CCIM Q&A: Blazing a New Trail
Kenisha Robnett, CCIM
Just like no two properties are identical, commercial real estate professionals all have unique stories. Some are part of a multigenerational family business, while others are venturing into uncharted professional waters. Kenisha Robnett, CCIM, took an unconventional route to CRE, shifting from a career in science to becoming executive vice president of RE/MAX Commercial in the dynamic Atlanta market. As a woman of color, she also represents the importance of and need for more diversity in the industry.
We spoke with Robnett about her path to commercial real estate and her perspective on an industry pushing for greater diversity.
CIRE: Your bachelor's degree is in Spanish and biochemistry, which aren't typical starting points for a career in real estate. How did your path lead to CRE?
Kenisha Robnett, CCIM: When I was 9 years old, a friend passed away from leukemia - and it was that single event that changed my life. From that point on, I wanted to become a research scientist. In college, I studied Spanish and chemistry in hopes to keep that promise. But that entire time, I never felt connected. It always seemed like a struggle to get through those courses with little to no enjoyment. I went on to become a clinical research assistant and participated in a few research projects and medical missions that took me to Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and other countries. Finally, this was where research, Spanish, and real estate began to collide.
Each mission (in a Spanish speaking country) had a real estate component, such as building a classroom for the local school, and I quickly learned that I enjoyed that part. I also began to realize that most missionaries had the heart to serve but did not always have the resources to do so. Therefore, when the first opportunity arose to pursue business, I jumped at the chance, seeing it as means to fund research and support many purposeful endeavors around the globe. When I was introduced to real estate, I instantly fell in love. Real estate became my laboratory and gave me the opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of others.
I often call myself “the scientist of real estate” because I research, I dig, and, of course, I still ask the tough questions throughout the entire process. I use my Spanish with various clients, which allows me to expand my sphere of influence. In this business, I can bring my entire self to the deal. I teach, educate, and help families create a legacy. I have no doubt that my good friend who passed away when I was a child is proud of me and fully supports the route that I took to help others have a better life.
CIRE: CRE has traditionally been predominantly male and predominantly White. As a woman of color, how do you view your place in the industry? What can individuals do to make CRE more inclusive?
Robnett: People of color may not know someone on the inside to get them in the door or their fathers may not have been at the firm to pave the way for them. Instead, we continue to get more and more education, only to then be overqualified for positions. A senior director at one company actually told me that I needed to “dumb down” my resume so it wouldn't seem so threatening. They said that when I listed all my work experiences and accomplishments, it could seem intimidating for the person interviewing me who lacked a similar background. Wow.
So, if companies truly want to increase diversity, be fair. Just give qualified people a fair shot! Don't overlook qualified candidates to get a friend in with the company. Don't overlook resumes of candidates who are more experienced, thinking they may later take your position. Don't pre-judge candidates because of their names.
If diversity is truly a real initiative, set goals with real metrics. Ensure that people of color are hired and retained. Ensure there are company affinity groups to give them a voice. Make sure their concerns are heard. Listen to the issues that matter to them, so they can feel valued and experience longevity with the company. Set a clear path to success and assign mentors to help them get there. For generations, people of color have had to overcome every obstacle put in their way, whether by Jim Crow; by the government, the law, the police; by redlining; by restrictive covenants that forbid selling property to them; and by handshake deals.
If you want to see real change, be an advocate who helps to remove these obstacles.
CIRE: You are involved with CCIM Institute and your local chapter. Why is it important for you to give back? What values do you hope to instill in CRE's next generation?
Robnett: Until recently, my commercial real estate journey had been a lonely and challenging road for me. When I started out in the industry, it was sink or swim. I was handed a phone and told to cold call, which just doesn't work for everyone. I would reach out to brokers and not get call backs. I would call potential clients and get no response, so I had to find another way. In Arizona at the time, not many people in the industry looked like me, so getting invited to the golf events and charity galas never happened. Getting the help I needed was difficult; so, for this next generation, I want them to have it easier than I did.
I get asked to speak at colleges and universities quite frequently because the professors believe it is important for real estate students to see someone who they can relate to - someone who looks different, who is younger and also a woman. I speak in the Atlanta public school system because the world revolves around subjects that often don't appear in their course curriculum, so I discuss commercial real estate, investing, finance, wealth building, and entrepreneurship. I believe that exposing these students to this information early can change the trajectory of their lives, which could be a catalyst to potentially diversify the CRE industry in the future.
This year, I was influential in helping the Georgia CCIM Chapter launch its mentorship program to help those who were new to the industry. We partnered CCIM veterans with REAP (Real Estate Associate Program) graduates to help foster industry relationships. We want to create a path for success for those with the desire to learn the CRE business but who would otherwise not have a road map. I give back and serve because it is necessary. I participate on the CCIM Institute board and national committees because I appreciate the institute and have been a beneficiary of the excellence that comes with having the pin. This is also one of the reasons why I teach CCIM Institute courses. This education has made a tremendous impact on my career and on my business; I want to share this information with as many people as possible.
I give back because it is my desire to help this next generation avoid some of the pitfalls that I could not. I want them to learn as much as they possibly can early on to perfect their craft. I give back to pave the way for those who come behind me. I simply refuse to be a token in the industry, and I have challenged myself to be a trailblazer.