Ross Program diversifies next generation of real estate leaders

April 13, 2015

By Matthew Kredell

For more than 20 years, the Ross program has helped to increase diversity among leaders in the real estate industry. (All photos by Tom Queally)

For more than 20 years, the Ross program has helped to increase diversity among leaders in the real estate industry.
(All photos by 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 they 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, so that other families wouldn’t be displaced. It’s a mission that brought him to the Ross Minority Program at the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.

For more than 20 years, the Ross 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, 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 Ross 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, 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.

Drawing accomplished practitioners

Vaughn Irons, CEO of  APD Solutions

Vaughn Irons, CEO of APD Solutions

Irons, 44, was an accomplished professional with a tremendous amount of experience when he decided to enroll in the Ross program. He served for 12 years at Freddie Mac, most recently as national director of housing and community investment. His scope of responsibilities included oversight of efforts that involved minority lending, community development lending, homeownership counseling and Gulf Coast rebuilding activities post-Katrina.

Afterward, he founded – and serves as CEO of – the Atlanta-based APD Solutions, a national community economic development firm providing program management and development services.

“I was looking not to get a basic education in the field but something more intense, and that’s what attracted me to the Ross program,” said Irons, who earned his MBA from the University of Maryland. “The program was so impressive to me, I seriously considered taking hiatus from my career to go through the Master of Real Estate Development program at the Price School.”

With the program running Thursday through Saturday, Irons would take the 6 a.m. flight to Atlanta on Sunday morning, spend Monday and Tuesday in the office and fly back to Los Angeles on Wednesday. It was a hectic four weeks, but he found the results worthwhile. With his background from Freddie Mac in single-family real estate, Irons explained that going through Ross enhanced his understanding of commercial and mixed development.

Promoting career advancement

Acevedo receives a certificate from the Ross program.

Acevedo receives a certificate from the Ross program.

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 in 2013, 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 her 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.”

Osvaldo Garcia, right, is project manager at the nonprofit East L.A. Community Corporation.

Osvaldo Garcia, right, is project manager at the nonprofit East L.A. Community Corporation.

Garcia, 34, a project manager at East L.A. Community Corporation, had two superiors of the non-profit, Director of Real Estate Development Ernesto Espinoza and Vice President of Real Estate and Asset Management Alejandro Martinez, 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 in Real Estate was founded by USC and the Community Redevelopment Agency as a response to the Los Angeles civil unrest in 1992. L.A. 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 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, which is 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.

Dominique Sawyer, office and property manager at W. H. Sawyer & Company, gives a presentation at Lewis Hall.

Dominique Sawyer, office and property manager at W. H. Sawyer & Company, gives a presentation at Lewis Hall.

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 & Company. 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,” 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

Program benefactor Stan Ross took part in a discussion with the students.

Program benefactor Stan Ross took part in a discussion with the students.

Each day in the Ross program features lectures from notable USC Price faculty – including Green, Allan Kotin, Chris Redfearn and Liz Falletta – followed by expert 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. They 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.”