‘Your pedigree is always questioned’: Black real estate execs push for change

Wary of performative gestures, panellists express optimism about national reckoning

From left: Onay Payne, Jim Simmons, Margaret Anadu and Tammy Jones (Payne by Emily Assiran)
From left: Onay Payne, Jim Simmons, Margaret Anadu and Tammy Jones (Payne by Emily Assiran)

From blatant racism to more subtle microaggressions, the predominantly white real estate industry can be an isolating place for Black professionals.

“Your pedigree is always questioned, and I have actually felt this way for my entire career,” said Tammy Jones, chief executive officer of Basis Investment Group, speaking on a panel discussion hosted by New York University’s Schack Institute this week. “The only thing that I could do was outwork people,” she added.

Now, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody sparked a national reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, Jones and other Black executives are hopeful that the energy and outpouring they have seen will translate into real change.

“I hope deeply that it’s a movement,” said Margaret Anadu, head of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs. “I think there’s a lot of cautious optimism.”

“I hope this is our Stonewall,” said Jim Simmons, chief executive officer of Asland Capital Partners. “I hope this is our MeToo.”

But as corporate America comes to terms with its own role in upholding structural racism — and individuals look inward — the scale of the problem is coming into sharper focus.

“When the rage subsides just a little bit and you’re in that phase of trying to be constructive, you look around and you’re like, wow, my firm’s not diverse, my bosses aren’t diverse, my kids’ schools aren’t diverse,” Anadu said.

The panelists said they regularly experience racism on the job — both directly and in more subtle forms.

“I still walk into meetings where people are waiting for the person who runs the business, or the person who makes the decisions, or the person who writes the checks,” Anadu said, adding that some people will look at her and ask, ‘You’re Margaret?’

Jones noted that many Black professionals don’t have the same family ties to real estate as their white counterparts do, which creates further barriers to entry.

In the course of her career, the CEO said she had come up with ways to fit into corporate culture and endear herself to white executives, including learning golf.

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“There were no people that looked like me in senior roles, or very few,” she said. “I never saw any Black people on boards … and sometimes it takes away your drive when you can’t see a pathway.”

Simmons agreed, noting that an absence of diversity at a company impeded minority employees’ ability to rise through the ranks.

“There was not a single firm I worked at where I thought there was the possibility of me ascending to the CEO role,” he said. “Not one.”

Navigating these challenges, as well as the more subtle forms of daily discrimination, can take up valuable time, said Onay Payne of Clarion Partners.

“The majority of the time what we face are microaggressions where you’re not sure why you are being spoken to a certain way,” she said. “I’ve spent so much time and energy working through, ‘Okay, probably not that; hopefully it’s not that,’ but it occupies a lot of my energy and my consciousness,” she said.

The treatment also created a sense of “not-enoughness,” she said, which stunted creativity and held people back.

The panelists said they were hopeful that companies now examining diversity in their ranks would not consider the issue in a blanket way — lumping gender and race into one basket — but with a more defined framing that scrutinizes how many Black people they employ, and in which departments.

Anadu, whose Urban Investment Group deploys over $1 billion annually and backs major projects such as Essex Crossing, said the focus for those considering their response to the movement should be on daily changes, rather than one-off gestures.

“It’s not about what you’re going to do, it’s about how you’re going to radically transform everything you do,” she said. “Protesting is great…philanthropic contributions are good. But it’s almost simpler to decide, what am I going to do in my day to day? Who am I going to hire? Who am I going to invest capital with?”

“It’s very in vogue to acknowledge your privilege these days … but that recognition and acknowledgment of privilege is irrelevant if you’re not willing to (a), give it up, or (b), use it.”

Write to Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at so@therealdeal.com