Real estate’s next generation

Program introduces the real estate industry to underrepresented high school students to help increase diversity in its ranks and encourage dreams of future cities

By Maria Iacobo

Twenty high school students from across the U.S. will have an uncommon topic for the proverbial “what I did on my summer vacation” essay. Their two weeks at MIT in late June introduced them to an industry and career paths that they most likely would not have been exposed to and, more important, to an industry with a glaring lack of diversity.

A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that real estate investors are predominantly White (68%), followed by Latinos (16%). The program that brought the underrepresented minority (URM) teenagers to MIT — the Real Estate Exchange (REEX) program — was created by the Real Estate Executive Council, an association of African American and Latino real estate professionals. 

R. Kelly Cameron, career development officer at the MIT Center for Real Estate (MIT CRE), worked with the council and colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Miami to develop the program.

“One way we decided to address the disparity is by introducing the industry as a whole to high school students and give them an insight into career opportunities and wealth accumulation,” says Cameron. 

In 2019, the three universities piloted the REEX program for URM high school students on their campuses. Conducted remotely for the past two years due to the global pandemic, the REEX program returned to campuses this summer. Several other universities with real estate development programs have since joined the program, including Harvard University, which shared program management with MIT this summer. In addition to their course work, students have the opportunity to experience life on a college campus and living in a dorm for the first time. Time was also carved out to explore the Boston area. 

While most students are already aware that realtors sell and rent residential property, the REEX program introduces them to the commercial real estate industry. 

“At MIT CRE, we call it the ‘city-making aspect’ of the industry,” says Cameron. “Cities don’t just evolve. They go through a process of discussion, permitting, and community meetings. Our students learn that residents and other groups within a city will want to know what is going to occupy a space and weigh in on new construction.”

Central to the students’ learning are six commercial real estate fundamentals:  highest and best use; land use and zoning; finance proforma; capital stack; operations and stabilization; and evaluation and exit strategy. Students are also introduced to environmental issues, climate change, and the types of resources used to develop projects. Workshops allowed students to take a deeper dive into the lesson imparted each day. CRE alumni served as volunteers.  

For their final project, the students were placed in teams and created presentations for an actual project under consideration — the Dorchester Bay City site at Columbia Point just south of downtown Boston — that is expected to be a catalyst for community transformation. MIT CRE executive director Kairos Shen served as moderator for the presentations and worked with the jury of three local professionals who evaluated the students’ work.

“It was exciting to see that the students tried to tackle the full complexity of the site,” says Shen. “We didn’t get proposals so abstract that they didn’t engage the real problems or challenges of doing real estate development. I think they were also encouraged to think about sustainability and resiliency of the project and housing affordability for the neighborhood.”

Shen says the presentations showed him that the students got “a sense of the responsibilities that real estate development has to communities and the social impact real estate development has. We demonstrate that the profession is a viable path for underrepresented minorities that comes with financial rewards and community-strengthening opportunities. “

Team effort
Cameron arrived at MIT in 2015 and was introduced to the Real Estate Executive Council by an MIT CRE alum. When the REEX program was first discussed at a council meeting, he says he was fascinated. Cameron became a thought partner with the program founders, offering his expertise to design the curriculum and deepen understanding of the target audience.

“Prior to MIT, I worked at a high school, so I know this population quite well,” says Cameron. “I know the types of things that bore them and the types of things that can excite them. I enjoy working tremendously with them.”

Cameron pitched the program — and how it dovetails with the School’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion —to MIT CRE and SA+P leadership. They were immediately on board. Before coming to MIT, Shen worked as the chief city planner for the city of Boston. He says the profession’s lack of diversity is evident across the country.

“There are very few underrepresented minorities and women in leadership positions and, in general, the industry,” says Shen. “We know it’s not an identified viable profession for minority students, so the only way we can diversify the profession is to take steps to increase the diversity of applicants to our program and others like it.”

MIT CRE serves as the program’s sponsor, and Cameron develops and designs the curriculum. CRE alumni and area industry professionals work with him to explore what types of projects the curriculum should focus on and develop a list of guest speakers to address learning objectives.

For Cameron, the two weeks are “jam packed” and highly enjoyable.

“The students’ willingness to learn something that they are completely unfamiliar with is exciting,” says Cameron. “They get a different look at how their cities and towns are shaped and formed. Now, when they see a construction project, they know the fundamental elements that went into that process.”