Tristan Capital Partners Chairman Ric Lewis isn’t afraid to speak bluntly about how an organization should increase diversity within its ranks.
“Just do it,” he said during a Bisnow webinar called It’s Time To Start Failing Forward Into Diversity, moderated by Maples Teesdale partner Anastasia Klein. “If you don’t have diverse talent in your spaces, it’s because you don’t really want it, you haven’t tried hard enough or your spaces aren’t welcoming enough to sustain diversity. That’s just the reality. If you wanted to go to a new market, you’d figure out how to do it. If you want diversity, you will figure out how to do it.”
Lewis’ strong voice on diversity has been sounding louder and louder across the CRE space, though he hasn’t always welcomed the limelight. As one of the very few Black senior executives in the UK’s sector, it has been somewhat thrust upon him. Hailing from Salem, Massachusetts, his experience of diversity — and the lack of it — spans the globe, and he is now ready to push the sector to do better.
Lewis has been a passionate advocate for diversity for many years. But the events in the U.S. this year that have put the Black Lives Matter movement at the front of the political agenda have also provided renewed urgency and made him examine his actions on the matter.
“It made me realize all the steps I had to climb over, all the excuses I had to make for poor behavior, all the offense that I had to duck around and say it doesn’t matter,” Lewis said. “I was surprised because I could have that deep reaction, and I’m pretty successful, somewhere near the top of the food chain. You can only imagine what it feels to not have anything, to not feel very comfortable about your future and have all that happen.”
Lewis, whose father was a firefighter and mother was a clerk at a telephone company, was the first in his extended family to go to university. The fact that he ended up studying at Dartmouth and Harvard Business School and carving out a highly successful CRE career he attributes to parental encouragement and a positive “outside influence” that showed him he should “shoot not just for what I imagined but what I couldn’t imagine, and showed me what I should be imagining.”
Lewis launched The Black Heart Foundation in 2000 to provide college scholarships for underprivileged young people around the globe. He and his team have been quietly providing increased opportunities for talented, hard-working kids for 20 years, “removing barriers to achievement, whether they are financial or imagination.” His work has raised millions and has attracted the support of the musician Stormzy, who recently donated £500K.
Lewis has also established Impact X, a venture capital company created solely to invest in underrepresented entrepreneurs across Europe. To explain the organization’s rationale, he said: “I’m a firm believer in the golden rule: the man/woman who owns the gold shapes the rule. They decide who’s in and not in, what part you play, whether you’re a star or a bit player. We’re only going to change the world for some people when they feel they have an equal footing, and to have an equal footing and say in the things that matter, you need to have resources.”
How To Bring Diversity To Real Estate
Lewis’ advice for others in the sector comes from tried-and-tested experience. His asset management firm’s 150 employees come from 20 countries and speak 27 languages. His first suggestion is to try to see why an organization isn’t diverse in the first place.
“Are organizations looking at their own biases?” he asked. “Are they copying things in their own image? The question is, are they open to start to change? How they interview, how they attract people, how they research? Is the organization willing to pivot to do things differently?”
The second piece of advice is to get the whole organization on board, from bottom to top. When it comes to the top, winning over the board level often requires a clear financial gain. Klein asked Lewis how important he believed the economic imperative is when it comes to taking diversity forward in an organization.
“I’m a firm and passionate believer that diversity of thought, opinion, experience and perspective matters in making a great product, strategy or experience, whatever you’re doing,” he said. “I think the economic imperative is critical. It may still be somewhat unproven, but if you don’t adapt, at some point in the future you will not do so at your own peril. The leading companies will have this in their toolbox, and if you don’t, you won’t win.”
Lewis is not shy to spell out an often-unvoiced economic imperative: Talented people might leave a company if it doesn’t make attempts to become more inclusive.
“You can’t make them, your company, change; all you can do is ask them and encourage,” he said when asked how to convince a manager to promote diversity. “If they’re not of the mindset and the culture that they want to do this, you’ve got to think about whether you are in the right place.”
Know When To Push – And When Not To
A global pandemic might not in some respects be the best time to talk to managers about diversity. Lewis acknowledged that “you need to be realistic that this isn’t the time that people are going to have the most flexibility” when it comes to pushing diversity.
“One of the most painful or frustrating things is having an initiative that you work really hard on and no one takes action,” he said. “So they need buy-in across the organization, they need budget. You can’t demand everything; these are hard economic times.”
Lewis isn’t optimistic about the global economy in the short term. The U.S. and the UK are coming out of furloughs, and companies have yet to reveal their long-term plans to adjust organizational structures to the current market. He sees this as time to be open with partners such as banks.
“My word of advice is this isn’t the time to extend and pretend,” he said. “One of the worst things you can do in this market, having dealt with past crises, is hear what you want to hear and do what you want to do. We’ve got to be really honest and stay away from self-imagined mirages now. It’s going to get a little funky out there, and we’ve got to deal with what it is. We’re preparing for hard work.”
This advice echoes his advice on how to tackle diversity. Be open, be honest about the real situation, keep your eyes open for how to change. The CRE sector might not be famed for its willingness to open its arms to people from all backgrounds, but Lewis is clear that his messages are only going to get louder until they do.