Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Making The Industry a Better Place

by Katie Sloan

While the global population began its battle with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the U.S. continued its battle against another adversary — systemic racism and discrimination. A series of tragic deaths over the course of the year sparked discourse on racial equality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, causing many across the nation — from the workplace to their homes — to take a pause to confront the issues of racism and inequality, while evaluating their inherent biases. 

Many of the leading companies in the student housing sector have launched diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leadership councils and task forces in hopes of creating a more inclusive workforce and residences for their employees and students over the course of the next few years. American Campus Communities (ACC) and Cardinal Group launched DEI task forces in 2020. For ACC, this group includes members of the company from a range of departmental and position levels to ensure comprehensive representation.

“As an actionable next step, ACC is committed to board refreshment and this has resulted in a 40 percent diverse board with an average independent director tenure of only 6.6 years,” says Lonnie Ledbetter, executive vice president and chief purpose and inclusion officer with the Austin, Texas-based company. “Our nominating and governance committee not only considers gender, age, race and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of thought, background and experience. Currently, 49 percent of our employees are female with 51 percent of female employees who are minorities.”

The Scion Group has also created a team committed to working on initiatives across several departments to advance diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts. Additionally, the company has engaged an external advisor, Ethos Consulting, to conduct a climate survey and to suggest long-term objectives and a tailored strategic plan to help the company prioritize actionable items over the next several months.

“This assessment is nearly complete,” says Chelsea Metivier, associate vice president of the Chicago-based firm. “In the meantime, we have continued internal initiatives such as a campaign to increase self-reported data and an internship program with Genesys Works.”

At PeakMade Real Estate, the company has focused on providing developmental and growth opportunities to all leaders and associates, including coaching with a DEI coach for the executive team, which is being expanded to directors and regional managers this year.

“This expanded coaching was made possible by receiving the Innovation in Diversity & Inclusion Grant from the National Apartment Association (NAA) in 2021,” says Jennifer Hill, the Atlanta-based company’s chief people officer and general counsel. “It was important for us to create a baseline with our leaders and ensure that everyone understands and embraces the concepts that we are learning and/or focusing on as an organization.”

PeakMade also offers a DEI learning and development module, ‘Grow Space,’ which provides associates with a platform to research topics of interest or interact and engage with curated topics that are emailed out every two weeks. “We encourage our leaders to discuss these topics within their teams to allow open dialogue and shared experiences,” says Hill. 

PeakMade also has fostered ‘Project Belong,’ a multi-year DEI project that will incorporate changes into processes, programs and communication. Through this effort, PeakMade hopes to ensure inclusivity and a space for all associates, customers, partners and stakeholders. The first phase of the project focuses on gender identity acknowledgment, education and resources, according to Hill.

Promoting DEI On-Site

While promoting diversity on the executive level is important, equally so is diverse representation at the site level. In its efforts to promote a more diverse team, PeakMade works first with its hiring managers, setting the expectation that the company wants to hire associates that reflect the diversity of the student housing customer base. 

“We have stressed the importance of diversity in hiring and promotions to achieving property goals, creating stronger teams and ensuring that we continue to attract associates who want to work for a company that is intentional about DEI,” says Hill.  

The company also regularly communicates its expectations throughout the recruiting process. “Our industry, owners and boards of directors should continue to challenge a lack of diversity in company leadership and underrepresented areas of the industry, and go beyond that to require change,” continues Hill.

For Sylvester Brandon, vice president of operations with Cardinal Group, the first step in this process is understanding that as student housing practitioners, the industry has an important call to action to make a profound impact on how future generations and leaders perceive what is possible in the workplace no matter color, race, gender, sexual orientation or beliefs

“We have to embrace that newer generatons have a higher social justice consciousness and expectations as it relates to companies they choose to work for; this will continue to have a major impact on retaining and recruiting top talent,” he says. “Standards should be put in place to ensure diverse candidate pools are required at the property, regional, director, vice president and C-suite levels.”

Cardinal Group extends this reach to working with minority-owned businesses for vendors. “We have integrated DEI factors into our RFPs for all major vendor agreements at headquarters, which ensures we are considering minority, women-owned and veteran-owned and operated businesses when selecting strategic partnerships,” says Brandon. 

PeakMade also has a council committed to promoting and supporting the company vision for a diverse and inclusive community, including vendors, contractors and other stakeholders. “Through our diversity and inclusion council, ‘Peak Link,’ the company is focused on evolving business practices to expand economic inclusion by seeking partnerships with minority-owned companies and those with diverse leadership,” says Hill. 

“We are requesting information to ensure that our vendor partners have a platform that aligns with our DEI vision,” she continues. “We are evaluating our written operating standards to ensure that this process is followed for new and current vendor relationships. As we enter new markets, we are broadening our reach by identifying and supporting minority owned businesses.”

