Racial Equity in Real Estate: Two Conversations about Recruiting and Elevating Diverse Professionals and Leaders

By Candace P. Damon
Candace Damon, a longtime senior leader of HR&A, was elected to be its Board Chair in December 2021. She also sits on the jury of the Urban Land Institute’s recently renamed ULI Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
Eighteen months ago, my colleague, HR&A’s CEO Eric Rothman, published a statement in this forum that called on our firm and its collaborators to act on a shared responsibility to interrogate our roles in perpetuating racist systems in urban development. He went on to suggest that the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world, should be a leader and collaborator in this effort. The specific steps he urged ULI to take were the recommendations of a coalition of BIPOC and white ULI leaders, many of whom had been concerned about these issues for years and who had seized the moment.
Since that piece was published, ULI, we at HR&A, and virtually all of our collaborators have engaged in a process of self-examination and change, to address both who is represented in our industry and how we do our work.
We are pleased that since our initial call to action for change within our industry, ULI has renamed its most prestigious award, which had been named for a developer and philanthropist who perfected the use of restrictive covenants; appointed a senior executive who is charged with supporting DEI within the organization; launched a variety of other DEI initiatives, including the recent publication of a report on diversity efforts within commercial real estate; and significantly diversified its leadership.
Indeed, among the first steps virtually all of us have considered is how we can diversify the racial and gender composition of the industry. At HR&A, we sought guidance from outside experts and consulted with members of our staff and alumni to interrogate our recruiting, hiring, and evaluation practices. Our firm is now the most diverse it has ever been, with more than 40% of staff identifying as Black, Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Asian, or two or more races.
While we’ve made meaningful progress in how we recruit and hire, we have ahead of us the much harder task of ensuring that our diversity of staff feels welcomed and has access to training, sponsorship, and other support necessary to succeed. HR&A is committed to ongoing work on diversity, equity, and inclusion; to incorporating new approaches to equity in our work; and to continued partnership with our industry, all of which will strengthen us as a firm.
Many of our readers have been grappling with these issues for years. This issue, we seek to elevate some of that experience, viewed through the lens of two conversations about diversification of the industry that I’ve recently had with two longtime friends. Of particular interest to me in these conversations were these colleagues’ perceptions of the different requirements for building diversity in the industry at different career points: while one conversation reflects on what it takes to engage an adolescent in imagining a career in real estate, the other considers what it takes to support a young professional seeking leadership opportunities.
My longtime client and collaborator, Tyrone Rachal, is a founding Principal of Red Rock Global and President of Urban Key Capital Partners, both Atlanta-based, and was recently appointed a ULI Global Governing Trustee. Over the course of a career that has also included stints in financial services at some of this country’s largest private firms and in public development and development finance, Ty has been deeply engaged by how, having excited individuals from under-represented groups about a career in real estate, do you position them for success and leadership. His conviction is that, by doing so, there will be people in positions of power who are willing to commit the time, political capital, and resources to resolve the issues that often stymie investment in under-served communities.
My colleague Joseph Cahoon, a Senior Advisor at HR&A, is the Director of the Folsom Institute for Real Estate at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University (SMU). Over the past 18 months, he has renewed a personal commitment to ensure that the classes entering schools like SMU are more representative of this country’s communities than today’s classes are. Over this past summer, he led SMU’s effort to support a group of mostly Texan high schoolers, mostly BIPOC, who were participating in the Real Estate Executive Council’s (REEC) Real Estate Exchange Summer Program (REEX). The REEX program engages diverse high school students in a three-week long, first exploration of a career in commercial real estate, culminating in a competition among university-sponsored high school cadres. In its first engagement with REEX, the SMU-sponsored team won the 2021 summer competition.
I hope you will enjoy these excerpts of my conversations with Joseph and Ty as much as I did the longer conversations.
After you listen to Ty and Joseph, I hope you will reach out. I would like to hear from those of you who are also working on these issues; I speak for all my colleagues in saying we welcome your continued partnership and leadership.