On Jan. 21 the Fordham Real Estate Institute launched a series of panel discussions focused on the future of the commercial real estate industry.

Kicking off the series during a global pandemic, the first panel centered on the potential of the industry to become a leader in the nation’s economic recovery by being adaptable to change, creating a more inclusive workforce, and being responsive to the communities in which they build.

The panel, titled “The Real Estate Workforce: Restarting the Engine and Propelling the Economy,” included Dorothy “Dottie” Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, New York’s largest residential brokerage, and Don Peebles, a developer and CEO of Peebles Corporation. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, joined the conversation with moderator Luis Mirando, chair of the institute’s executive advisory committee and founder of Streamline Realty Funding.

Impact of E-Commerce on Retail Real Estate

The event began with a sobering overview of the current economic landscape provided by Hugh Kelly, Ph.D., the institute’s curriculum chair. He reminded listeners that 9 million jobs have been lost over the last year and some industries, such as retail, were already undergoing a sea change well before the pandemic began.

“You know we talk about preexisting conditions in health care? Retail losses expressed a lot of preexisting conditions; this was already an over-supplied sector, it was one that was in transition, under the threat of e-commerce,” said Kelly.

The increased use of companies like Amazon during the pandemic means that retail storefronts may need to be reimagined, he said. E-commerce’s growth has led to a new understanding of essential real estate, such as warehousing. He added that the industry will need to be nimble and responsive to such changes in the market.

Inclusivity Is Good Business

Real estate can help bring about that change at the local and national levels, said Peebles, one of the most successful African American developers in the country who holds a portfolio of more than 10 million square feet worth $8 billion. He added that there is “tremendous expectation” that the industry will be at the forefront of leading the nation out of the current economic downturn, though that leadership must become far more inclusive than it is now, he said.

“Throughout our company’s history we have done over 25% of all of our contracts with minority- and women-owned businesses; our company’s goal is 35%,” he said. “Our driving force here is that it’s good business to be inclusive, you get a better product, you can be much more impactful.”

Listening to Diverse Communities

By the same token, he said, developers also need to listen to the diverse communities that they build in.

“This is the biggest problem in our industry and why we’re so despised in New York City,” he said. “We basically go into communities and occupy them, we gentrify them, and the economic benefits are given to people who come in and leave.”

He added that in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the industry leadership looks as though it comes from a small white city somewhere in the Midwest.

“We are not a part of the communities and we do not reflect the population demographics of New York City, all you have to do is look at the who’s who at the top,” he said of industry executives.

‘Everyone Should Be Able to Get into the Game’

Herman, whose firm is one of the largest nationwide, said she did not have many female role models growing up, as she lost her mother in a car accident when she was just 10.

“I basically grew up on my own and when I went to college I got married and had my daughter by the time I was 20,” she said. “So I needed to make money.”

She became a certified financial planner and got a job at Merrill Lynch in their real estate division which, she said, was still a “good old boys club.”

“I heard the word ‘no’ millions of times, I’ve dealt with gender issues a million times, and I certainly have failed—I could write a book,” she said.

Herman said she started as an entrepreneur with little capital, bus she was able to convince several backers to join her in an effort to buy her first brokerage firm from Prudential, which she would eventually grow to become one of the largest brokerages in the U.S. She touted the importance of networking outside of one’s comfort zone, and also with like-minded women whenever possible. She also stressed the importance of access for everyone.

“It’s not an equal playing field,” she said. “I do think that number one, everybody should have a way to an education. I know as a woman, there are so many single moms who deserve that. Everyone should be able to get into the game.

To that end, the institute launched a scholarship for students from marginalized communities with the goal of raising $250,000 every year for the next five years. The campaign, called the Scholarship 250 Fund, will culminate in 2026 when the U.S. will celebrate its 250th anniversary.

Father McShane agreed with Herman, noting that New York City remains the place where someone from an underserved community or another country can make it to the top of their field, regardless of the industry.

“These are the young women and men who will make America great, the young women and men who made America great all along,” he said. “They’re filled with talent, eager to find their place at the American table, looking, with grit, for a way in.,