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More People of Color in the C-Suite: That’s the Goal of Project REAP’s New Leader

March 25, 2022

Project REAP turns 25 this year. That means the program, which stands for the Real Estate Associate Program, has been educating as many as 35 professionals of color about commercial real estate each year for 25 years. Now, the nonprofit, of which ICSC is a partner, has a new executive director, Manikka Bowman, and she intends to capitalize on the fact that alumni have been in the field and climbing the ranks for a quarter of a century. That produces momentum for current and future fellows, but Bowman also wants proactively to serve those mid-career alumni and even knocking on the door of the C-suite.

Based in the Boston area, she has served in the public policy arena as vice chair of the Cambridge School Committee for Cambridge Public Schools and as director of policy and outreach at the Urban Land Institute Boston/New England. Last year, she also ventured into commercial real estate in earnest, as she and her husband launched a development firm in Cambridge called HarveyReed. Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Ben Johnson talked with Bowman about her role and goals at Project REAP.

What attracted you to the Project REAP opportunity?

I have had a very diverse career trajectory with really unique experiences. The combination of all of those experiences could be uniquely positioned to move Project REAP forward, and I was ready to walk into that leadership role.

What is your initial focus?

We have a diverse set of dynamic leaders and talent that have been in the industry for over 25 years because that is how long [Project REAP has] been at this. One of my goals is to take that dynamic pool of over 1,600 people and position them in the industry to grow in their career. Sometimes people perceive us as a place [for] people that are pivoting [from other industries into commercial real estate], which is absolutely true. But now, many of them are pretty senior and they may be ready to enter the C-suite, so I want to really create programming and work with our sponsors and our alums to address gaps in the marketplace from entry-level to mid-career to C-suite.

Is there an opportunity because of the moment in time that we’re in?

Our country has really gone through growing pains because of the pandemic and the result of us having to watch this terrible event with George Floyd and all the other social reckoning that we all have had to do. It forced every industry to look at themselves differently, and the commercial real estate space did the same. People are more aware or conscious in a way that may be slightly different from previous diversity, equity and inclusion activity and commitment because of just the moment. Because of that, I think Project REAP stands ready to be in partnership with the industry to take the 25 years of investment in dynamic, smart talent and position them in the industry to say: “Hey, we have been here. Now how do we work together to move forward within the field, within the space of commercial real estate?”

You speak of “leveraging the moment.” What do you mean?

The thing about moments: Sometimes they stay, and we all have to be mindful that we cannot allow the moment to fade. And so we have to do institutional things that will position us to continue to tackle these challenges. Even if people aren’t talking about it as much, the challenges that go along with people from diverse backgrounds being able to enter commercial real estate don’t go away. How do we leverage this moment to ensure that we include diversity, equity and inclusion as a part of a business model. Because it is the right thing to do, but beyond that, it makes sense because diverse work groups and committees and teams create better outcomes. And there’s tons of research to back that up.

What are your ideas to make that happen?

Positioning an organization to look at its own culture to see if they are creating an environment that will cultivate talent that are from diverse backgrounds is really key, and that takes work. Recognizing the talent that is there and positioning them to be able to exercise leadership and thought leadership is really important. One of the things that I’m also really committed to in my role is to take our 1,600-plus alumni and position them as the experts that they are after being in the field for over five years, 10 years, 15 years as the result of Project REAP introducing them into commercial real estate. Oftentimes, when people engage people of color, it starts with diversity, equity and inclusion. And I know that is the core purpose of Project REAP, but I also want to start leveraging our network so people can see our membership as content experts in the field of commercial real estate as practitioners. That is a slightly different nuance in the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation.

You launched your own development firm last year. How has that experience helped you in your new role at Project REAP?

When I was working at the Urban Land Institute, which is a partner here at Project REAP for our virtual academy, I sat at the table with some of the most dynamic professionals in commercial real estate that was pretty much building the Greater Boston region and beyond. It just wasn’t a diverse table. Another voice in my head was telling me: “Well, why not you?  Why can’t you launch your own development firm?” Some people may just rush off and do it, but that is not me. I had to sit with it for a while, and my significant other and I work well with each other and decided to do it [together].

As it relates to Project REAP, [I hope] my work in launching my own development firm can mirror to people who want to enter the program that there are possibilities when you give yourself permission to reimagine your career path. Also, through the work that I did at ULI or through the Project REAP network to be able to partner to do business with each other is important because that moves the needle when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, the ability to be able to do a project, which then positions you to grow your skills and move on to larger opportunities.

What is the greatest challenge you face in your new role?

Viola Davis once said when she was accepting an award that the only difference that stands between people of color and others is opportunity. So that is the greatest challenge: for people to have the chance to have an opportunity and people giving them that opportunity in a way that they give it to other people.

What are the major goals you hope to achieve?

I would love to look back and say that during my tenure at Project REAP, I was able to build off of 25 years of experience to diversify the C-suite in corporate America. That would make my heart smile, quite frankly. I just think with 25 years of history, it is an achievable goal and I look forward to working with our sponsors and our alums and everyone that has a vested interest in Project REAP to push that forward.

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