Pushing for Change: Bringing Outliers to the Table
BentallGreenOak CEO Sonny Kalsi on the company’s efforts to expand diversity and inclusion across the industry.
The real estate industry is still very much a male-dominated industry, despite all the conversations around women empowerment, diversity, equity and inclusion in the past decade. Women in commercial real estate still make up one-third of the workforce, according to CREW Network’s most recent study. However, the research found that there are some areas of improvement: More women are aiming to reach the C-suite.
“We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot more work to ensure we’ve created an environment where women and other underrepresented groups can elevate to the top ranks of the company,” Sonny Kalsi, CEO of BentallGreenOak, told Commercial Property Executive.
Born in the U.K., Kalsi is an Indian descendent who grew up in the U.S. and worked his way up to Wall Street. He became an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion and now he is challenging the industry to bring thorny conversations to the surface.
How much has your life experience influenced the way you do business today?
Kalsi: Coming from a family with deep Indian roots, growing up in Tennessee, the odds were against me. My parents didn’t work on Wall Street, so I didn’t have the same access to internships and mentors that others in my peer group had. I had to scrape my way to get a foot in the door. I love that I have that background. It’s made me a big believer that we need to rethink how we evaluate job candidates and define meritocracy.
Having the right connections and schools on your resume isn’t the best measure of someone’s talent. This is one of the reasons BGO is working with the Council of Urban Real Estate and also the PREA Foundation and its SEO partnership to develop a diverse internship program that introduces minority youths to the real estate industry.
I had to assimilate to get ahead and I don’t want others to feel that way. I want people to feel comfortable embracing their identity and to have the same chances, no matter what their background is.
Why do you think conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are oftentimes considered difficult and uncomfortable?
Kalsi: Challenging the existing status quo is always going to feel uncomfortable. And while equity is all about lifting people up—not bringing anyone down—change of any kind can feel threatening. People are always very quick to defend their intentions, but the journey to equity is really about taking deliberate action to examine the impact of your behavior and the inequities in our society that are holding others back.
Raising our collective consciousness and focusing on the impact of our actions today is how change happens through momentum. The antidote to the discomfort can be found in a unified sense of purpose that moves us all forward to a better place where progress is not measured in zero-sum terms.
What are the top three benefits of having a diverse workforce and leadership team in the real estate industry?
Kalsi: There’s no doubt in my mind that if you have a more diverse group of people you will come up with a better answer. We’re better investors when we bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the table. More inclusive teams function better and make us a better employer too, especially as we strive to recruit younger generations who care deeply about how we engage with society. When you combine those two things together, you get a third benefit—we’re more resilient as an organization.
Can you remember the latest thing you learned from BGO’s female leaders?
Kalsi: We have a lot of strong women leaders at BGO, so I’m learning things all the time. One important lesson is that leadership requires perspective, and we need to recognize the multitude of ways that women define and demonstrate leadership. I like to be a problem-solver and tend to run at an issue at full speed, but many women on our team, like Amy Price and Julie Wong, have a more balanced approach and have taught me to be a better listener. Thanks to their reinforcement, I now measure twice, cut once.
The buildings we acquire or develop and ultimately, manage on behalf of our clients, are occupied by a proportion of women roughly equal to men. If you think of it in those simple terms, then if we are not continually drawing on the strategic thinking and lived experience of women in all aspects of investment management, we narrow the market we can effectively serve.
How is BGO supporting its female leaders who have risen to the C-suite in the commercial real estate industry?
Kalsi: I’m incredibly proud that we are one of the few companies of our size that has a woman leader in our C-suite. And our talent pipeline is strong—our women’s leadership council grew from 15 to 20 women this year because of recent promotions.
We have to continue our advocacy for diverse talent to ensure they are included in the room where decisions are made. But to be clear, this isn’t inclusion for the sake of it. We need their voices and their ideas to enrich our analysis and decision-making.
What are the most common challenges female leaders in your company talk to you about?
Kalsi: Throughout my career, I’ve seen a lot of women who are more talented and better educated than me, have to drop out of the workforce to care for family. But it’s 2021—we can do better to support women through all stages of their careers and empower them to stay in the workforce during various caregiving stages if that’s what they choose to do.
At BGO, we’re really focused on creating an environment where two things can happen: Women can stay engaged in the workforce and also have access to strong, relatable mentors that can champion their growth and development at the firm. On that first point, we’re being more progressive about maternity and paternity leave and giving people more flexibility to work from home to help with childcare responsibilities.
With mentorship, women and minorities see fewer people who look like them in leadership roles. We’re working to change that and support mentorship programs that help people find the guidance and advocacy they need to take their careers to the next level.
Tell us about BGO’s strategy to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion within the company in the next few years. Are there any goals you’re striving to achieve?
Kalsi: I’m a firm believer that if you don’t apply quantitative metrics to goals, they’re just good intentions. That’s why we set an aggressive target last year for women and minorities to make up two-thirds of all new hires. Setting that number has forced us to examine where exactly we need to see more diversity in the organization and see where representation is lacking so we can put our efforts there.
We’re making great progress on attracting more diverse talent, and we’re also focusing on retaining and cultivating current employees. We want to make sure all our people feel they are part of an environment where they get the support they need to balance their professional and personal lives, which is why we provide support for working parents.
Inclusion is a central part of our culture and that begins with being an advocate, an ally to underrepresented groups. We’re very transparent with our vision to be a diverse organization and what behaviors employees are expected to demonstrate. It’s part of how we evaluate and compensate people at all levels of the company, which has made every employee understand how critical issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are to our culture.
Is the real estate industry going in the right direction when it comes to promoting more women in leadership roles?
Kalsi: The trend line is definitely moving in the right direction, but it could be happening more quickly. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like CREW and WX, it’s easier for women to find great mentors. But we need to continue dismantling the system of a male-dominated industry—the networks and hiring practices that have perpetuated for too long.
As men, we should all want women to have the same opportunities that we’ve had. I believe my daughter has fewer obstacles in her way than my wife, sister and mother had in their careers. But I also believe my son has a less-obstructed path than my daughter, which shows me that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
We need more people in the industry who are committed to radical transformation because they recognize the inherent societal benefits of equality and the multitude of ways in which businesses are strengthened through better representation.