A 2020 study on gender and diversity from Commercial Real Estate Women Network found that while more than half of respondents said changes have been made in the industry when it comes to workplace diversity, equity and inclusion, just 16% reported that 25% or more of their coworkers were people of color.
Project REAP’s work centers on advancing those culture initiatives in commercial real estate, and one of the ways it does that is through the ULI/REAP Online Academy.
REAP Chairman G. Lamont Blackstone says the organization is threefold: “The base is the academy, the professional continuing education program focused on commercial real estate.”
That’s complemented by a networking component and the organization’s career center.
REAP launched its first in-person academy in Washington, D.C., in 1998. Since then, it’s expanded the program to eight additional cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Los Angeles, Kansas City and New York. Back in 2020, REAP had just launched in-person academies in New York City and Chicago when COVID hit. “[A]bout a week into the launch of both of those academies, the lockdown came, and we had to suspend them,” Blackstone – who is also principal of real estate services firm G.L. Blackstone & Associates – said. “And then, later on in the year we re-tooled.”
Project REAP teamed up with the Urban Land Institute to create the ULI/REAP Virtual Academy. The eight-week program launched in the fall of 2020 and has been operating online ever since. “However, when public health conditions allow it, we do envision reverting back to the in-person academies,” Blackstone said.
The course consists of on-demand modules, live webinars and panel discussions. REAP cohorts receive a one-year ULI membership, offering even further networking opportunities for participants beyond those fostered as part of the program, which include breakout rooms and a dedicated Slack channel. Past instructors have included senior level executives from Starbucks, JLL and Cushman & Wakefield.
The necessary re-tooling due to the pandemic also helped to break down logistical barriers that may have previously prevented participants from being involved. When in-person academies were being held, people from New Jersey were interested, but Blackstone acknowledged that logistics played a part in restricting who was able to make the trek into the city for the course. Now, Project REAP is looking to expand its offerings to professionals in the Garden State, particularly the virtual academy, according to Blackstone. “[W]ith the virtual academy … we can service and accommodate fellows who live in Central Jersey, as well was southern New Jersey,” he said. “Whereas with the in-person academy that probably would have been highly unlikely.”
REAP’s curriculum also lends itself to accommodation, taking into account industry trends for its modules. Blackstone pointed out the potential for synergies aligning between REAP and New Jersey due to the kind of “rising sectors” that are well represented in the state. For example, an industrial real estate section is included among the planned live session topics for REAP’s upcoming cohort – meanwhile, the sector has experienced high demand, and record-low vacancies in the Garden State.
“We’ve already had a couple modules on the life sciences industry, and obviously life sciences is a very major sector in the state of New Jersey, as well,” Blackstone added.
In all, 23 people from the state have gone through the three virtual academies that have taken place. As far as getting the word out is concerned, “We’re looking to any avenues, any conduits in the state of New Jersey that may be of interest,” Blackstone said. Last fall, he penned an op-ed for the state’s Urban Mayor’s Association. And moves like that are paying off:
After seeing the number of participants from N.J. drop to three, it jumped back up to nine for REAP’s most recently completed cohort.
In fact, the pursuit of growing the group’s reach in the Garden State is exactly how one recent Project REAP grad got involved.
‘Can I apply?’
Newark Symphony Hall President and CEO Taneshia Nash Laird also serves as economic development committee chair for the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP. It was in that capacity that Blackstone reached out about 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 whatever she embraces,” Blackstone said. “And she’s very well respected in economic development circles and just generally in political circles in the state, and she’s also unique in that she understands the potential intersection of culture and commercial real estate development.”
It was in the interest of perspective that Laird said she wanted to be involved. At the historic Newark Symphony Hall, she’s overseeing a $50 million renovation project that the venue aims to have completed in time for its centennial in 2025. “I know it from a particular lens,” she said of the material. “I know it from the lens of being an appointed official that is tasked with making sure that these projects happen … but I said, ‘I want to know it from the perspective of a developer,’ because this is what I’m doing in this job.”
One lecture that Laird highlighted came from an asset manager who was building sound stages in Hollywood. The work, she said, and the thought process behind it, “was very much in alignment of what we’re seeking to do.”
“[O]ne of the things that I really liked about the project is that it wasn’t just about people presenting ‘how to maximize profits,’ and that’s it, right? There is a through-line, the social impact of it, and I guess that makes sense with what Project REAP is all about, period,” Laird said. “I really enjoyed that aspect of it. That it was really about, how are we going to continue to develop the communities that we’re in, and that we’re invested in; and we’re going to continue developing the people.”
In addition to the fundamentals – “the process, the financing, … market analysis, and leasing and lease analysis; it was the full spectrum of commercial, as you think about it” – Laird said she appreciated the diversity of the curriculum, which covered different sectors and included a presentation on historic preservation from L+M Development Partners Inc., using the firm’s work at the former Hahne department store in Newark as a case study.
“And the other things is, it’s clear that everybody that Project REAP got to present really was passionate about helping people like me,” Laird said. “I am not a typical person in this industry, I’m a Black woman. And so … it was great to see a number of Black women present.”
Laird thinks that positivity will carry through with her work at Newark Symphony Hall.
“I always say – when this is successful, I definitely think that this experience is one that is going to contribute to the success,” she said. “[T]he fact that I know the language is going to be really helpful as I go through this process. And not just relying on experts to tell me; that I have an understanding, because I’ve not only gone through this program, and I’ve seen case studies that they presented to us. And that was also something that was sort of invaluable.” And 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 pivot was one, like many companies made, of necessity, but it’s given the group a larger platform and outreach. And down the road, those opened doors could be literal.
“[W]e’ve been able to enter and penetrate into markets that we previously did not service at all with the in-person academy,” Blackstone explained, highlighting a cluster of fellows from the Charlotte, N.C., area. It’s that kind of interest that, in time, he said, could see an in-person academy established in the metro. But even when in-person academies start up again,
Blackstone sees a place for both formats. “Even though we do want to return to the in-person format, you know because there’s certain benefits to the in-person formats that you can’t completely capture with a virtual model. We’ll want to be hybrid,” he said. “We’ll want to maintain both as formats.”
In 2021, the Virtual Academy saw a combined 225 fellows representing 24 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada — accounting for the largest cohorts in the group’s history. Perhaps it’s another sign that the pendulum is starting to move when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in commercial real estate. Either way, Blackstone says REAP’s mission is beneficial to the industry at-large, including in the Garden State and nationwide.
“At the heart of Project REAP’s mission is development of human capital. And that, I would 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 through March 30. Classes begin April 25.