Several studies over the past few years have shown that implementing diversity within our organizations is not just the right thing to do ethically, it is the right thing to do for business success. An oft-quoted study by McKinsey & Company found that ethnic diversity in the executive team and board correlates with stronger profitability, increasing the likelihood of financial performance above national industry median by up to 35%. Yet a Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute study found that representation of Black people on Boards of Directors in the Corporate Sector represented only 0.3% in Toronto and Vancouver, and a shocking 0% in Montreal.
On average, among six of Montreal’s largest full service commercial brokerage firms that provided their employment diversity data for this article, 41% of all brokerage sales, support and management staff are identified as female, and 9% are People of Colour.
When compared to Canada’s overall workforce – where 47.5% are women and 22% are People of Colour – one might say that, although there is certainly room for improvement, we aren’t so far off. However, a closer look reveals that among sales staff (brokers and advisors), these numbers dip to 19% for Women and only 3% for People of Color.
Underrepresentation of women and visible minorities within the corporate structure at executive levels is a known issue, and thankfully, one that is actively discussed in the highest levels of our industry. “At the young end, I think it’s already quite diverse. At the senior end, it’s very white and male,” said Real Property Association of Canada (REALPAC) chief executive officer Michael Brooks in a 2019 RENX interview.
This may be why my colleague Arlene Dedier, Director of Private Sector of Colliers Project Leaders in Toronto, who is a trained architect and happens to be a Black woman, only half-jokingly refers to herself as a “miracle.” Arlene’s situationis further complicated as she is a Black woman working in construction within the commercial real estate industry.
The commercial real estate industry has always been a challenging world to navigate, let alone set foot in. One that is inherently based on relationships, networking, and trust. Commercial brokerage itself is a “hidden” industry, which unlike residential real estate, is largely nebulous to the general public. Often sales professionals within the industry have some sort of personal connection with, or relation to someone who works in the industry. A few, like me, fall into it, much by chance through a series of fortuitous professional encounters. Others, like Arlene, see an opportunity in a complex and exciting industry, and find ways to be successful, overcoming significant challenges and barriers to entry.
Twenty years ago, while transitioning from a career in the arts, I decided to pursue residential real estate as an option. As I was completing my broker’s license, I met a newly hired recruit at Devencore. He told me about commercial real estate, which piqued my curiosity. I subsequently interviewed with all the major brokerage houses across Montreal, but it was the Managing Director at Colliers at the time who was able to envision the value of a diverse office.
Although our paths are different, what Arlene and I have in common is that our cultural upbringing didn’t provide personal networks to support our early career journey. As Black professionals in a largely white, homogeneous industry, we have most often been the only Person of Colour in the room. It is a reality we are used to and have dealt with for most of our professional lives. We both have seen the surprise when a potential client we are meeting for the first time unknowingly greets our white colleague with the expectation that the voice on the phone could not have been ours. We both understood that most important is the impression made during the meeting that will begin to change inherent unconscious bias.
But the barrier to those who are not connected is immense and many visible minorities don’t ever get to the point of being able to meet with potential clients to demonstrate their abilities. The truth is our industry is largely driven by relationships. People tend to work within their circles – they do business within their circle; they recruit within their circle. That insular tendency is the biggest barrier to entry for anyone outside of the industry and to a large extent is why visible minorities and People of Colour have remained outside of the industry.
Beyond the lack of a network, which hinders informal recruitment, People of Colour often face a shortageof mentorship and sponsorship within the corporate setting. People who will support, encourage and help understand and navigate the unspoken rules of an industry, which are so crucial for making contacts. I have been fortunate in that – while I have faced those whose unconscious bias could not allow room to recognize a vision other than the status quo - I have also encountered some key people throughout my career, who saw my true potential and helped me break down barriers to build a successful career.
Arlene built her career in defiance of all of those who said, “you can’t, it’s too difficult, it’s not your place”. Arlene’s parents wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer. She wanted to be an architect. When she told her father that she had been accepted to architecture school – one of 75 handpicked out of more than 2,000 applicants each year - he wasn’t thrilled. “Why would you do that?” he asked. “You’re young, Black, and a woman”. Years later, Arlene understood that her father had reacted that way because he anticipated the challenges that lay ahead, and how difficult it would be for her to succeed. Although she started from a most unlikely place, she persevered and is at the top of her industry, working with many of the world’s biggest brands leading multi-million-dollar projects. Arlene is a committed champion and mentor to young women of colour, helping them build successful careers, not by fitting in but by being themselves.
What people don’t always see – or have difficulty acknowledging - is the level of accommodation that visible minorities adopt, trying to find points in common with colleagues, peers and superiors. Twenty years ago, I felt like I had to assimilate in to fit in. I talked about sports and music that were not my preference because I thought that others would not be able to relate to my tastes. As Arlene pointed out in several of her speeches around diversity, women in CRE, and Black women in CRE, women use various mechanisms to cope with working in male-dominated work environments. This holds true for visible minorities as well: distancing themselves from colleagues, accepting masculine and white cultural norms, acting like “one of the boys”, or leaving the industry altogether. Assimilation, by definition, narrows perspective rather than encouraging different points of view.
