CREF Careers: Attracting a New Generation to Real Estate Finance

Want to attract more people to a growing industry? Grab their attention when they’re young.

“I’m really thankful I went to a CREF Careers event,” said JLL Debt Placement Analyst Alethia Halamandaris. “I’m glad I took the time on a Wednesday night to attend. One day I did not have a job, then I spent three hours at this event and now I have a career.”

CREF Careers Georgia State University

To attract more–and more diverse–people to a career in real estate finance, in 2014 the Mortgage Bankers Association launched the CREF Careers initiative []. Real estate finance firms Berkadia, CBRE, Greystone, HFF/JLL, KeyBank Real Estate Capital, M&T Realty Capital Corp., Newmark Knight Frank Capital, NorthMarq, PGIM Real Estate Finance and Walker & Dunlop currently sponsor the program.

In the fall of her junior year at the University of Southern California, Halamandaris met JLL Senior Managing Director and Los Angeles Office Co-Head of Debt & Structured Finance Bill Fishel at a CREF Careers event. They spoke for 45 minutes and he invited her to come to the office to meet the team. She joined HFF/JLL when she graduated from USC.

Halamandaris noted she learned about the CREF Careers program from her USC college counselor.

“We want to attract more people to the $3.5 trillion commercial real estate finance industry,” said MBA Commercial Real Estate Research Director Reggie Booker. “With low interest rates, it has grown tremendously over the last few years. It’s actually up more than $75 billion in one quarter. So there is a lot of opportunity in commercial real estate finance today.”

Booker said CREF Careers began in 2014 when the MBA Human Resources Roundtable discussed the best way to attract more people to the growing CRE finance industry. The HR Roundtable participants decided the best approach would be an effort to educate soon-to-graduate college students about the many benefits of a real estate finance career.

“It definitely has grown over the last several years,” said Newmark Knight Frank Capital Senior Managing Director and Head of Human Resources for Multifamily Capital Markets Leslie Branson. “It started with an event at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C. in 2014. Since then it has grown to other schools.”

CREF Careers Georgetown University

Branson noted MBA produced a video in 2017 that targets college students and recent graduates. “We worked with a group to identify different scenarios we could showcase for different students, whether they were economics, pre-law, pre-med, whatever major you can name, to show students they can come in and learn on the job, because the skills are transferable and it’s pretty lucrative.”

Maria Sather, Senior Recruiting Partner with NorthMarq, has also been part of the CREF Careers initiative since the beginning, participating in the 2014 MBA HR Roundtable that conceived the idea. “We were looking to increase interest in our industry and get a new generation interested in real estate,” she said. “That was a big piece of how it started.”

Last year MBA held CREF Careers forums in Cambridge, Mass., Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles as well as two “affinity group” conferences: Prospanica, the association of Hispanic professionals, in Orlando, Fla. and the National Black MBA Conference in Houston.

“The most important thing is that people from all walks of life are welcome to be a part of this industry,” Branson noted.

Booker said he sees CREF Careers as both an educational initiative and a diversity initiative. “These events let students know about this industry and the numerous different employers in it,” he said. “And that they are hiring.”

Kaitlin Bressler, Senior Recruiter with KeyBank in Cleveland, recruits for KeyBank’s intern program and full-time analyst program, which is the bank’s entry-level program focused on real estate capital. “I definitely think there is a strong caliber of student coming to us through these events,” she said. “There is a pretty strong group of students coming to these events that are passionate about the industry. That makes them stand out. Our panelists that participate call the students knowledgeable and passionate and say they bring lots of diversity and wide-ranging interests, so it’s a well-rounded group of students.”

Lee Ann Ojala, Senior Human Resources Business Partner with JLL, oversees JLL’s recruiting team. “We always find good candidates to send to our local offices at CREF Careers events,” she said. “If the career event is in California, we’ll send resumes to all our California offices, if it’s in Atlanta we’ll send resumes to Atlanta-area offices. It runs like a well-oiled machine at this point.”

Ojala noted significant “word of mouth” marketing is boosting CREF Careers forum attendance. “At an event at UCLA recently, there were people coming in from other nearby schools because they wanted to meet people,” she said. “And more and more women are attending as well. There are always women speaking on the panels. So there is more diversity in general, but also we’re seeing more women getting involved.”

One of the students who came to the UCLA event from a nearby university was Monica Milani. She said she was about two months into her time studying for an MBA at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Malibu, Calif. when she discovered there is more to real estate than just developing it, buying it and selling it. She attended the 2017 CREF Careers Forum at UCLA. “That’s how I fell in love with real estate finance,” she said.

Knowing she wanted to focus on real estate finance, she tailored her studies in that direction. “All the job fairs I attended pertained to real estate,” Milani said. “But the CREF Careers event was the most successful event. There were big names there and I was able to connect with people at Walker & Dunlop and maintain a relationship with people in Human Resources and with people in their Los Angeles office.” One year later Walker & Dunlop hired her as an Underwriting Analyst when she graduated; she is now a Senior Analyst.

“I probably owe my career to that night,” Milani said.

Other recent graduates are also responding to the CREF Careers program. M&T Bank Commercial Real Estate Banker Timothy Lewis said Robert Kirosaki’s book Rich Dad, Poor Dad first inspired him to consider a real estate career. “People live in commercial real estate, go to school in it, dine in it. Millions of people have jobs in it. As a concept that helped me,” he said. Lewis became more focused on real estate finance during college and graduate school. He received an MBA from Georgetown University in 2018.

“I went to the CREF Careers conference at Georgetown, then I circled back and participated at an event at Howard University,” Lewis said. Last year he spoke on a panel at the Georgia State University CREF Careers event in Atlanta. “Particularly at the Georgia State event, I was very surprised at the significant amount of diverse students in the room learning about commercial real estate as a career,” he said. “That was different than my prior professional experience and it was refreshing to see people from many backgrounds. Any candidate should be interested [in commercial real estate], but particularly those with a diverse background because their presence would be truly beneficial. Generally speaking, there are not as many diverse professionals in commercial real estate roles, so it’s a field where their experience can bring a lot of value.”

Booker noted the hiring firms work closely together to highlight the sector’s positive attributes at CREF Careers events. “That’s unusual,” he said. “You don’t see Apple and Google, for example, coming together to do a job fair.”

Sather added that even in our present online world there is something important about going to a CREF Careers event at a university campus, meeting people in person and shaking hands rather than doing everything via a computer. “These days, universities are looking for modern ways to connect and hiring managers try to get through as many resumes as they can, but it’s still important to get to know the person behind the computer screen,” she said. “There is a lot to be said for that.”

Jeff Majewski, Executive Managing Director of CBRE Capital Markets’ Debt & Structured Finance group, said his firm has supported CREF Careers events from the beginning. “Before we started this program, I felt there was a certain lack of awareness among college students about a career in real estate finance as opposed to development or investment banking,” he said. “Back then, a student might come to us asking exactly what a career in real estate finance involves. Today, students are much more targeted in our conversations. Now we are hearing more specific goals, like ‘I want to be an analyst,’ or ‘I want to be a producer’.”

Majewski said recruiting conversations are much more meaningful now than they were before CREF Careers. “So, I think we have accomplished what we set out to do, which is raising awareness about the business,” he said. “Also, these events are fun. It’s fun to talk about the greatness of commercial real estate finance.”