Observers of the Greater Boston commercial real estate scene have long noted that despite Boston’s reputation as one of the country’s more socially progressive metropolitan regions, ethnic and gender diversity are sorely lacking in most facets of the business. And while women have clearly made significant inroads over the past five years, particularly in banking, architecture, and brokerage, people of color still remain conspicuously absent throughout all sectors of the industry.
In an effort to rectify this problem, the past presidents of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board and other concerned members of GBREB, in partnership with uAspire, a Boston-based national leader in helping young people realize their dream of an affordable college education, launched the College to Career Initiative. The initiative was designed to expose low-income, academically gifted students to the industry, with the hope of encouraging them to pursue a career path in CRE. One of the features of the initiative, in addition to providing deserving young people with financial aid advising and scholarship funds, was a new paid summer internship program.
"The idea behind this internship program was that the demographics of the commercial real estate industry are nothing like the society at large, and it is not because the firms don’t try. A lot of our colleagues in the industry have actually tried," explained Mahmood Malihi, co-President of Leggat McCall Properties, the founding chair of the GBREB/uAspire Scholarship Fund Leadership Breakfast and himself an Iranian-American.
"The idea behind this internship program was that the demographics of the commercial real estate industry are nothing like the society at large, and it is not because the firms don’t try. A lot of our colleagues in the industry have actually tried," explained Mahmood Malihi, co-President of Leggat McCall Properties, the founding chair of the GBREB/uAspire Scholarship Fund Leadership Breakfast and himself an Iranian-American. "We felt that reaching out to high school and college students and educating them about what this industry is all about and what kind of opportunities exist would be a good long-term strategy, so that a decade from now, we would have more young people with an awareness of what the industry has to offer."
GBREB drafted three young college-bound women for the pilot program and paired them with three prominent firms in the Greater Boston commercial real estate community. The young women – Kiana Mendes, Zashira Arias, and Meitong (Mei) Huang, were hired on a part-time basis by WinnCompanies, Colliers International, and Leggat McCall Properties, respectively. Mendes (Cape Verde) and Huang (China) emigrated from their home countries at a young age while Arias is a first generation American whose parents came from the Dominican Republic. The students were initially assigned administrative tasks such as filing and mailings, but it soon became apparent to their mentors that the young women were not being fully challenged. More sophisticated tasks replaced or were added to their daily routines, and the interns responded, delivering results that greatly exceeded expectations.
"It was definitely a positive experience, and if the other students are like Mei, be prepared to give them a lot to do, because they are really motivated," advises Megan Pasquina, project manager at Leggat McCall who supervised Huang during her internship. Other mentors reported similar experiences, which are detailed in the profiles below.
Zashira Arias (Mt. Holyoke College) - Colliers International
Zashira’s parents came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, but separated when she was very young. Her mother raised her in a two-family home in Hyde Park, but with an aunt and cousins living just one flight up, she did not feel like an only child. A 2015 graduate of Fenway High School who excelled in math, Zashira is now attending Mt. Holyoke College.
This internship was not the first for the industrious Arias, who spent the previous summer working at the federal courthouse between her junior and senior year of high school. When she first learned of the internship program at the Greater Boston Real Estate Board/uAspire Foundation Scholarship Fund Leadership Breakfast (where she was one of the featured speakers), she jumped at the chance."I was working at a pizzeria and I hated it, so I went for the opportunity," confessed Arias."I had never really thought about working in real estate, but it did interest me, and I was so happy when I got the job."
She soon began working with Colliers Boston CEO and co-chairman Tom Hynes and his executive assistant Genevieve Hemenway, who were thrilled with her performance."We have had interns in the past, so I was pleasantly surprised with how dedicated she was to doing a good job, checking in with me to get additional work, and really making the most of the internship on her end," said Hemenway."Sometimes with younger people you think that you need to manage them more, but she was able to take the ball and run with it, and that was a pleasant surprise. She is a very motivated young lady."
Hemenway initially had Arias work on a 1,000 piece mass mailing project, which included researching and correcting addresses and contacts in the database for the returned mail, but soon realized that"maybe that wasn’t very challenging for her". So she assigned tasks that required her to learn to use office equipment, train on the Saleslogix database, and gave her the job of managing the archiving of old files.
"She actually came up with some new ideas to help me organize my files, so it turned out to be a valuable experience for me because you have someone who comes in and sees the work from a different perspective bringing things to your attention that you hadn’t realized," said Hemenway.
In addition to office skills, Zashira said that she found the informational lunches – where Colliers staff members would give a talk over lunch to the interns – to be especially valuable. She was most impressed by Kevin Phelan’s talk at one of the luncheons."He said that in the future, as I try to figure out what I want to do, I need to think about three things: ‘What do I want to do? Where do I want to work? And how much do I want to make?’ And that really helped me out a lot, because as I try and figure out what I want to do in the future, those are three things I will always ask myself.
