Celebrating Differences

Magazine ,

By Diane Sears

Jessica Romero saw an email blast in her inbox inviting people to apply for a diversity leadership program. She found the invitation interesting, but she wasn’t sure she was exceptional enough to be selected. “I clicked it and opened it, and then I continued about my day and my life,” she said. “And then another follow-up email came and I flagged it.”

Responding to that second email turned out to be a stroke of luck, said the Miami-based strategic marketing manager for RangeWater Real Estate. She became one of only 15 people nationwide, and two in Florida, to be accepted into the new program from the National Apartment Association to help minority professionals grow in their careers and make a difference in the multifamily housing industry.

Romero worked for Valet Living at the time, and she sought the advice of her supervisor, Tanya Puckett. “She told me, ‘I think it's an amazing opportunity. Throw your name out there. What's the worst that can happen? They say no this year, and you can apply again next year if you're still interested.’”

The yearlong program was designed to help participants gain understanding and comfort about their own cultural backgrounds. They learn how unconscious bias can affect a person’s view of others and interactions with them.

“We discussed how at times we all are unconsciously biased,” said Samantha Harvey, the other Florida participant, who works as a property manager with JMG Realty in Jacksonville. “When you're a minority, or you're just different in any aspect, it’s hard to get ahead in corporate America or your job or career. I believe they designed this program to show that people who are diverse or different, we are all equal. The color of my skin, or my gender, or how I identify is not going to be my downfall and is not going to be the reason why I can't be where someone else is, like in the C-suite. It helps us build our confidence.”

Harvey, who is African American, said it was especially rewarding to attend the Florida Apartment Association conference in October and see minority women speakers as part of the program.

“When you're looking at someone who looks like you, and you're seeing the level of success that person has achieved, it gives you a different sense of your opportunity for growth,” Harvey said. “You start to think, ‘Maybe I can go there, too.

“We’ve been told for so long that we're not going to go there, that we’re going to be sitting behind a desk as a leasing agent for another seven or eight years, and it's not true,” Harvey said. “There's so much talent and opportunity out there, and as long as we advocate for minorities and people who are different, I feel like in the future the talent is just going to be unimaginable. And it's not going to matter whether you're black, white or indifferent. This class has taught me a lot of things about not being biased. And just knowing that anybody can go anywhere if they set their minds to it.”

Florida Initiatives

The multifamily industry in Florida might actually be ahead of the curve when it comes to awareness and interest in DEI issues, according to a 2020 survey on diversity and inclusion in the multifamily housing industry. Conducted by multifamily employee feedback system Swift Bunny, the survey polled more than 2,100 apartment industry employees and 14 management companies.

The Southeast region — which includes Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — scored the highest of almost every region in both the perceived importance and implementation of workplace DEI efforts in all five categories: commitment to diversity, respect of differences, equal treatment, inclusive environment, and understanding.

The statement that earned both the highest level of importance and the highest level of agreement was: “My supervisor creates an inclusive work environment.” On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest or most favorable, the Southeast scored 4.60 in importance and 4.68 in agreement. The scores were comparable to those of several other regions.

On the other hand, the statement that most showed where the industry needs work was: “Employees are treated equally.” The overall score in importance was 4.61, but the score showing whether employees agree this is being addressed was 3.92, the lowest in the survey. By contrast, the Southeast scored 4.33 for importance and 4.69 for agreement, higher than any other region except the West, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona

“This perception underscores the critical importance of addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry,” the report read. “With more than 14% disagreeing with this statement and an additional 18% unwilling to agree or disagree, only two-thirds of respondents indicated any level of agreement.”

In another good sign for Florida, in September the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando received one of only three DEI grants awarded nationwide by NAA. The $10,000 grant will be used to partner with the Peace & Justice Institute at Valencia College to develop the AAGO DEI Leadership Academy. Plans call for the academy, which launches in early 2022, to be offered to AAGO members at no cost and facilitated by pre-eminent experts in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I'm very excited about that, and we're looking for it to be an enduring program, using the initial funds to launch it,” said Chip Tatum, AAGO’s CEO since 2012, who has been tapped to take on the highest role at FAA as executive vice president starting in January 2022.

AAGO also plans to use the funds to commission a research firm to conduct a survey of the membership in an effort to more thoroughly understand the diverse backgrounds of Central Florida’s multifamily workforce. The goal is to identify where AAGO can provide resources to help underrepresented constituencies within the industry and the association.  

“We're going to try to incorporate DEI into a lot of our leadership-oriented elements like board orientation and our leadership development program,” Tatum said.

AAGO has held a series of webinars called Industry Influencers throughout 2021 emphasizing the experiences of underrepresented groups. The first was on Black leaders in February, celebrating Black History Month. “It was called Cultivating the Next Generation of Black Leaders. It was moderated by a former state representative speaking with several of our influential African American leaders, and we livestreamed it. They had some real talk about barriers and the ways they had to govern themselves differently than someone who is Caucasian.”

