The commercial real estate industry has long been plagued by a lack of diversity. A recent study conducted by Bella Research Group found that within the U.S. commercial real estate industry, 75 percent of executive positions are held by white men; 14.1 percent by white women; 1.3 percent by Black men; and less than 1 percent by non-white women. William Ferguson, chairman of global professional services firm Ferguson Partners, is leveraging his privilege to do something about it.
In June 2022, Ferguson launched the Ferguson Charitable Foundation and, within it, the Ferguson Centers for Leadership Excellence (CLE) Fellows program. The initiative offers comprehensive support to racially, ethnically, and gender diverse undergraduate students pursuing a degree in real estate. Key components include a $10,000-per-year scholarship, mentoring, career coaching, professional development, and assistance finding internship and job opportunities. The Robinson College of Business is one of 11 universities nationwide to participate in the pilot class, which kicked off in fall 2022.
“When researching potential partners, we were impressed by the diversity and quality of the student population at Robinson,” said Carrie Nowicki, CLE’s chief operating officer. “Our impression was further validated when two Robinson students were selected as fellows. They have the potential to progress to senior levels and effectuate real change by recruiting more diverse talent.”
One recipient is Kaitlin Novak, a junior real estate major and daughter of a retired Delta Air Lines pilot. Her parents are also seasoned residential property investors. The beauty of cityscapes seen from the air and early exposure to real estate transactions impacted her choice of career.
“Skylines give me an adrenaline rush, and I want to build a career on that,” Novak said. “I set my heart on it and enrolled at Georgia State.”
This summer, Novak will intern at Walker & Dunlop on Apprise, the company’s multifamily appraisals team. She already has obtained a summer 2024 internship at Wells Fargo, where she will focus on corporate and investment banking.
“I’ll gain experience in multiple sectors and get a better idea of what kind of work in the industry I’m meant to do,” she said.
Novak is ahead of the game with internship planning, but many students don’t land those offers more than a year in advance. CLE Fellows is committed to building individual development plans tailored to every student’s needs, interests, and strengths, according to Kelli Dungan, the organization’s program manager for university partners.
“Some of our fellows will need mock interviews and resume reviews to help them secure an internship,” Dungan said. “Everyone will be paired with mentors specific to their domain, like asset management, development, or multifamily housing. The CLE has senior-level contacts in every sector.”
Case in point: Because of the fellowship, Crystal Stewart constantly receives emails regarding internship openings. Like Novak, the junior real estate major’s father worked in the industry—except in this case, the role was hands-on construction. The construction side isn’t what excites her, though. Her goal is to build wealth through investments.
“I was always taught to invest because the value of money today won’t equal the value of money tomorrow,” Stewart said. “Atlanta is a great place to earn a degree and build my career. This city has a lot of potential to grow.”
The CLE Fellows program will continue to expand and engage with more universities across the country. But of equal importance is increasing the impact at existing partner institutions.
“We want to be purposeful and establish centers at schools with top students,” Nowicki said. “We expect our relationship with Robinson to be very successful.”