New real estate industry-led program introduces students of color to career opportunities

Two-week course gives high schoolers chance to learn about career opportunities, meet industry professionals


A new program brought to Milwaukee by NAIOP Wisconsin, Marquette University and other industry leaders aims to demonstrate to high school students of color the abundance of career opportunities in real estate.

The new Real Estate Exchange, or REEX, summer program commenced on Monday and will conclude on Friday, July 23. Students will learn what it takes to design, build, manage, own and sell commercial real estate.

“The reality is the commercial real estate industry, like every other industry, has a talent deficiency in our pipeline,” Jim Villa, president and chief executive of NAIOP Wisconsin, said. “We need to be building the pipeline of talent for the future of this industry, and as we do that, it makes perfectly logical sense that we would diversify.”

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Villa conceded that the industry has struggled to diversify its workforce. The REEX program is one way industry leaders are trying to correct that.

“This is an opportunity to open up the commercial real estate industry, the many benefits to the profession, the wealth building and the community building to (young adults)” who the industry hasn’t directly targeted, Villa said.

It’s modeled after a national program but has a local flavor. In certain lessons, students will hear from national universities such as Howard and Harvard. But the program has recruited volunteers from more than 30 local industry professionals.

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To name just a few, the volunteer roster includes Heather Turner Loth of Eppstein Uhen Architects, James Phelps of JCP Construction, Jason Korb of Korb + Associates, Milwaukee commissioner of development Lafayette Crump, Mike Mooney of MLG Capital, Phil Aiello of Mandel Group and Ivan Gamboa of Tri City National Bank.

About 20 high school juniors and seniors are participating in the program. An estimated 150 students are participating nationwide, said Mike Riopel, assistant general counsel of real estate investments at Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual.

Riopel said the goal is to make the program an annual occurrence. This year it is being run virtually, but it could be an in-person program next year.

“Drawing from my own experience, my dad was in real estate, I was well aware this was a career you could do,” Riopel said. “I came to Marquette, and had no intention of majoring in real estate, but discovered the real estate program here. It really changed the way I looked at my career. That’s the opportunity we’re trying to create for high schoolers, is to have that epiphany earlier.”

The ultimate objective at the national level is to expose 1,500 students to careers in commercial real estate by 2023.

Included in the curriculum is a capstone project, meant to give students an idea of what it’s like to redevelop a building. They will all draft a plan for repurposing the historic Legacy Bank building at 2102 W. Fond du Lac Ave. on Milwaukee’s north side.

Self-Help Federal Credit Union acquired the building during its merger with Seaway Bank & Trust, but vacated it after building a new branch at 5630 W. Fond du Lac Ave. The credit union is exploring redevelopment opportunities for the building.

Students are also gaining important networking opportunities, said Mark Theine, executive vice president of asset management at Milwaukee-based Physicians Realty Trust.

“Real estate is so much about access to information, and execution on that information to source a deal, get a deal (or) close a deal,” Theine said. “So, the network is just immensely important in real estate. And what a great opportunity for high school students, before they’re even in college, to start developing a network in the business community.”

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