Another took place in March celebrating women leaders for Women’s History Month. “We featured some of our early women leaders within the association, and they talked about how much different the industry was back then. Everyone treated them like secretaries, and it was about, ‘Why aren’t you at home raising babies?’”

AAGO marked Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs mid-September to mid-October, with a panel of Hispanic leaders, including one whose supervisor had told him to quit speaking Spanish to customers. “Our whole idea behind this is that when people hear other people’s stories, it’s a lot harder to discount the idea that they have adversity that maybe you don’t,” said Tatum, who is white. “It’s been compelling for me. When I hear these stories, I think, ‘My path has been a lot easier.’”


Moving the Needle

As a Black woman, Harvey has found it difficult to attain one of her goals: getting on the board of directors at her local apartment association. Some of the female leadership has started encouraging her to keep volunteering and work her way up the ranks. 

“They'll keep asking me to interview for the board, and I'll keep interviewing for the board until I'm on that board of directors, because we need that diversity,” Harvey said. “We have to have it in order for the younger generation to see that it’s a different world. We can all get along, we're all human. We're all the same. We're just different colors, different heights, different genders, different ages. Talent doesn't come in color, talent doesn't come in nationality, sex, any of that. Talent comes in all kinds of people, and we just need to find those leaders who want all types of talent.”

One of the issues in the multifamily industry is that people at the entry level, and even up through junior management, often don’t know about educational and promotional opportunities that exist, Harvey said.

“The email comes to the property manager and the property manager doesn't share it with the staff. So if it's not shared with you, and if you don't have the knowledge, then of course you can't make the decision whether to participate or not,” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out that more of our higher-level supervisors need to start speaking with their staff and letting them know that ‘Hey, there's a whole new world out there of networking where you can go, and the sky's the limit.’ But some people are sitting behind a desk, and they have no idea. I used to be one of those people.”

Before the NAA program, Romero from RangeWater Management experienced self-doubt when she tried to picture herself getting involved in industry association leadership.

“There was one instance that resonated with me,” she said. “An event I found online was talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, but it was not a diverse panel. I saw the flyer, and I briefly logged in and I was shocked. This group of people were probably very well intentioned, but they didn't even bother to look to the left or the right or think about the visuals. They could have called on a regional person who is Black or a person of color — that would have been a great person to add to the panel.”

Romero, who is of Colombian descent, said it was interesting in the NAA program to hear the perspectives of other people.

“Even myself being a person of color, being a woman, being a minority, I know my perspective and I'm super empathetic,” she said. “I will even at times question others like teammates and say, ‘Let's put ourselves in that person's shoes.’ But it was hearing other cohort members talk about their experiences that made me say ‘Wow.’ It was eye-opening. I've never been a Black woman and have never had that happen to me.”

Romero said she has seen changes in the industry since she first started, which she finds encouraging.

“I see the needle moving a bit,” Romero said. “I think of where I worked at Valet Living and the steps they were taking with surveys and a diversity council. I know other companies that have their own DEI programs or are starting to open positions in DEI. AAGO getting that grant from NAA will be great for Central Florida. I definitely want to see this change continue. There would be nothing worse than to think of this as a fad. That would be painful.”

Core Values

At Royal American Management, a robust DEI program is in its second year. It started with an anonymous survey of the company’s 700-plus employees to see where the company stands in its efforts to provide an inclusive work environment. The results were mostly positive, said Lori Agudo, the company’s director of training and talent development, and Sonya Knight, the resident services director, who heads up the 14-member DEI team.

“One of the things I felt really good about was there were not a lot of negative comments related to inclusion or discrimination,” Knight said. “Probably the biggest thing the survey showed us is that we need to communicate clearly with the staff so that everyone understands the company’s position regarding fairness, inclusivity and diversity. The survey is a great starting point to understand how staff members feel and to open paths of communication.”

The company has initiated a DEI committee, a dedicated email address for DEI concerns, a DEI website and a newsletter to share cultural observances and diversity stories. Another diversity initiative Royal American is proud of is a new four-phase program called RAMP, short for Rising Apartment Management Professionals. The program starts with online learning and transitions to a job shadow and paid internship program, and it winds up with management training. One of the goals is to recruit residents from Royal American communities to consider joining the profession.

“With each phase, they get a certificate of completion to celebrate,” Agudo said. “At the end, they’ll have a transcript for our learning management system that they're able to keep and take with them. It's a resume builder that they've done all this coursework.”

The company started the program in the U.S. Virgin Islands at its community in St. Thomas. “The participants are extremely appreciative because there isn't another management company they're aware of that's doing anything like this,” Agudo said. “We are fully sponsoring this at no cost to them, and we’re making it flexible around their schedules.”

