacts and learning about different companies and different aspects of the industry, she added. The work is building up leaders and relationships. That’s furthered by ULI NNJ’s monthly CONNECT.RELATE.EDUCATE events, which the Women’s Leadership Initiative started.

“The Connect Relate Educate events really give us an opportunity to learn about what each other does and that’s how you keep bringing people to the table, and bring more women to the table—is to know what they do so that you can share opportunities,” said Forsburg.

The CREW report found that most people – 67% – think their company has adapted to meet the changing needs of the workforce. Even in light of that statistical progress, it’ll take intention and time for these kinds of gatherings to reflect those changes, but that’s no reason to see the glass half-full.

“I think everyone for quite some time now is doing a really good job of integrating this as a priority for themselves and you’re seeing it in the industry. There are things that happen quite candidly – even some of the things that happen unofficially in a less programmatic way – just bringing awareness in the industry in general is, has been good,” Bronsnick said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that 40% of Cushman & Wakefield’s board of directors come from diverse backgrounds; that was incorrect, it should have said 40% are women. It was updated at 3:49 p.m. ET on Sept. 19, 2022.