Monte Lee-Wen Founder and President of Casoro Group
A serious effort to attract and engage people of color and underrepresented groups in careers and as entrepreneurs in the commercial real estate sector could potentially lead to lasting progress in closing not only the income gap, but just as importantly, the wealth gap in this country—in addition to making progress toward more diversity in the industry†
Although it seems like the income gap has attracted more attention, real estate wealth is one of the main drivers of generation success in America and an area of large racial inequality† Commercial real estate has a reputation for being an insider’s game with many barriers to entry, especially for people of color. While our business lacks some of the glamor of sports and entertainment, or the prestige of medicine and law, I believe an entrepreneurial career in real estate should be seen as a primary calling for underrepresented groups. I’ve found that, apart from a few superstars, there is little public awareness of successful real estate entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups, much less recognition that commercial real estate can be a way to achieve generational wealth.
My company is minority owned, highly diverse and inclusive, with a specific focus on enhancing diversity in the industry. Creating opportunities by applying specific principles to the commercial real estate workplace can have a strong impact on the careers and incomes of people of color and can help build skills for future entrepreneurs.
Strive to offer new generations a lucky break.
Where can we find a new generation of diverse talent for the real estate sector? Or even more difficult, the entrepreneurs? Looking back on it, I realize how fragile my early career was and how many times it had fallen apart. My personal start as an entrepreneur in the real estate industry was inspired by this potential for wealth, and as a budding outsider, I plunged into it with no personal networks, mentors, or lenders. Growing up in a rough, lower-middle-class urban neighborhood, my wife’s family was refugees from Laos in the 1970s, eventually arriving in the US with virtually nothing but energy and determination. Hard work, cleverness, good timing and a partnership with my wonderful wife won out for me, but I was also very lucky.
While no program can replace family support and connections or passionate ambition, I believe we can try to bring the “happy holidays” to newcomers who need encouragement and experienced support to survive and move forward in an opaque and sometimes intimidating venture.
I asked my colleagues and some smart colleagues to imagine what they thought would have benefited them the most as they embarked on their own careers. Many believed that first-hand exposure to real estate professionals with the experience of success and failure in deals, underwriting, building and construction was the best education. Others emphasized the importance of traditional, relevant university courses in finance, land use and asset management, as well as commercial real estate internships and networking opportunities. Some suggested that companies serve as long-term career counselors for the students of their programs as they progress through high school, post-secondary, or college, and in the job market and marketplace.
These are all valuable approaches to success entering the commercial real estate world, but I would add that an employee’s development into an entrepreneur is best accelerated by exposure to the striving who enters, over, under. or went through the barriers and the ceilings in their way. Mentors can encourage students to chart their own career path and ideally will stay long enough to help them cope with the inevitable barriers.
Create more opportunities for mentorship.
Our program to reach high schools and colleges for mentorship began with our work as board members at various organizations. The “find someone who knows someone” approach is always a great way to meet that elusive liaison, but I also recommend contacting the high school career guidance offices directly. At colleges, employer departments are working to provide their students with experiential learning internships, and they are invariably eager to work with potential employers or expose their students to entrepreneurial environments. Their help in navigating organizational requirements and identifying your potential mentees and interns can be vital to your success.
Identify, reward and support skilled mentors among your employees, or search out for these talented individuals. Skilled mentoring tops my list as the best way to bring about the kind of lasting social change for people of color that can be accomplished through wealth building in investing and developing entrepreneurial real estate.
For example, my firm established a foundation in partnership with a historically black university in Austin, Texas. Our primary goal is to open students’ eyes to the incredible diversity of career paths and the possibility of wealth in our industry and show them that real estate is so much more than selling homes. Our ultimate goal is to prepare “graduates” of our program for leadership roles and entrepreneurship that will encourage emulation and hope in communities. Other commercial real estate companies across the country need to look for ways to develop similar programs.
Concerns about the unfairness and persistence of wealth inequality in the US are beginning to catch up with the real estate industry. I think it’s likely that the commercial real estate industry will be heavily scrutinized for its traditionally white, male workforce in the near future, making this a good time for the industry to make serious efforts to open up to outsiders – and not just before criticism. I’ve found that today’s talented young people are often diverted into the standard, “safe” career choices promoted by colleges, paths that may never hold the potential for real estate’s life-changing wealth. The competitive advantage of their diverse perspectives and their proximity to changing communities are an asset to employers that are not widely appreciated, but may soon be.