Corporate Activism in Action
Senior Vice President of Advisory, Derrick, takes us along his 30-year career journey forging a path where there was none.
January 27, 2022 3 Minute Read
Tell us how your journey led you to CBRE
I saw my participation in Corporate America as being in service of the Black movement. I had an opportunity to go to a school like Duke University and play football there and then go to Columbia University and become a lawyer. I had those opportunities standing on the shoulders of others.
It seemed entirely appropriate that I continue that legacy by creating a path that hadn't been created before, so I joined what was a very small group of Black folks, who migrated from a place like a corporate law firm, into a large business environment. I think that’s part of the reason that I was drawn to commercial real estate. I’ve been at CBRE for five years. I've been in the commercial real estate business for over three decades and before that, I was actually a real estate attorney. So, I have an unusual diversity of both relationships and experiences.
Would you credit your background for that ambition?
I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 1970s. The fact of the matter is that we lived in, what I might want to refer to as, an apartheid country. It was understood that we lived in a segregated society. The schools that we attended were all one race or the other. The neighborhoods where we lived were all one race or another. It was a time of great dynamic transition and change, and it was the first opportunity for our people to enter some of the main streams of American society.
I'm a contrarian and I'm also a former linebacker. Linebackers tend to be a little stubborn and a little fierce. We don't mind controversy. We mix it up. Our job is to mix it up and I was good at my job. So, I come naturally to a bit of fearlessness. The fact that there was no one else in our industry who looked like me seemed to be about the right place for me.
When one generally thinks of activism in the traditional sense, images of protests, marches, and boycotts come to mind. Do you view your entire corporate career as a form of activism?
I like to think that if I were coming of age in the ‘50s, I might have been a minister and in the front lines of the struggle for civil rights. If I were coming of age in the ‘60s, I might have been a civil rights attorney struggling for justice. If I came of age in the ‘70s, it was the first time that elections were...I'll call it “more free” and “more fair,” and many Black Americans were coming to public office. For the first time, it was possible to be elected and to have political power. If I were coming of age in the ‘70s, I might have done that.
I came of age in the ‘80s. While we did, at that point, earn some measure of civil and political rights, we didn't have anyone who was in mainstream Corporate America. That economic power, if you will, hadn't been embraced and hadn't been achieved.
In terms of where I was supposed to be in the service of the movement that our people were making to have economic power, in addition to political power and civil rights—I found myself in in the commercial real estate business.
With such a breadth of experience, do you see that representation, that change happening?
For a long time, I couldn't go into a conference room and see another Black person. It's really an enormous pleasure for me to be a part of a company that is valuing diversity, equity and inclusion. I am finally seeing—it took a long time—but I'm seeing folks come behind me who are who are taking senior roles in this company, who are mentoring younger people and bringing them along, people of color, women...so it's a very satisfying moment to be having this conversation.
In your previous roles, you’ve been more internal facing towards the business and stakeholders. Usually, with a career that spans three decades, running towards the action, or client-facing side, as you have, would be completely contrary. Why did you choose this path in your current role?
I am a contrarian. It's true. I am very excited about using this skill set in the day-to-day interchange with clients. I feel more useful and more valuable. I feel a little bit like I've never known more about our industry. I've never been better at doing this than I am at present. I get up every day and I am excited because I don't know what challenge is going to is going to face me. What client is going to need me? What skill set am I going to need to draw on?
I feel a little bit like an entrepreneur who opened his shop some time ago and finally is enjoying the kind of experience in that business that he hoped for. I have no interest in closing that shop. I actually want to grow that team; I want to grow our skills. I want to have more fun with this shop and see what else we can do.
That speaks directly to CBRE’s entrepreneurial culture. Is that why you chose CBRE?
Yes. This is an extraordinary platform. It's unlike any other in the real estate services business, and I know all three major competitors intimately from the inside. I chose to be here, for what I think will be the last move in my career, for that reason. We're built to do sophisticated, difficult, complex real estate problem solving. And we have the resources to do it. Any idea that I can come up with, this platform can support—and I can come up with pretty creative ideas—so It's enormously welcome to know that I just have to look around a little bit for the resource in order to put it in place in the service of my client.
You’re very passionate about what you do. Who you are personally and professionally seemingly converge. It certainly appears just as demanding as it is rewarding. That said, what does downtime look like for you?
I am on numerous non-profit boards, so downtime just got smaller. I'm pulled in more directions than my family is happy about, but I will tell you that I love to play, and I love to have fun. My two biggest passions are music and water. You can find me downtown at a jazz club, but I'm just as happy sitting at the Metropolitan Opera House. You find me either on a beach enjoying the view or open water swimming—something I really enjoy—or on a surfboard trying to catch a wave.
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