OUR COVER STORY, “DIVERSITY: A LONG WAY TO GO,” unquestionably is a sensitive topic, but one which can't be ignored, particularly as the industry seeks to capitalize on urban opportunities throughout the country. Relationships are the cornerstone of real estate deals, so at the very least it makes good business sense for companies to hire talent that reflects the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities they serve. (Our cover story begins on page 16.)

A measure of success

To be fair, some real estate professionals are working full time to address the lack of diversity. Patience, persistence and a large Rolodex are tools of the trade for Michael Bush, executive director of the Real Estate Apprentice Program (Project REAP), which trains minorities for professional careers in the commercial real estate industry. Since its inception in 1997, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit program affiliated with Howard University has placed 16 of its graduates in management-level positions.

“REAP's three-pronged approach — education, internship and networking — has created apprenticeships for talented minorities in property management, which is historically the network entry point for higher-level jobs in the industry,” says Bush, a former real estate executive with Giant Food for 20 years prior to heading up Project REAP.

Bush's Rolodex is chock-full of organizational sponsors such as the International Council of Shopping Centers, the Urban Land Institute and the Fannie Mae Foundation. Among company sponsors are General Growth Properties, Simon Property Group, The Rouse Co. and Jones Lang LaSalle.

Building on its momentum, Project REAP last fall expanded the program to include Atlanta. The local chapter will graduate its first class of 20-plus students at Clark Atlanta University this spring. Eventually, Bush would like to expand the program to include New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, three more cities with significant populations of middle-class African Americans.

Elements of the program

Here's how the REAP model works: Minority candidates who hold a bachelor's degree or higher are pre-screened to make sure their skill set is a good match for the industry. Applicants with experience in finance, customer service and negotiations are given top consideration. Many applicants come to the program with expertise in other fields.

Next, candidates take a written and verbal test. If accepted, the students enroll in a semester-long course comprised of 21 evening classes. Students learn real estate fundamentals, ranging from finance to property management. They also visit commercial real estate properties as part of their course work. “This is not an MBA course. It's exposure,” emphasizes Bush.

Upon graduating, the students enter into a one-year internship with one of the corporate sponsors of the program. The students are paid a market-rate salary. At the conclusion of the internship, participating firms have the option of offering the interns full-time employment. For example, the Trammell Crow Co. has hired five graduates of Project REAP. Bush's personal satisfaction comes from helping the industry spot a talent pool that previously was overlooked.

But funding remains limited and the task of targeting companies for possible internships takes lots of time. The largest financial contribution has come from ICSC, which awarded the program $50,000 annually for three years beginning in 2001. Another challenge has been getting the word out that Project REAP is not a high-school dropout program. “Most minority programs that concern African Americans in this country focus on high-school dropouts,” laments Bush.

These obstacles, financial and otherwise, won't be resolved quickly or easily. As our story line indicates, we definitely do have “a long way to go.”