Written by Dustin Sutton, Business Development & Real Estate Manager
As a young Black man recently graduated from college, I relocated to San Diego from Philadelphia, drawn by the beautiful beaches and weather. Like many young people just starting out, my first few jobs were short-lived and unsuccessful. But then I landed a job as a leasing agent at a boutique residential real estate firm that offered exposure to commercial real estate through the mixed-use assets they managed. I found that my skill set and sales experience was a good fit for real estate in general. Before long I had an opportunity to work on the commercial side full-time. I’ve now worked for over 10 years in commercial real estate, including working for three companies in leasing, property management, asset management, and business development roles. The work has been rewarding, challenging, and has provided opportunities for growth and advancement. Among the advantages of being in this industry are the many professionals I have worked with, who have generously shared their expertise and encouraged me to continuously seek improvement. I have been part of terrific teams and have had a few very supportive mentors.
While working with so many excellent individuals is definitely a plus, in my 10 years in this field, I have never had a Black manager, mentor, or client. When I go to meetings and conferences, I always look for other Black faces. When I read newsletters and publications, I commonly scan the pages to see if there is anyone that looks like me. At one point in my career, I interviewed with a large, national commercial real estate firm with offices in San Diego. While waiting in the lobby for my interview, I looked at a photo of the company’s executive leadership. I was struck by the fact that there was not one Black face in the group! In fact, I can count on one hand the number of Black real estate decision makers that I have met through my day-to-day real estate dealings over the past 10 years.
It is not a secret that the commercial real estate industry in the U.S. lacks racial diversity. In San Diego, the real estate industry even further reflects a lack of diversity in the demographics of the local population. As a Black man, I am intensely aware of the racial inequities and systemic racism in our country and, like other Black people in this country, I have experienced its effects personally. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breanna Taylor deeply saddened me, but the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement/protests gave me hope and reason to believe we can do better as a society.
Seeing people of all races, genders, and ages speak up and take to the streets regarding racial disparities has motivated me to think more seriously about how I can play a role in creating real and lasting change. For years, I have envisioned being a resource for young Black professionals trying to find their way, but I was unclear about how I could make a significant impact. Recently I founded a group called the Black Commercial Real Estate Network (BCREN). The mission of BCREN is to provide a community of connection, idea sharing, support, and mentorship for Black members of the commercial real estate industry. An important goal for us is to provide Black youth with an awareness of the real estate field and of professional opportunities within the industry by connecting with Black youth in schools and youth organizations. Through this group, we are working to create a network of Black professionals not only in San Diego, but across the country to provide a community of talented resources for each other and the industry at large. Being a part of this group has been an amazing opportunity to have open and honest conversations with other Black professionals within this space. We are making new connections, exploring new ideas, and collaborating on related projects. We have been in contact with several schools and universities with the intent of having a presence at career days and giving presentations online and in person.
It’s true, we face incredible challenges in today’s world. Meeting these challenges will require creative, sustainable, and flexible solutions. I believe, that like all industries, the commercial real estate industry will be better positioned to face these challenges with a diverse composition of talent, and a group of people with voices and thoughts that reflect a variety of human experiences. I have had some of the most open and honest conversations of my life these last few weeks. The fact that we, as a society, are able to have these very hard, and for many, uncomfortable conversations is truly incredible. We need to keep the conversations going and we need to create actionable steps forward. I intend to do so and now I know that there are many other people that are willing to take this journey with me. I am starting to feel more hopeful. This feels like progress.