Robert Reffkin recounts instances of racism

“I experienced taxis, over a hundred times, just passing me by”

Compass CEO Robert Reffkin (Getty)
Compass CEO Robert Reffkin (Getty)

UPDATED: June 3, 2:35 p.m.: As a young man in New York, Robert Reffkin was stopped by police who left his white friends alone. He watched taxis pass him by “over a hundred times.” And when he started working, at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, he often felt isolated as the only black man in a sea of white faces.

Compass’ chief executive shared his experience at Inman Connect Wednesday, as Americans protested racism and police brutality for a ninth consecutive day since George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, died when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Reffkin, who grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and attended Columbia University, said he was bolstered by sponsors who advised him and opened economic doors. He said Compass’ first investor was a black man who put $500,000 into the startup, which later amassed $1.5 billion from investors including SoftBank.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” he said, describing recent days as “the hardest time on a human level” that he has experienced. “With the murder of George Floyd, this country is saying ‘enough is enough.’”

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In recent days, protests have coincided with looting and riots. Reffkin noted that the vast majority of protesters are peaceful, and police officers are not “monolithic” either.

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In New York City, Soho retailers were left assessing damage after a weekend of violence; on Monday and Tuesday, Midtown retailers boarded up shops in anticipation of ongoing tension.

Reffkin said he has never heard so many people outside the black community ask what they can do to help. He urged the online conference audience to advocate for racial tolerance, volunteer and vote at a federal and local level. “That’s where change really happens,” he said.

He said Compass is creating a vendor list of photographers and designers that are black and brown. “As an agent you control [marketing] spend,” he said. “Even if it’s a certain percentage of the money you spend … it will make a huge difference.”

Other real estate executives have promised change in the wake of Floyd’s death. James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, pledged action, “not lip service.”

In an internal memo to Cadre staff, CEO Ryan Wiliams, who is black, said for him personally, “It’s impossible to detach what I see in the news from the realization that no matter my job, no matter what professional success I may achieve in my life, there are some who will always judge me first by the way that I look.”

He said change can’t happen overnight, but recognizing each other’s differences is a first step. “The beauty of this dialogue is that we see that diversity is the one true thing we have in common,” he wrote.