Q&A With the Team Behind the Berkadia ONE Forum

April 5, 2023

Last week, Berkadians, clients and partners touched down in Charleston, South Carolina for our inaugural Berkadia ONE Forum. The forum was designed to promote the interests of minority-led commercial real estate firms and executives of color through engaging discussions and energizing activities. Those in attendance included owners, operators and developers in commercial real estate.

The forum was held at the Hotel Bennett, one of seven hotels in the Salamander Hotels & Resorts portfolio, managed by Sheila C. Johnson, Founder and CEO, Salamander Hotels & Resorts.  Sheila also joined us for a fireside chat where she discussed her path to entrepreneurship and the value of building her network.  In addition to Sheila, we had several other guest speakers and panel discussions that aligned with the key themes and goals of the conference. Panels covered the following topics: Access to Capital, Equity in Multifamily Housing Plans, Power in Partnership, Leadership Roundtable and an open forum where Berkadia, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae participated in an engaged listening session to learn more about obstacles in the market and better understand what we can do to be a part of the solution.

After the last session, a keynote with Lisa Price, Founder, Carol’s Daughter, we met up with the leaders who brought this event to life, Matt Baptiste, Managing Director, Jeff Coles, Vice President of Institutional Client Services and Jeff Lawrence, Managing Director. Their vision and passion came through with every panel discussion, keynote speaker and open forum over the course of the three-day event.

CRE is dominated by white-owned companies.  Though that’s changing, there’s still work to do. What advice do you have for people of color who may just be starting their careers in the commercial real estate industry?

Matt Baptiste: It’s no secret that Jeff Lawrence, Jeff Coles and I, along with everyone at the event, had to go above and beyond to prove ourselves in an industry lacking in diversity and access to opportunity. I kicked off my panel, “Access to Capital,” with stats sourced by the New York Times that quantified this sentiment. Of the 111,635 real estate development firms in the U.S. only 662 are minority owned. Personally, I’ve been in this industry now for almost 20 years. I see and feel the lack of diversity firsthand, but when I look at the numbers and quantify the issue it makes me even hungrier to create a more balanced industry. Very early on in my career there were times when I felt alone. I had to build alliances and find strength and power in numbers. I relied on my network for support, and this continues to this day. The network and relationships I’ve built have sustained and supported me through the years and I’m thrilled to have spent time with so many of them at this event and am equally as excited about the new relationships we’ll foster moving forward. That’s my key piece of advice – build your network.  It will carry you.

What do you think was the most impactful part of the Berkadia ONE Forum?

Jeff Lawrence: I’m thrilled with the outcome of this forum because of the candor and willingness to participate from every attendee. On the “Equity in Multifamily Housing Plans” panel that I moderated, we got to hear from Kevin Palmer, Head of Multifamily Housing at Freddie Mac and Rob Levin, Chief Customer Officer, Fannie Mae about their respective goals as it relates the GSEs’ Equity in Housing plans, and to diversity and inclusion and the impact those initiatives are having on employees, partners, borrowers and renters.  I was really impressed to hear these leaders are holding themselves accountable for implementing change and measuring the success of their programs. Kevin and Rob listened to the room and addressed every question with candor. They approached their session with an open mind, and I truly believe that their participation in critical conversations like these is going to be what moves the needle and creates lasting change.

What do you think Berkadia is doing that will make a meaningful change in the CRE industry?

Jeff Coles: I think it starts with our core values. Since 2014, an overarching mantra at Berkadia is “People Matter.” When Berkadia reached out to me to join the firm, I literally had five meetings before saying, “yes” to the move. During my last recruitment meeting, I met with several members of leadership in the DC Metro office. As I walked in, I noticed a mural off the entrance lobby that includes a rendering of Martin Luther King with the inscription “Integrity is the essence of everything successful.” The leadership team at Berkadia doesn’t know this story, but at that moment they motivated me to work for a company where this was at the center of their values. I felt comfortable and connected. The decision was easy after that. And now, just a few years later, I’m here supported by Berkadia leadership to host an event that I’ve envisioned for my entire professional career. To see that Berkadia has made this a priority speaks volumes and I think the next steps that we take after this forum will be a catalyst for change in our industry.

The forum concluded with a commitment to stay connected and continue the conversation. To get in touch and learn more about the Berkadia ONE Forum and Berkadia’s DEIB initiatives please reach out to Matt Baptiste, Jeff Coles or Jeff Lawrence.

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