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Ross program diversifies next generation of real estate leaders

Women and minorities acquire key skills, aiming to foster responsible development in underserved communities

Ross Program diversifies next generation of real estate leaders
Dominique Sawyer, second from left, created a development proposal with her colleagues as part of the Ross Minority Program. (Photo/Tom Queally)

Osvaldo Garcia grew up in Pasadena, sharing a bed with an older brother in a crammed bungalow-style house that his immigrant parents rented for their family of eight. The low-income neighborhood had its charm on a tree-lined street full of distinctive Victorian craftsman homes.

His father worked two jobs busing tables at restaurants and his mother cleaned rooms at a local hotel. For years, they saved money in the hope of fulfilling that American dream of buying a house. But by the time his parents had put aside a small down payment, Old Town was undergoing revitalization. Sidewalks were beautified, parking meters added, upscale restaurants and shops arrived. The place started becoming trendy, and owners along his block were flipping their houses for big profits.

Not only were the Garcias unable to buy a home, but rent increases priced them out of the neighborhood entirely. They moved to Norwalk when Osvaldo Garcia was 16. With the change, he went from being an A-student in the gifted program to getting into trouble and barely making it through high school.

He would go on to finish college and later earn a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, but those earlier experiences led Garcia to dedicate his life to helping provide affordable housing and inclusive neighborhoods where other families wouldn’t be displaced. It’s a mission that brought him to the Ross Minority Program in Real Estate at the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.

For more than 20 years, the program has helped to increase diversity among leaders in the real estate industry with a comprehensive executive training program providing critical skills to women and minorities with an objective of fostering responsible development in underserved communities.

The goal of the Ross Minority Program is to provide an entry for underrepresented minority groups into the real estate business.

Richard Green

“The goal of the Ross Minority Program is to provide an entry for underrepresented minority groups into the real estate business, a business that remains overwhelmingly white and male,” said Richard Green, a USC Price School of Public Policy professor who serves as director for both the Lusk Center and the program. “We attract extraordinary people into the program — some with advanced degrees from America’s best-known universities. They leave with an understanding of how the real estate development process works.”

Garcia, Brielle Acevedo MPP ’13, Vaughn Irons and Dominique Sawyer were four of the 22 impressive individuals who put their lives on hold for four weeks to complete the intensive 12-hour-a-day, three-day-a-week program for the 2015 Winter Session that concluded in February. The summer session starts in June, offering the unique opportunity for a student award and fellowship afterward.

Promoting career advancement

Acevedo and Garcia had alums of the Ross program within their organizations recommend it as a step toward advancing in their careers.

Acevedo, 24, graduated from USC Price with a Master of Public Policy, but it wasn’t until she started as an assistant project manager at the Community Development Commission, which serves as a public lender for the creation of affordable housing in Los Angeles County, that she heard of the Ross program. Her supervisor, Carolina Romo, had gone through the program two years earlier and told Acevedo how it added value to what they were doing at the commission.

“Before, I was reviewing developer submitted draws,” Acevedo said. “Now I’m able to put together a construction draw and have a deeper understanding of real estate finance. The Ross program gave me skills to perform my current job better and a platform to take on more complex tasks and pursue upward mobility.”

Garcia, 34, a project manager at East Los Angeles Community Corp., had two superiors of the nonprofit direct him to follow in their footsteps with the Ross program.

“Our motto at ELACC is that we need planning done by us, with us and for us — and that matches well with the mission of the Ross program,” said Garcia, who received his masters at UCLA. “It’s kind of a rite of passage for us to go through Ross.”

Shaping the community

The Ross Minority Program was founded by USC and the Community Redevelopment Agency as a response to the Los Angeles riots in 1992. LA was faced with an unprecedented and immediate need for experienced real estate professionals to aid in rebuilding the inner city. In 2003, a gift from Stan Ross, a USC Price Board of Councilors member, and his wife, Marilyn, made the program a permanent institution at USC.

Much of the first week at Ross is devoted to learning how to develop a proforma — a set of calculations that projects the financial return on a proposed real estate development. Having a better handle on those financial facets was a key aspect of the program for the participants.

For Sawyer, 27, she had plenty of real-world experience but was looking to gain technical training. At only 18 years old, right out of high school, she obtained her real estate license and joined the family business, W.H. Sawyer & Co. She works as the office and property manager, but after the company built and sold a duplex near USC last year, she decided she wanted to be more a part of the Real Estate Development Department. She came to the Ross program to help her make the transition.

After going through Ross, it felt like I had been doing real estate with my eyes closed this whole time.

Dominique Sawyer

“After going through Ross, it felt like I had been doing real estate with my eyes closed this whole time,” Sawyer said. “I didn’t know what a proforma was until I took this program. I have a lot more confidence now to do ground-up projects because of the knowledge I gained and joining a network of people who would assist me.”

Bridging theory and practice

Each day in the Ross program features lectures from notable USC Price faculty — including Green, Allan Kotin, Chris Redfearn and Liz Falletta — followed by panel discussions and presentations focused on specialized real estate topics in the evening. Guest speakers often include Ross alumni and Stan Ross himself.

“I appreciated that lecturers weren’t just about bottom-line dollars on a project but told us to think about what makes a good development,” Garcia said. “They urged us to consider what we could do to respond to the community’s need.”

For a final group project, participants integrated all they learned to create a complete development proposal for a parcel of land across from USC, deciding what should be put on the property and preparing all the deliverables that would usually take a professional firm months to complete.

The participants presented the concepts to Green and a panel of practicing real estate professionals, who critiqued the efforts. Irons and Garcia were in the group that won top prize for a mixed-income, mixed-use development with 80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable housing.

Now that they’ve completed the program, Acevedo, Garcia, Irons and Sawyer join a close-knit family of more than 700 Ross alumni.

“It’s great to have an experience where everyone in the room is accomplished and scary smart,” Irons said. “Someone from this cohort is going to change the world, and I’ll not only know them, but I’ll be able to reach out to take advantage. And if I happen to be someone to do something of great note, I’ll be looking forward to taking calls from anyone in my class and those who came before or after in the Ross program.”

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Ross program diversifies next generation of real estate leaders

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