Shopping Centers Today International

MAR 2016

Shopping Centers Today is the news magazine of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC)

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had connected, both professionally and personally. Crossman and Bolen, both the sons of preachers, each felt called to help increase the number of eth- nic minorities in the field. "If you look at it from a historic context, from slavery to the Jim Crow laws, real estate is an example of institu- tional racism," Crossman asserted. "In the south, for instance, African- Americans were denied ownership of real estate to keep them from being able to vote." Crossman felt that the lack of ethnically diverse leaders was hindering the industry. He became Bolen's chief mentor, coach and part- ner in diversity. The two spent many days together over the past five years, traveling to historically black colleges around the country, educating mi- nority students about real estate as a potential career, trying to persuade the colleges' MBA and finance pro- grams to offer courses in real estate, and raising more for the programs and scholarships at the schools. They even talked to White House staff about their initiative. For Bolen, the mission was per- sonal and essential. "The industry is woeful in terms of diversity," he said. Bolen was the recipient of ICSC's first college scholarship. The son and grandson of general contractors, Bolen grew up around the field and understood from a young age the importance of real estate ownership. He bought his first house at age 21 (in a short sale, under which a home going into foreclosure is sold for less than the balance remaining on the mortgage), which he continues to rent out. But as a first-generation African-American college student, he also understood that his peers might not know much about the commer- cial real estate industry. "When I tell students I'm in real estate, the major- ity of them think I must sell homes," Bolen said. He worried about the ef- fects of this disconnect. "Real estate is the number-one wealth-creating profession," he observed. If African- American students are not educated or informed about real estate oppor- tunities, then "the gulf and gap in in- come will continue to widen." Bolen saw too that even many of the students who were interested in real estate had never heard of ICSC. Further, of ICSC's 1,400 student m e m b e r s , t h e A f r i c a n - A m e r i c a n representation comes to less than 1 percent, and this preoccupies him as well. "You can't talk about education and commercial real estate and not bring in ICSC — it's the foundation of the industry," he said. Bolen decided that this would be the project he would focus on if he won the Fiala Fellowship. He wrote passionately in his application about the desire to expand ICSC's exposure in the ethnic minority student com- munity, and then forgot all about the fellowship — until he received a phone call last spring telling him he was the winner. "I was happy, excited, nervous and scared — all at the same time," recalled Bolen. "I wasn't going to take it for granted." The ICSC Awards Committee had no doubts about its choice. "Thomas has this incredible passion for the shopping center business," said Ste- phen D. Lebovitz, ICSC's chairman. "When you couple that with his natu- ral communication skills, his energy level, his overall enthusiasm and his commitment to broadening diversity within the shopping center business, he was the perfect fit for the role." Since receiving the fellowship award, Bolen has been busy. He is engaged with students and staff at roughly half a dozen historically black colleges, keeping them in- formed about ICSC's scholarship opportunities, and he has recruited roughly 20 ethnic minority ICSC student members. He gave a speech at last year's RECon, spent a day at the offices of CBL & Associ- ates Properties (of which Lebovitz is president and CEO) to network and to discuss ways of boosting eth- nic diversity there, and participated in mentoring sessions with David J. LaRue, president and CEO of Forest City Enterprises, a noted champion of minority issues. Bolen's next short-term goal is to have at least one historically black college represented at RECon 2016. "My ultimate goal is to see some sort of real estate course at every histori- cally black college in this nation," he said. The fellowship has enabled him to meet all kinds of industry leaders, he says, and he is grateful for the mentorship and advice he has re- ceived. But what he is most grateful for, he asserts, is the opportunity all this has given him to produce change. "I thought at some point I would be in a position to give back, but I never thought it would happen so early in my career," he said. Industry leaders say this is only the beginning for Bolen. "I think he's got a very bright future in our business," said Lebovitz. "I can't wait to see what he does." S C T M a r c h 2 0 1 6 / S C T 55 If African-American students are not educated or informed about real estate opportunities, "the gulf and gap in income will continue to widen."

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