Many of us are enjoying a day off of work to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps we will take a moment to consider his good works and legacy, as well as the monumental Civil Rights Movement. Yet, I suspect most of us will not contemplate on how his life impacts our professional work on a daily basis. So I decided to take the holiday to point out a little known inclusion program in our industry, the Real Estate Associate Program, otherwise known as REAP.
About a dozen years ago a mild-mannered lawyer named Mike Bush had a vision about an initiative to bring more ethnic and racial minorities into the retail real estate industry. The Harvard-trained lawyer spent much of his career with The Food Giant Company, based in Washington, D.C. His idea for REAP was simple, but not necessarily easy. Bush organized the first class in his hometown of Washington. Here’s how it worked: through a competitive application process, a class of DC area professionals were selected to participate in a 6 to 9 month educational and leadership training program. The classes were essentially free and included courses taught by top flight industry professionals in retail real estate. I addition to the classes, about all aspects of the industry, there was a heavy dose of networking and the potential for co-op employment positions after graduation. The combination of class instruction and the nurturing of new relationship was Bush’s strategy to diversify the industry. With his large rolodex and subtle power of persuasion, Bush convinced some heavy hitters including Wal-Mart, Simon Properties, CB Richard Ellis, and McDonalds, among many others, to support the program, both financially and with employment positions for the graduates. Indeed REAP was so successful that classes were eventually started in Atlanta, New York, and Chicago, with plans for classes in other cities including Miami and Los Angeles. Step-by-step, the objective of a more inclusive industry was being realized.
So why was this program needed and why did it work? As everyone knows, this business is all about relationships. Many of the largest companies in the field were started as family business, where we now see generations of family members engaged in the work of the industry. Business partners are also friends. Deals are made based on the foundation of relationships and on mutual trust and benefit. Newcomers to the business are often drawn in by mentors and friends who shepherd them on their way. Whether we want to admit it or not, our friends and social circles tend to be filled with people who are “just like us” in terms of age, race, education, and “socioeconomic status,” as social scientists call it. And just as like begets like, a business built by Caucasian men will draw in more of the same. So, it has taken a conscious effort to diversify the industry. Groups like CREW (the Commercial Real Estate Women’s Network) and AREW (Association of Real Estate Women), have encouraged more women to enter the field. Likewise, opportunities like REAP fill that important role among racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed there was such a recognition that this was needed, REAP has long enjoyed the support of numerous associations (ICSC and other organizations such as the Urban Land Institute, and NAIOP, among others) along with many companies in the retail and real estate fields. Beyond a sense of altruism and social justice, these companies rightly acknowledged that support for REAP is just “good business.” In an increasingly diverse America, it is incumbent upon companies to have representatives of these emerging demographic categories guiding sound business decisions. And by supporting REAP and other projects, they enjoyed access to a hand-picked and highly trained group of future leaders in the field. It is a win-win situation all the way around.
I am proud of ICSC and other associations and companies which saw a need and worked to address it. But I would not want to overlook the power of one person’s commitment. Many members of this industry are of Jewish faith and ancestry, and Mike Bush is a shining example of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish injunction to “repair the world.” He reminds me of that famous quotation from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
So as we celebrate the holiday, I would call on all of us to reflect on the hard—sometimes dangerous—work of Dr. King and other Civil Rights Leaders and to think about how we can carry that light of truth in our work, communities, and the world.