At Scion, this effort includes looking to former and current residents as a pipeline for employees. “We want our employee teams to reflect the diversity of our residents,” says Metivier. “We believe companies should support employee development through mentoring opportunities and encouraging internal advancement and promotion.” 

“In addition, we all have a unique opportunity given our customers — we can respond to students’ thirst for work experience by providing internships and apprenticeships in multiple departments and disciplines,” she continues. “Providing these opportunities is also a great way to partner with the higher education institutions we serve while ultimately increasing our own talent.”

Sustaining Momentum

While the commitment to building a better DEI program is laudible, keeping up the momentum of change is integral for any company looking to make a real impact. At ACC, the company believes that diversity and inclusion initiatives will be best driven by a top-down commitment from leadership and a company culture dedicated to doing the right thing, says Ledbetter.

“As we embed these initiatives in our culture, we have been working with consultants to integrate diversity and inclusion into existing programs and evaluating new opportunities for impact,” she continues. “We have had third-party groups review the ACC program foundation including vision, goals, statement and company demographic breakdown. We also had an outside consultant conduct ‘Unconscious Bias/Business Training’ for ACC management employees. We are continuing that relationship by collaborating to develop DEI training curriculum for employees and supervisors.”

For Brandon of Cardinal Group, sustaining momentum requires consistent team member engagement at all levels of the company. “Currently, our DEI council members work in every vertical of the company and serve a 12- to 18-month term with the option to renew for an additional term,” he says.  

Cardinal Group’s council also sponsors business resource groups (BRG). “BRG is an internal network of people that may face unique challenges and is designed to create connection, professional growth and an opportunity to discuss important issues,” says Brandon. “Each BRG has a representative on the council and we have seen a very high participation rate.”

PeakMade has a multi-pronged approach to ensuring momentum is sustained with its DEI efforts. “We are making sure that we take a close look at each individual we interact with — whether it be a client, vendor, resident or employee,” says Hill. “From the resident perspective, we have set milestones within our ‘Project Belong’ to ensure communities continue to embrace the diversity we have in our customer base. Our first step was looking at broadening the binary gender selections on applications and roommate matching to ensure that we are allowing our residents to self-identify; and educating our teams on its importance.” 

As part of ‘Project Belong,’ the company is also looking for opportunities to improve its internal infrastructure and associate experience through re-evaluating current procedures and implementing new policies that expand on its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “The understanding of belonging has always been a part of Peak culture, and so we want to play an active role in our industry to lead the charge on DEI initiatives,” Hill says.

A Better Future

When looking towards the future, the general consensus is that as an industry, student housing is succeeding in its DEI efforts. But there is still work to be done. “As a member of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trust’s (NAREIT) ‘Social Responsibility Council,’ and having worked in the industry for more than two decades, I’d say the industry is prioritizing DEI now more than ever,” says Ledbetter. “While there’s always more we can and will do, it’s been refreshing to see how diversity and inclusion have been prioritized in earnest over the past couple of years.”

”We’re seeing it addressed at industry conferences and there’s an openness and collaboration among peers to share insights and best practices,” she continues. “In our industry, the greatest areas for diversity opportunities are in our hiring practices. We want to ensure we have a diverse pool of candidates that can be promoted to leadership positions. We also want to promote diversity in our vendor supply chain strategy and in our support of our university partners.”

Metivier of Scion hopes companies in the sector will continue to work toward more inclusive and genuinely diverse workplaces. “We will all likely be pushed forward by the newest generation of employees,” she says. “Achieving these goals will require intentionality — increased mentoring programs, employee resource groups, consideration of benefits and career paths that clearly outline steps to advancement.”

Five years from now, Brandon of Cardinal Group would love to see student housing firms and the real estate industry grow diversity substantially in every discipline while leaning into the fears, biases, and insecurities that prevent the industry from making meaningful advancements in ensuring all professionals can bring their true self to work every day.

Hill of PeakMade would also like to see the industry at large invest fully in DEI efforts. “This includes setting goals and working to achieve them – whether it be increased diversity in board rooms to executive leadership teams,” she says. “There are areas of real estate that are lacking in diversity, so firms should support our industry efforts to expand connections with students and young professionals to grow the knowledge and opportunity around those areas.”

This commitment should extend beyond diversity to equity and inclusion, continues Hill, including evaluating pay and promotion models to ensure equity in pay; and working to ensure that the workplace is a space where everyone has a sense of belonging and all voices are heard. “The investment in DEI should be a cornerstone of every student housing firm’s strategy and business model,” she says. “And the expectation for respectful and equitable workplaces should also extend to all of our vendor partners.”

Katie Sloan

This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here

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