An exciting new initiative, the Centers for Leadership Excellence (CLE), is poised to transform the opportunities to study real estate at universities serving large numbers of diverse, talented business students, and to connect those students with rewarding employment in the real estate industry. PREA’s Jared Chase spoke with Bill Ferguson, CLE’s founder, and Carrie Nowicki, the organization’s chief operating officer, about its history, progress, and goals for reshaping how gifted young people engage with real estate, academically and career-wise.
The Idea & Story
The concept of the Centers for Leadership Excellence started with an extraordinary gift to Howard University from the Marriott family. The gift was made in memory of Arne Sorenson, the renowned CEO of Marriott whose leadership and innovation inspired so many. This tribute and act of generosity made possible the Marriott-Sorenson Center for Hospitality Leadership.
President, Ferguson Family Foundation (Centers for Leadership Excellence)
Chairman, Ferguson Partners
Through this organization, Howard students explore career paths in hospitality management and strategic direction. It starts with rigorous academic training, as the students take 7-10 courses between their junior and senior years toward fulfillment of a minor in hospitality. The program then connects students with employment opportunities, summer jobs for underclassmen and full-time careers for graduating seniors, leveraging Marriott’s relationships with leading brands, operators, and owners.
Having been involved in fundraising for the Marriott-Sorenson Center and the pro bono search for its executive director, Ferguson saw an opportunity to bring its vision and promise to the real estate industry, the world’s largest. He envisioned how impactful it could be to introduce a real estate minor at colleges serving talented students from underrepresented backgrounds. The program could be scaled over time to as many as 60 colleges and universities, multiplying its effect over a wide range of campuses, faculty, and student populations.
The beneficiaries will be legion, as students connect with fulfilling, meaningful careers and the industry gains from their talents and perspectives. As Ferguson observed, research demonstrates the outperformance of organizations with diverse teams. The associated successes will redound to the benefit of the organizations themselves as well as to their partners and investors.
Why the “Centers,” Plural?
The pluralization of the Centers is intentional, as each college will house its own Center for Leadership Excellence. The idea is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem at each institution. That will require dedicated faculty and curricula.
Reflecting the diversity of participating colleges and breadth of interests and objectives among students and faculty, the curricula will vary somewhat from campus to campus, with certain components that all will share. Three in particular will be found program-wide: (1) one related to the operating side of the business, especially with respect to senior housing and hospitality; (2) another involving the investing aspects of the real estate industry; and (3) a third focusing on development. This blending of curricular continuity with latitude for flexibility to best suit students’ strengths and interests will allow them to explore multiple career paths and find those that align most strongly.
Training in the three areas noted above will position students well for the jobs with which they will be connected, across 12 industry sectors, upon completion of their studies. With the expected engagement of 50 of the largest, most influential companies in each of these sectors, the number of firms benefiting from recruitment will be sizable. Engagement will continue beyond training and initial employment, as an active alumni group will invigorate career development over the long term.
Chief Operating Officer
Centers for Leadership Excellence
The Centers for Leadership Excellence initiative has already made impressive strides, as Nowicki recounted in detail. A dedicated team is in place to steward the organization’s growth. In the fall of 2022, CLE began formalizing many of its university relationships, strengthening engagement with campus partners and outreach to highly qualified students. Fellowships for the current year have already been offered, and CLE expects to have 25 Ferguson Fellows in the first cohort.
The organization has also formed a partnership with SEO Career, which will help CLE reach a large population of high-achieving students and continue developing a high-quality training program. SEO is known for noteworthy achievements over many decades in connecting talented students with educational and career opportunities in finance, law, and other professions. SEO is a key partner of the PREA Foundation, which shares CLE’s vision of a diverse and inclusive real estate industry and has reached inspiring milestones in pursuit of that vision since its founding in 2017.
A Major Impact
Over the long term, CLE intends to reshape educational and career opportunities in real estate for students from underrepresented backgrounds. This will involve forming a large number of university partnerships, enough to create a national footprint. Quantitatively, the vision is for 60 collegiate partners, with 30 to 40 students at each college, forming a robust talent pipeline. As CLE’s geographic and participatory contours expand from coast to coast, a priority is to maintain the high quality of instruction and professional placements that define the program.
CLE’s vision is also about opening doors and expanding access. This objective means offering tuition assistance of up to $15,000 per student (a significant share of the average $22,000 in tuition charged at participating colleges). It also means paying a fee to SEO to provide mentoring services to participants. These financial and advisory supports will help keep unexpected events and challenges from derailing students’ educational and career plans. Additionally, fundraising will cover the costs associated with internships so that a fee will not be charged to participating companies. Ferguson noted that, in contributing toward these pathways to access, industry firms can affirm their abiding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Programmatically, the vision involves building significant infrastructure in the way of dedicated real estate faculty and curricula, which are essential components to offering an academically rigorous real estate minor. The plan is to raise funds to endow real estate professorships ($1 million to $4 million per position) at each of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The esteemed academics who fill these endowed positions will provide leadership and oversight of the CLEs from a faculty perspective. With a number of prospective donors keenly interested in funding professorship endowments and conversations ongoing with 15 HBCUs, this aspect of CLE’s vision is proceeding apace.
A Focus on Leadership
Ferguson spoke last year with PREA about his latest book, The Test is Now Upon Us - Leadership Excellence Must Guide Us Through Crisis, in which he profiles real estate industry leaders and examines the traits that underpin their success. Asked which of those traits he would most like to see embedded in the learning experiences of CLE participants, Ferguson identified humility, integrity, and generosity. Leaders across industries tend to score high on those characteristics, to an extent that they could be thought of as constituting the DNA of effective leadership.
Those traits also form the backbone of CLE’s self-sustaining model. The expectation is that students who participate will become future real estate leaders, in the boardroom and at the C-suite level. From those select positions, they will be well-situated to make a difference and effectuate change. Many will make their mark on the organizations they lead and the industry at large. Many will return to the campuses where they got their start to encourage the next generation of promising young people to consider careers in real estate. Those gifts of time and talent will establish virtuous cycles of immeasurable influence and ever-building momentum.
Senior Staff Writer and Editor
PREA thanks Bill Ferguson and Carrie Nowicki for speaking with us and sharing their insights. DEI is an important area of industry discussion, study, and investment. The dedicated leaders at PREA and the PREA Foundation who seek to accelerate DEI efforts within institutional real estate welcome the vital contributions of partners and peer institutions including the Centers for Leadership Excellence, the Ferguson Charitable Foundation, and SEO.