In the commercial real estate field, it’s about what you know and who you know - the networks established and connections made. 

Traditionally those networks have not included many people of color. 

Over the past two decades, thanks in part to the vision of Mark Eppli, Milwaukee is making inroads toward addressing that disparity. 

Eppli is the founder of the Associates in Commercial Real Estate, a rigorous 9-month program that trains people of color in the fundamentals of the real estate industry and the wide variety of available career paths. Since its founding in 2005, more than 300 people have gone through the ACRE program. Through various roles inside and out of the field, graduates have helped contribute to, and in many cases lead, projects that are changing the built environment and quality of living for residents.

“It brought those who have interest, desire and goals of being successful in real estate with those who are already successful,” said Deshea Agee, who was part of the inaugural class and is a vice president of Milwaukee-based real estate firm Emem Group. “It shrunk the timeframe it would take for an individual to be successful in the industry and has completely changed how Milwaukee is now and going into the future.”

In 2003, just a year after Eppli came to Milwaukee to work at Marquette University’s College of Business, he read a Wall Street Journal article that stated how less than 1 percent of the 100,000 professionals in the real estate field were Black. He also noticed that acutely while organizing a real estate conference that same year. Upon looking out at the crowd of around 350 people, not one was a person of color. 

His solution was a program that would give people of color the knowledge, skills and connections to make their way into and have an impact on the industry. He based the curriculum on a program he created while working at George Washington University. After securing initial funding from Bader Philanthropies, he recruited industry partners, like real estate developer Barry Mandel, to teach the courses and serve as mentors. He turned to community partners to help spread the word through their networks.  

“It was such a good idea and Mark was such a good leader that he was able to get people enthused and motivated about this,” said Mandel, who has financially supported the program, calling it one of the most gratifying philanthropic causes in which he’s ever participated. “It was a sense of small victories one after another that drove a momentum that exists today and continues to grow.” 

The program now is led by LISC Milwaukee and has expanded to include university partners like Milwaukee School of Engineering and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

ACRE alumni include a who’s who of local leaders and power brokers in real estate development, community development and local government that have led commercial and residential real estate developments and renovations in under-resourced neighborhoods, leading to overall increases in property values and employment. The man responsible for guiding and promoting development within Milwaukee – Lafayette Crump, commissioner for the Department of City Development – is an ACRE alum. Three aldermen and two business improvement district leaders are graduates.  

“This is what happens when you provide resources, exposure and education to under resourced and underexposed communities,” said Joaquin Altoro, an ACRE graduate who oversees the state’s largest lender in low-cost financing for housing and small business development, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. “You see success.” 

And while Eppli said the goal never specifically was to make sure graduates stayed in the city, so many have, much to Brew City’s benefit. Millions of dollars have been invested in neighborhoods thanks to projects led by ACRE graduates like Kevin Newell of Royal Capital and Melissa Allen of Maures Development. 

In an industry where networking is critical, ACRE graduates have since set up their own. To Eppli, that is one of the biggest and best surprises. 

“You can’t go anywhere without finding ACRE alumni,” said Carolyn Esswein, an ACRE instructor and an urban studies professor of practice in UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It makes you proud when you see the impact individual alumni are having and how the program has helped their career and perspective. But it’s not just the alumni’s perspective – it’s the community perspective as well. That impact is something that is rewarding for all of us.”

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