If you’ve visited our Boston office, or several other Boston real estate firms in the past few decades, odds are that you’ve met Donna Kirven. As the nameplate on her desk proclaims, she is the Director of First Impressions, and she does just that.
Donna is warm, kind and brutally honest with a great sense of humor, always carrying an attitude and work ethic which earned her the Cassidy Turley MOJO Award in 2013.
Donna has been front-and-center in Boston’s commercial real estate scene and has watched how things have changed during her time in the industry.
For Black History Month – we sat down with her to reflect on how she perceives race in Boston’s commercial real estate industry, both then and now.
How did your upbringing help shape who you are today?
My family is originally from the Caribbean. When I came to the U.S. as a child, I had only lived in a black country and didn’t have to face all of what black kids growing up in the United States did. Growing up black in the 1950s wasn’t easy. My parents were much more fair-skinned than I was, which was a big deal at that time, since they could “pass” as white in a lot of situations.
When I was young, they worked hard to promote civil rights. I remember my father going to help black people in Virginia pass their voting tests. It took me a long time to understand what my parents went through, but that spirit carried on in me as I continued to be an activist when I moved to Boston for college.
I got into the real estate industry with Spalding & Slye in the 1980s. Back then, the idea of having someone who looks like me sitting out front at the reception desk was radical – and it still is in some ways – so I consider myself a bit of a trailblazer.
How do you think the Boston commercial real estate industry can become more diverse?
I love the real estate community in Boston. But the way the business works, it makes it very challenging for diverse people to get started, and the makeup of the industry has reflected that.
In terms of race, a lot of the barriers black people face aren’t obvious or even deliberate. It’s a generalization to say that black people can’t be wealthy and don’t attend prestigious schools, but those social and economic hurdles do exist for a lot of people. When companies look for talent in the same places they always have, the pool they pull from may already be limited.
Real estate has always been a very connection-driven community, which means that people who have connections via family or friends often have opportunities to get started that others might not.
Most kids coming out of school also have college loans to pay off. And because this industry is also largely commission-based, you need to have support as you as you build up your book of business. So for a young black person coming out of business school, they may look at other professional fields before turning to commercial real estate.
There’s no way to flip a switch and solve this issue overnight, but everyone can make a difference simply by being open to change and making the effort. Small steps, like sitting down with recent graduates or tapping into a new network of people for new hires, can make a big difference if everyone pulls in the right direction.
What does diversity in this industry mean to you?
There are a lot of good people in this industry who have worked very hard to do their part in trying to build a more diverse community – whether that is taking the time to speak to kids in an underserved community about real estate development, working as a mentor, or any of the many other ways they choose to help. That’s how we make a more diverse industry.
But in general, diversity is so more than just a black/white issue – it’s a matter of equality for everyone, regardless of race, gender, orientation or anything else. A lot of people today work to hide their differences – whatever they may be.
Real diversity means that everybody is accepted for who they are, and anyone who treats someone badly because of their differences is behavior that just isn’t tolerated. I have been fortunate to work with the same group of people for 30 years – and enjoy working with them. Not many people get to do that.
The people I work with aren’t just colleagues. They’re part of my family, and I like to think that I’ve become part of theirs.