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Longtime Partnership Promotes Diversity in Real Estate

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Lorne Fultonberg


Lorne Fultonberg


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Identifying a lack of diversity in the real estate industry is one thing. Doing something about it is entirely different, Barbara Jackson realized, as grad student Michele Tonti (MS '15) sat in her office at the Daniels College of Business.

Jackson, director of the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, undoubtedly was aware of the imbalance. The industry is overwhelmingly white and male, according to a 2020 study from the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network.

Women make up a little more than a third of the commercial real estate business (a figure that has stayed more or less stagnant over the past 15 years), and they make considerably less in fixed salary (10.2%) and commission and bonuses (55.9%). Only 2% of C-level positions are held by Black men.

In 2009, Colorado began to address the inequity. The state’s Real Estate Diversity Initiative (REDI) began offering training and mentoring to women and people of color interested in the industry. But the student in Jackson’s office saw an opportunity to boost the programming even further.

“She asked me point blank,” Jackson recalls. “Is there any way that Burns could participate in teaching some of the REDI program? She wanted those students who were involved in REDI to get beyond the surface level and really get into how to think in terms of how to put together commercial real estate projects and deals. She knew what the quality of the instruction was and the depth of our knowledge.”

Today, the University of Denver is a proud partner of REDI, contributing curriculum and class offerings. Jeff Engelstad (BSBA ’83, MS ’92, PhD ’98) a professor of the practice, has taken the lead on offering real estate finance classes that cover pro formas, projections and development proposals. As he’s worked to include a broader audience, Engelstad has also pivoted his curriculum to cater to their interests.

“Back in the day, a real estate developer was just someone who wanted to pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” he says. “It was all about a quick profit. Students now want to get into this area of the built environment so they can change the world. We want to build sustainable communities. We want to figure out this housing attainability problem. We want to be leaders in not wasting in construction where it used to be a big profit motive. Now it seems like there is a higher motive, which I think is really refreshing.”

REDI touches on all of those areas, Engelstad says. It’s not just limited to the real estate sector. Architects, engineers, administrators and anyone else who is tangentially involved stands to gain.

“REDI gives students the opportunity to really look at the development process,” he says. “While people of color and underrepresented groups are breaking into some of these traditionally white-dominated fields like architecture and construction, it’s still tough to break into that upper echelon.”

For Jackson, that’s a key distinction. She wants to see underrepresented populations become influencers and leaders, not just entry-level workers. As a result, in 2005 the Burns School began hosting the Women of Enterprise Conference to highlight women leaders in commercial real estate, with proceeds going towards scholarships to encourage women students in the Burns School. The conference is scheduled to return in 2023. 

Additionally, Jackson facilitates a Women in Construction Leadership Bootcamp several times each year, designed to empower women to advance in their construction careers.

“It’s very exciting to see people who otherwise wouldn’t have this kind of exposure to experts that they may otherwise have a difficult time getting an opportunity to talk elbow to elbow with,” she says. “It’s so rewarding for us to be able to make these connections.”

As a result, Jackson says, companies have begun contacting DU to ask how they can attract a more diverse workforce. Her team is eager to oblige.

“We really, really want to add diversity to this realm of business because we’re serving all communities and all people all of the time,” she says. “To have those various perspectives would be a tremendous value to all of those communities that we’re serving and building and creating. Our participation in REDI is a way we can continue to move in that direction.”