Whether through sheer force of will, chance encounters or a combination of the two, Arlene and I now have an opportunity to use our voices to create an impact within Colliers, within our industry, within our cities and beyond, as far as our networks will allow. We are at a moment in time where there is awareness around diversity and inclusion and a willingness to change from the status quo.
The Black Lives Matter movement stemming from the recurring and dramatic racial injustices in the United States has brought global and local issues of inequity and injustice into focus across the world, prompting individuals and organizations to take a stand and promote change. Corporations are using this moment in history to reflect upon systemic racism and discrimination in their own industries to determine how to do better by employees and the communities they serve. Most major Canadian banks have committed to programs aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion within their ranks. In July 2020, over 300 Canadian companies, including both public and private sector, major banks, insurance companies, law firms, government, and the largest asset managers and institutional investors signed the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO Pledge “committed to increasing Black corporate representation through various goals.” Among others, these goals include ensuring that, at a minimum, by 2025, 3.5% of executive and board roles based in Canada are held by Black leaders.
More and more often Institutional and Fortune 500 industry players are including questions in their Requests for Proposals and in their calls for Presentations that ask potential service providers to detail their diversity commitments. I am proud to say that Colliers is responding with action through its North American Diversity & Inclusion Program, which includes championing inclusive recruitment processes, adhering to meaningful and intentional community outreach such as pledging to the BlackNorth Initiative, and instilling a culture where everyone feels respected and comfortable bringing their authentic selves to do their best work every day.
While the embrace of diversity is undoubtedly the right thing to do, companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics. Research shows that there is a clear business case for diversity in the workplace: increased profitability and creativity, stronger governance and better problem-solving abilities. Employees with diverse backgrounds bring to bear their own perspectives, ideas and experiences, helping to create organizations that are resilient and effective, and which outperform organisations that do not invest in diversity.
It’s time to turn up the volume on change. This change needs to happen at all levels within our industry, Our CRE workforce should reflect the demographics of the world in which we operate. Researchers project that by 2045, the United States will be less than 50% Caucasian. In order for CRE firms to grow, we must serve the needs of every client, particularly those from diverse communities.
So how do we do this? What does it take for visible minorities to feel not just welcome, but included, and how do we lead our industry into the future? Diversity advocate Vera Myers described diversity as “being invited to the dance” and inclusion as “actually being asked to dance”. We know the commercial real estate industry has not traditionally been at the forefront of diversity and inclusiveness, and barriers often include conscious and unconscious bias, a lack of mentorship, and the aspiration gap.  Acknowledging these barriers, creating programs to address them, and holding our leaders accountable is the only way to create real, substantive change within our industry.
- Be inclusive, not just diverse – organizations must move past diversity quotas. We must foster development and find ways to provide an environment where varied experiences and perspectives are valued.
- Walk the talk - to deliver inclusive growth, leaders must commit and cascade their strategies, so that they are understood and applied at every level of management. Talk about the resources, the goals, the outcomes, the metrics and how to measure success in the realm of diversity and inclusion. If it’s not measured, it’s not going to happen. Discuss how to recruit, train or educate, and promote visible minorities. Make sure you measure on a quarterly basis, make these key performance indicators.
- Practice active outreach – because of the nature of our industry, it is important to practice active outreach to find unmined diverse talent. For this, shifts are required in the recruitment process – go outside of your traditional networks to reach candidates, to remove unconscious bias and to intentionally diversify our teams.
- Foster equity – more representation of visible minorities in the workplace is one goal, making that representation equitable across the different levels of corporate hierarchy is another. Through inclusive career development programs, mentorship programs and employee resource groups, organizations can provide a structure with the intention of increasing representation in executive and board roles.
- Reach one, teach one – it’s in all of us to do; to be the teacher, mentor, sponsor and champion. It is our collective and individual responsibility to be proponents of change.
My deepest thanks and gratitude to my colleague Arlene Dedier for sharing her story with me for this article. Thank you, Arlene, for leading the paradigm shift, and inspiring, mentoring and championing young black professionals in our industry.
This article was originally published in Espace Magazine.
 Diverse Representation on Boards, August 2020, Diversity Institute, Wendy Cukier
 Per the definition in Quebec’s labor law, Visible Minorities (People of Color, as has become the more appropriate denomination), are persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in color and include Chinese, South Asian, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Southeast Asian, Arab, West Asian, Japanese, Korean, other visible minorities and multiple visible minorities.
 Catalyst studies, https://www.catalyst.org/research/people-of-colour-in-canada/