Chicago Program Hopes to Interest Youth in Real Estate as a Career Before College

High school senior Lilian Rosales plans to go to work in the real estate industry. She is currently an intern at the residential tower 73 East Lake in downtown Chicago. Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – Lilian Rosales, 17, a senior at Muchin College Prep, grew up around real estate — her father and cousin work in the industry — but she didn’t think she’d consider a career in the field until she started her Urban Alliance internship. Instead, her family thought she’d pursue a career in medicine.

Urban Alliance, a nonprofit internship program for high school youth, provides job skills training and mentoring. Its latest program, Property Management Pathway, allows high school seniors to choose either leasing or maintenance and earn professional credentials and certifications in those areas. Participants are paid for their work and receive class credit. After completing certification training, students participate in six- to eight-month internships, work 12 hours per week during the school year and 32 hours per week after graduation. Rosales’ internship is with Chicago-based apartment management firm RMK Management Corp., and she’s learning the ins and outs of being a leasing consultant at 73 East Lake.

“Leasing just excited me,” the Chicago Lawn resident said. “There’s a lot that goes into it … it’s not only about contract reports, and understanding marketing reports, financials, it’s building relationships. With leasing, you create a great sense of community and a warm feeling of family. People come in looking for a home and we have a community that feels like home. That’s really great.”

Rosales is one of a number of students in Chicago taking advantage of programs that local real estate organizations are offering to reach the next generation of real estate professionals while also diversifying the industry. Collete English Dixon, executive director of Roosevelt University’s Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate, has been in the real estate industry for the last 40 years and says while more people from Black and brown communities are present in the field, the numbers haven’t moved dramatically.

“Finally, the industry has come to the conclusion that lack of diversity is a problem,” Dixon said. “And if we really want to make a change, we can’t wait for these young people to show up at college. We need to get them before they start making decisions about what their futures are going to be. We want to take the opportunity to potentially spark an interest in this industry, its impact and how people can be involved in it. This is not a rocket science industry. You can get in it in a lot of different ways.”

Dixon visits high schools to talk to students about real estate careers. The Marshall Bennett Institute, which offers both undergraduate and graduate programs in real estate, has hosted the Real Estate Exchange (REEX) Summer Program, a two-week residential program for current high school juniors that exposes them to commercial real estate. Pangea Real Estate, a real estate investment and management company with 13,000-plus apartments and townhouses in Chicago, Indianapolis and Baltimore, hosts paid internships for high school juniors and seniors through its Foundations program. For six weeks during the summer, interns rotate between Pangea’s downtown headquarters, contract center and neighborhood offices picking up knowledge from various departments while also working on their life skills like interviewing, resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Pangea also partners with Chicago Hope Academy, on the Near West Side, to share information about real estate as a career and mentoring.

“Juniors and seniors in high school, those are the formative years that we are sourcing these applicants from, areas underserved or under-resourced,” said Pangea’s chief financial officer Patrick Borchard. “In a lot of cases, it’s that ‘aha moment’ of just opening their eyes to different professional careers that there might be. The ultimate goal for us is to get these kids exposure to the working world, the professional life and get them on their way in whichever path they choose for sort of establishing that for themselves.”

He said over the years of providing internship opportunities to high schoolers, feedback from youth has centered more on entrepreneurship and technology and finding success for oneself. “We’ve been really focused on enriching the communities we are also investing in operating a business — this is just one part of that.”

Abiodun Durojaye, Urban Alliance’s executive director, said early exposure to real estate industry skills and terminology helps students know what they want and don’t want in a career. Urban Alliance mentors ask youth about their post-high-school plan, and if they want to work in real estate, Urban Alliance begins the conversations with contacts to make that happen. Partnering companies get the first opportunity to hire interns at the conclusion of the program.

“We have 17 students learning, asking questions: ‘If I want to work here, what do I need?’ ” Durojaye said. “College ain’t for everybody, we get that, but if they can get experience in real estate, get a certification and start working making $50,000 to $60,000 at 17-, 18-years-old? That’s life changing for a young person.”

Jonathan Hill is an Urban Alliance alumnus from the Washington, D.C., area working at Chicago-based software development firm Relativity as a community engagement lead. He’s served as a mentor and his organization sponsors Urban Alliance interns.

“When you think about the industries that Urban Alliance is exposing young people to in terms of careers, these are conversations that oftentimes are not happening in friend groups, in family households and communities,” Hill said. “This organization is being that steppingstone, that voice, that advocates for them to expose them early to something that they don’t know — that kind of curation of development is one in a million. We need more of it.”

Diana Pittro, RMK Management Corp.’s executive vice president, agrees more is the way to go. She said her company has three interns, including Rosales.

“I really think getting them in high school is the way to go, because from everything I read, there’s more and more young people deciding not to go to college for many reasons,” she said. “And (real estate is) another opportunity they can look at as they start to wear their adult pants. My daughter is in the industry. And this is the way it happens, it comes by mentoring and hand-holding.”

Durojaye challenges employers to think about authenticity moving forward. Seeing more people in real estate inquire and talk about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion can make or break a student’s first-time experience into that world of work, she said.

“Access and exposure matters,” she said. “We need to start breaking those barriers and making it comfortable for every student to be able to walk into these organizations as all of who they (are) and learn how to be the best version of who they are. If I’m not accepted in a certain space, I’m not going to go there.” 

Dixon said she’s happy to be a contact for people who want to “pull back the curtain on the great opportunities and potential of this industry.” While the pandemic has slowed the pace of in-person summer programs, she hopes that too will change, getting more numbers to engage with Roosevelt’s summer immersion program and other classroom conversations.

“I’m trying to supplement the engagement with high school students through things like virtual speaker series participation, where someone from another company will come in and talk about what they do,” Dixon said. “I have a whole cohort of folks who are available to do that. We’re going to keep trying to find ways to bring young people in the room and not only make a difference in their community, but they can also achieve a lot financially and personally, by being involved in this. We want to make sure that we have a pipeline of diverse talent to take advantage of that.”

Rosales’ enthusiasm for what she found in real estate so far is evident.

“When I did come into the office, I was expecting a man because in the real estate industry most of the higher ranks, you will see a man,” Rosales said. “But this office, I absolutely love because this office is run by a woman, which definitely shows that we can do it. No matter who you are, or where you come from this industry is open.”

Originally reported by the Chicago Tribune. Highlighted in The Grio, and Wealth Management.