Racial Equality, Diversity and Mentorship in CRE

A couple of months ago, I was asked to join BisNow’s Webinar on Racial Equality, Diversity and Mentorship in CRE (commercial real estate). I was joined by four other industry leaders and pioneers in racial equality, including Damona Strautmanis who served as the moderator for the event. I wanted to share what we discussed during the webinar because there are few topics as important as diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

DS: Thank you for joining us Bob, do you have a fun fact to share?

BC: Thank you, Damona. I have a few quick fun facts. I obviously have a lot going on and I’m a pretty busy guy but I’m a big hiker—hiking is where I get some time away from everybody to think about deeper stuff like racial equality and how to make an impact. And then, I also love cooking for my family and friends. That’s where I get the time to not think about anything except burning food and cutting my fingers off on accident. Another thing that most people don’t know about me is that when I started Clayco, I opened my office in a really rough neighborhood in St. Louis just off the airport. It was a very disadvantaged area and on the very first day, a 12-year-old boy came up to me, introduced himself, and asked me for a job. I told him that he needed to be in school and he told me that he needed to be taking care of his family. That was a wakeup call for me. That kid, who happened to be African-American, came into my family a few months later, right when my wife Ellen and I got married. Ellen passed away in 2010 and I have been married to Jane for 5 years. We have enjoyed having this kind of diversity right in our own family. But it has also led us to many kinds of wake up calls along the way.

DS: How has this movement towards more equity and diversity impacted you, and what workplace changes have you made in response?

BC: We have been working on this really hard for a long time. When Todd came of age, he was basically the only black engineering student in his class, and then went to work for Dames & Moore Engineering and was the only person of color there at the time. It really made me aware of how lopsided things were. Things have gotten a little bit better but, as Todd was working his way up at Clayco and later starting his own company, he expressed the challenges of being a person of color, causing Clayco to focus on this very early on. We have been working on it for 25 years now and I think we’ve done a pretty good job. We have had very specific goals and targets for every long-term project. We’ve done enormous outreach to the M/WBE (Minority / Woman Business Enterprise) community and created our own organization to bring tradespeople into the field (www.ccdi.org). The receptivity of the subcontractors and the unions has gotten tremendously better. But still, there is more work to be done.

With everything going on in terms of the COVID crisis and the multiple serious incidents that brought the Black Lives Matter awareness to the forefront, a bunch of shifts are happening in the industry. Clients, at the end of the day, dictate so many of the requirements in the contracting field. One thing that is inspirational to me is that many of our corporate clients have had a wakeup call and are now really driving diversity and inclusion requirements. Internally, we have had three town hall meetings, where our employees from minority backgrounds are invited to speak up and be honest about their experiences within the company. Our first town hall included everybody in the company, and although we had a good group of people, not too many people spoke up. Luckily, in the last two we’ve received much more feedback directly from people. And quite frankly, it is disappointing feedback, which is hard to hear. In a company that thinks we are doing a great job, there’s still concern there and we really have way more work to do. So, we are listening, responding, and creating—we are an action company. We have grown our business by hearing a problem and fixing the problem.

We really are seeing the message spread like wildfire and it’s going to be way easier for us to have impact internally in our own company, externally, and in the M/WBE community. Two quick statistics that I think are really important for people to know is that in Chicago, out of a fourteen billion dollar construction market, there's only about four hundred million dollars' worth of MBE black contractor capacity. That’s a shockingly bad number. We have enormous work to do, but I am optimistic because I do think that there is enormous receptivity right now within the contracting community, the ownership community, and the institutions that matter. I think this is going to be a positive time that we will look back on and say that real change was happening.

DS: The disparities in diversity at the C-Suite level in the Commercial Real Estate Industry are really severe. I’d love to hear what you think needs to be done?

BC: I think there are some things happening that are different. I speak at various engineering schools around the country from time to time, and twenty years ago I’d go into an engineering class and there would be one woman and maybe a few people of color. Today, when you go into the engineering schools, you do see a much wider level of diversity. It’s not unusual to see a class that is fifty percent women. This is the starting point for the talent that we need in the company.

It also has to start at the top. We do have a team of people within the company who focus on this every day but they need the full support of leadership in the company to really get their message across. People at the top of the company are going to have to break through the biases that exist because they are very powerful in the subconscious mind. I’m not sure that my hiring team—the people that do our interviewing—would think of themselves as having a bias, but there’s absolute proof that everybody has a bias. I think this anti-bias training or the anti-racist training at the executive level of the company is going to be very powerful for our company. We are embarking on this now, in a way that is not hostile, but requires that we use our imagination in a radically different way. It is not just getting past the bias—you have to have the perspective that your company is going to be better off with this diversity and then make that a key objective. We certainly have found many kinds of opportunities to think differently that make us a better company. Sharing more of those stories across the company can also be very powerful.

Question from the audience: How are things going at 360 and CCDI?

BC: One of the things that Clayco is doing very aggressively, through our CCDI program, is going into high schools and technical schools across the community to teach 8th graders and up about the trades, architecture, engineering, and the construction industry. This is because many of these kids just don’t have any exposure to the business and they would never even think of it. Introducing young people, who could come into the profession, to some real hands-on experience and projects is very meaningful work. The more that we can get the industry to participate in this initiative, the more we are going to be attracting younger people into the industry.

We’ve had over 100 participants complete the program at CCDI. The whole idea of what we’re trying to do at Hire 360 is build a process and a system that really works. Of the 139,000 tradespeople in Chicago right now, a third of them are at retirement age or older. So there’s going to be a gigantic gap. The unions are desperate to fill that gap to keep non-union contractors from coming into the market. Everybody in the community—our social organizations, the south, the west, the city, everybody—should be trying to produce candidates who can step into these union opportunities. I think the training programs, 360’s work, the Obama Foundation, and CCDI’s work will bring the subcontractors together with the workers and the unions. In my opinion, there will be 40,000 available jobs over the next five years, so we have to build capacity to produce 2,000-4,000 apprenticeship program participants per year. That’s going to be challenging to fill, so we’re going to need everybody to be helping with that.

A special thanks to Damona Strautmanis for moderating and to Graham Grady, Kimberly Dowdell, and Nosa Ehimwenman for sharing their wisdom and participating alongside me. We’re all in this together.

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