Once the seven people complete the pilot program, Royal American will roll it out in the continental U.S., Agudo said. The company also plans to add a fifth phase that will sponsor participants to obtain their Certified Apartment Manager (CAM) credential after they have passed certain milestones, including working as a property manager for a minimum of 12 months.

Agudo explained why she is so passionate about DEI initiatives and promoting from within: “I have gotten to where I am in my profession because others have opened doors for me. Now that I've been a volunteer for some years and I'm heading up our training department within Royal American, that puts me in a unique space to be able to open doors for others. For me, on a personal level, it’s about making sure everybody has a seat at the table.”

Diversity is important, but inclusion is key, Agudo said. People need to feel their differences are not just tolerated but accepted and embraced. “If we were all the same, we wouldn't be successful as an organization,” she said. “It takes us having different vantage points from different walks of life to really have constructive conversations and dialogue and to be successful as organization. It takes a diverse group of people and different minds, and not all of us thinking alike.”

Like Agudo, Knight is passionate about giving back. She assists Royal American properties with developing tenant programs, and in many of those communities the people are from underserved populations.

She learned to appreciate DEI thinking early in her career when she was working in Panama City, where the company is headquartered. Knight, who is Black, volunteered for four years with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where Royal American’s founder was a member. “It was inspiring to see businesses and other races join the NAACP in the fight for equality,” she said.

“Something else I would say for me that really got me involved is that I’m a minority. I’m African American. I’m a woman. I’m an older person at age 56. I am in a biracial marriage, and I have biracial children. I have a neurodiverse teenage son.

“You can be personally involved in diversity and inclusion without even realizing it,” Knight said. “As a parent, when I’m working with the school system to champion for my son for him to be included like the rest of the class as a special needs kid, I’m actually doing DEI work. So when this opportunity came to me to chair this committee, I felt like it was an easy transition, that it was something I felt strongly about because it was already a part of my life.”

Agudo applauds Knight and others on the Royal American committee, who started their assignment by sharing their own personal stories with coworkers who had never heard them.

“Our stories have power, and those stories need to be shared, and having a committee that focuses on DEI gives everybody a space to tell those stories and to share those experiences and what's important to them,” Agudo said. “For me, that's important. At some organizations, like ours, this has always been part of our DNA. Other organizations are just at the beginning phases of having DEI initiatives. You have to start somewhere. At least this is on the forefront for organizations now, and you see when people are seeking employment that DEI has become important to them. They want to work for an organization that is diverse and will offer opportunity. Diversity is viewed as a strength.

“We do have a lot of work left to do, and this is something we will have to continue working on for many years,” Agudo said. “This is not something that can fall off your radar. This is something that has to be part of an organization’s core values. So while I think we've made some strides, I do think there's always going to be work to be done.”


Promoting and Recruiting

The key is to continue recruiting and promoting people of diverse backgrounds, said Sheena Griffin, a business manager for Lincoln Property Company in Daytona Beach. She started in the multifamily industry for 15 years ago as a leasing agent in student housing.

“Just to see other students my age, 18 or 19 years old, touring apartments, it seemed like an amazing job,” she said. “I moved off campus my second year of college, and it was a great job being able to work with other college students and lease apartments. It seemed so professional.

“But from the time that I initially started out, I didn’t see other people in the industry who looked like me. It never had an impact on my performance, and it never really bothered me, but I noticed. I would go to company events or conferences, and there were many times when I was the only African American person in the room or there were just a few of us.”

This year, Griffin became one of seven people nationwide, and the only one in Florida, to receive the Alexandra Jackiw Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship awarded through NAA to help people progress along their career paths. Jackiw, a past chair of NAA, is also a past president of the NAA Education Institute and is a lifelong learner and industry educator.

Griffin is using the scholarship to get her Certified Apartment Portfolio Supervisor certification. “Eventually I want to move into a regional role,” she said. “I think inclusion starts with promoting from within companies, and also recruiting plays a role. Where are companies going when they want to recruit people?”

It makes a difference when people have support from within their organization, Romero from RangeWater said. Her previous supervisor at Valet Living had supported her passion for continuing education, encouraging her to block time off her calendar for it.

But not all people have embraced DEI initiatives, she said. Her project in the NAA leadership program involved a survey sent out to industry employees to gauge their feelings about diversity, equity and inclusion, and some of the responses were what she called “mean.”

“I don't know what's going on in that person's personal life to where they feel attacked or victimized by our simple four- or five-question survey,” she said. “We're not asking to take money away from anyone else. I think of myself and the statistics on what Latina women are paid versus everyone else, and we are way down there on that spectrum. I just want to do better for whatever other little Jessicas out there are graduating from high school and about to get started in leasing.

“You have to you have to open your eyes to this because otherwise you can't get better. If you're living under a rock thinking, ‘I'm not racist. I never think that way,’ just peel it all away and you realize there’s work that has to get done. I really hope that more of us do it.”