Kiana Mendes (Columbia University) - Winn Development
Kiana and her older brother Nicholas (now 24), were raised by their mother in a single-parent household in Roxbury after emigrating from Cape Verde at a young age. In order to ensure her daughter a quality education, her mother enrolled her into the Steppingstone Academy, which prepares motivated, underserved Boston students for acceptance at top independent, Catholic, and public exam schools in the Greater Boston area. By sixth grade, she had transferred to Milton Academy, from which she graduated in 2015.
In her senior year she was elected co-Class Counselor (similar to class president), and was involved in a slew of other school activities. Kiana also sought out experiences outside of her school campus, becoming a member of the W. E. B. Du Bois Society at Harvard and working on Mayor Walsh’s election campaign. During the summer between her junior and senior years, Kiana completed the intensive four-week pre-college LEAD program at the Wharton School, which introduces students from diverse backgrounds to the business world.
It was there that she decided on a business career, one which has her "leaning towards real estate development." For the past two summers, Kiana had worked at Pinkberry on Newbury St., but left when the internship became available. In order to earn additional money for school, she replaced that job by working at Georgetown Cupcake (also on Newbury St.) while simultaneously doing her internship.
While at WinnCompanies, she performed a variety of tasks for the legal, HR and OSS (Operations Support Services) departments, and soon the various entities were competing for her services. "Departments don’t just try and snatch someone if they’re not good, and it says a lot that she worked in so many areas because, the word got around that she did a really good job," said HR generalist Kelly Spangler. "What I can tell you is that the overall impression of Kiana is amazing. They love her."
She earned high marks for completing a two week project for the senior portfolio coordinator that entailed reorganizing the entire filing system for all of the firm’s management agreements. At the conclusion of the assignment, her supervisor "absolutely loved her," according to Spangler. "She followed directions very well, had a superb attention to detail and overall was just very eager to learn."
During her stint with HR, she was able to learn a number of skills using Excel that enabled her to audit files for the employee benefits department, which was a "huge undertaking" for a company with 2,800 employees. She also learned how to use QuickTime, a digital filing system. "In HR they were always happy that she was willing to take initiative, and if she finished one task she would always come and ask for more," said Spangler.
Kiana says the internship bolstered her interest in the CRE business. "I knew I wanted to get into commercial real estate development, and coming into this internship I knew I wouldn’t be developing properties, but just being in this building and seeing people hard at work has really opened my eyes. I think you can learn a lot by just observing, and I’ve learned a lot of new things here."
Meitong ‘Mei" Huang (Boston College) - Leggat McCall Properties
Mei’s family emigrated from China when she was five years old and settled in Malden, where she says she grew up with "typical immigrant life stuff." She graduated from Malden High School in 2015, and is the first in her family to go on to college. She is currently attending Boston College with concentrations in Economics and Asian Studies following her summer internship.
"Before I applied for the internship, I didn’t really know what the job entailed. I just thought it was a good opportunity to have a job for the summer," says Mei. "And when I first came to Leggat McCall, I only thought of real estate as selling houses. I didn’t know what happened in the field of commercial real estate."
She soon found out, concentrating on three main projects assigned by her mentor, project manager Megan Pasquina, who was very impressed with Mei’s capabilities. "She’s just a great kid, really smart and really motivated, so once we found a groove, it was great," says Pasquina. "She really added a lot of value in a short time, and I think we both got the most value out of the work that she’s done that’s really allowed her to problem solve."
The projects included the analysis of Leggat McCall’s competitors and firms that were involved with similar project work around the country; a presentation identifying and mapping potential development sites within a five minute walk of MBTA stops in the Metro Boston area; and a demographic analysis of Leggat McCall employees for the human resources department that examined age, education, length of time with company, etc.; she also investigated the possibility of developing an app, but discovered that one which performed the desired functions already existed.
Mei gave presentations of her completed work to Pasquina and Mahmood Malihi, co-President of Leggat McCall, who was also enthralled with her performance. "Between the first week and the last week, we saw a material difference in how she opened up and felt confident, and looked you in the eye," says Mahili. "The first week she seemed anxious about what she was getting herself into and by the end she was just great."
Pasqina agreed. "Being able to watch her develop and get more comfortable as she gave her presentations to me and Mahmood was an awesome opportunity for a high school kid, and I think she did a great job," says Pasquina. "(The process) took a little getting used to, but she’s succeeded at everything we’ve given her, which is amazing."
Mei also got an up close look at the industry when she took a tour of one of Leggat McCall’s projects, the Ink Block in the South End. "It was really cool looking at the construction aspects as it was being built, before people moved in, and all of the planning that was involved," she says. "It also made me feel like I was more immersed in what they do here."
Mei says her experience may not necessarily lead to a career in commercial real estate, but says it is something that she will keep in mind as an option. "I learned a lot during this internship, although I always say I don’t know what I’ve learned until later in life when I actually apply it, and then one day I say, ‘Oh I learned this there’."