A Young Professionals Group Makes Its Mark

Spring 2020 Issue
By: Pamela Westhoff
In its first year, the YPG Leadership Summit featured a panel presentation on “Taking the Leap – Stories from YPG Entrepreneurs,”  with (from left) Kevin Hayes, Pendulum Partners; Bridget Herdman, Herdman Architecture + Design; Joon Choi, Harbor Associates; and moderator Malcolm Johnson, JP Morgan.

NAIOP Southern California reflects on the 15-year anniversary of a successful professional development and leadership program.

During a meeting approximately 15 years ago about recruiting new members to NAIOP Southern California, James Camp, Tom Sherlock, Al Beaudette and Sayres Dudley of the chapter’s membership committee looked around the room and realized they faced a bigger problem — a lack of diversity and youth.

“We were sitting around a table of 40-year-old white guys and there were no young people in the room,” one of them noted at the time.

Sherlock was a guest lecturer at two local universities. He noticed that the real estate students he saw in the classroom came from more diverse backgrounds than the area’s practicing industry professionals. He also knew the difficulty of moving to California and having to build a new peer network.

To answer those concerns, these Southern California real estate leaders created a young professionals group within the NAIOP chapter. They wanted to attract more members and create an educational program with an active networking component. While they accomplished those initial objectives, the program’s evolution has had a positive impact on the chapter and helped change the composition of the Southern California real estate industry at large.

Today, the NAIOP SoCal Young Professionals Group, known as YPG, has more than 500 commercial real estate alumni. It is a diverse group from all sectors of the industry. To underscore its influence, the current NAIOP SoCal Board of Directors includes 14 members who have gone through the YPG program, including three from the inaugural 2005-2006 class.

In-Depth Training and More

At its core, YPG is a professional development and leadership program. Each year, 35 real estate professionals are selected by a group of four to five representatives from the current YPG Recruitment & Selection committee, along with two to three senior-level real estate executives from the chapter board or YPG founders. This wide-ranging 12-month, 70-hour program covers critical components of the real estate industry such as land planning, construction, capital markets, architecture, engineering and more. MBA-level instructors also offer coaching in personal and professional development that focuses on the candidates’ strengths. Additionally, YPG provides extensive relationship-building activities, and leading industry executives guide small seminars.

The founders developed the program from the ground up. Dudley reached out to a real estate council in Dallas that operated a young professionals program to create an initial template. Sherlock and the group wrote a detailed white paper about their plan. Camp convinced the NAIOP SoCal Board of Directors to fund the program. Beaudette presented the opportunity to NAIOP Corporate to garner matching funds to kick off the program’s first year.

Beaudette also knew that a strong leader was needed to anchor the educational program. Wayne Strom, a professor of behavioral science at Pepperdine University who is also an executive coach and organizational-change specialist, led the program with an emphasis on leadership, self-awareness and communication.

Additionally, the team determined that YPG needed a formal application process that emphasizes diversity. Initial interest was strong, with 45 applicants for what became a 35-member class that included seven women.

To understand its evolution, consider that YPG’s application process in 2019 encompassed almost 100 real estate professionals. More women apply every year, and they now typically represent 30% of each incoming class.

A Class of Leaders

Emily Mandrup is a vice president, industrial development with LBA Logistics. She had just four years of experience at a real estate investment firm when she was selected for the first YPG class. Mandrup was looking to transition to land development and construction, and her boss and mentor at the time suggested she apply to the program. She was on the YPG alumni board for almost 10 years, shifted to legislative affairs and is now serving on the chapter’s board of directors. Of the first class, nine members are presidents/founders of their own firms or C-suite executives at major Southern California-based organizations.

Birtcher Development Managing Director Brooke Birtcher Gustafson, a 2008-2009 YPG graduate and 2019 YPG chair who now serves on the chapter’s board of directors, noted how the program helped establish a solid foundation for her career. She says Strom became a mentor early on because of his lessons in how to be present and that it’s “not always necessary to react” in a professional setting. Gustafson has also maintained strong personal and professional relationships with class peers, many of whom are now industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

Mike Chukwueke today is vice president, acquisitions and development with Duke Realty as well as the 2020 YPG alumni chair. He was an analyst when he was chosen for the 2012-2013 class and is one of the few black members of the YPG program. He says that he and Gustafson are a microcosm of the changing demographics within commercial real estate. Increasing the diversity of the chapter brings varied perspectives and insights, which enables everyone to better respond to the changes the industry is facing.

Aaron Hill, president of Bixby Land Company, was a member of the inaugural class. He notes that today’s YPG is much more structured and effective. The lessons learned over the years have improved the program and made it even more diverse, not only from the standpoint of individuals but also through different industry disciplines.

Events Promote Leadership

YPG alumni have launched several unique annual industry events. These include a Leadership Summit, Y-Games athletic competition and Big for a Day.

At Big for a Day, YPG members spend the afternoon with youth from Big Brothers Big Sisters, a non-profit focused on one-on-one mentoring relationships. It reflects how YPG has impacted the culture of NAIOP SoCal, increasing its emphasis on charity and giving back.

Chukwueke points out that these events allow alumni to take on leadership roles and work on their leadership skills, which is critical for young professionals early in their careers. Chukwueke worked with fellow YPG alum Brad Schmitt, who created the Leadership Summit, to produce an event focused on leadership and personal and professional development that is specifically tailored to the young real estate demographic. The event, an annual homecoming for YPG graduates, also highlights individuals who have gone through the YPG program and showcases future CRE leaders.

While the success of YPG is evident, there have been valuable lessons learned along the way that other chapters could apply if they wanted to launch a similar program.

The YPG program is designed to be 60% personal/professional development and 40% industry education.  Because of this structure, it is critical that the right instructors are found to help students identify their personal strengths and weaknesses and teach them leadership and business-development skills.

The industry speakers are high-level decision-makers in the industry from a variety of disciplines who share their experiences, in essence serving as role models and mentors.

The class composition is critical, with the goal to have both diversity and a balance of different job disciplines represented. 

Class size and age range matter. Limiting the total to 35 students allows for interactive networking and learning from each other in order to develop a peer group that can “grow up” in business together. This provides access to critical resources across a range of real estate specializations.

Looking ahead, there is no doubt the impact of YPG will continue to grow. Many of the graduates from each new class remain active in the chapter and YPG to lend their own personal stories, inspire the next generation and serve as mentors. That is why this program and its graduates will continue to make a difference in the future success of the chapter and strength of the Southern California commercial real estate industry.

Pamela Westhoff is the president of NAIOP SoCal and a partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton.