Forest City's Chief Diversity Officer Builds Community Support

Charmaine Brown mentors aspiring Blacks and Latinos in her Cleveland community while building a diversity-management program at Forest City.

Charmaine Brown did not want to work for a corporation. After watching both her parents build careers in corporate America, she "didn't want to have to wear suits and pantyhose" to work, she says. Rather, Brown "wanted to be in the service of helping others" and pursued a degree in kinesiology, the study of human movement.

Today, Brown is the director of diversity and inclusion for Forest City Enterprises (FCE), a national real-estate company. She is responsible for leading diversity management throughout the entire organization. The company is focusing on improving diversity accountability across the enterprise.

From Occupational Therapy to Diversity Management: Brown graduated from Michigan State University and planned to attend grad school for occupational therapy. But she realized her affinity for business over healthcare when she took a job as a client liaison for a therapy company in Cleveland that managed several nursing homes.

"I found excitement in making sales calls and working with processes," says Brown, who then tried her hand at selling staffing opportunities for Kelly Services. "It was the first job I got fired from—and it was the best thing to happen to me," she recalls. She says her firing was because she was inexperienced and was asked to supervise a region, which lost significant market share. The lesson she learned in mentoring younger people has helped her—and those she now helps—to succeed.

Brown found her niche at the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, placing Black and Latino business professionals with local banks, which she says "marked my entry into diversity and human resources."

Eight months later, Brown went to work as a recruiter for Charter One, eventually becoming its manager of Diversity & Inclusion. "I have always had affinity toward diversity management," she says. "I always built diversity into my recruitment efforts, even at a time when the company wasn't really focused on it."

Improving Diversity in Recruitment: Brown accepted her current position at FCE and has continued "helping people achieve the best that they can possibly achieve" through local community outreach. She also sits on a number of boards, including the Northern Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council and Family Connections and Milestones Autism.

"I'm extremely passionate about these organizations. [Being involved] has helped me to slow down and think about how to leverage my knowledge and expertise to really make an impact," explains Brown. "It's about building relationships with people from all walks of life and getting value from that."

It's a message she's carrying over to Forest City as the company launches its new strategic diversity-management initiative this year to improve accountability for diversity goals throughout the organization. The plan features a talent-management component to integrate diversity into the company's succession planning.

She is proud of the community partnerships that help Blacks and Latinos gain experience and jobs in the Cleveland area. For example, Brown is leading the launch of Cleveland's Real Estate Associate Program (REAP) this June. The 13-week program, sponsored by Forest City and Cleveland-based real-estate company DDR, educated the city's first class of Black, Latino and Asian professionals in commercial real estate and provided networking opportunities.

Brown relates her efforts back to a key lesson from her childhood. "My mom always said, 'You need to be someone [not because you are Black] but because you are Charmaine. If you do that, you will empower your race," recalls Brown.

Brown actively participates on behalf of Forest City in several organizations for economic inclusion, including the Commission on Economic Inclusion and the Northern Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council. The organization certifies MBEs and helps provide them with networking and resources.

Building Workplace Diversity in Real Estate: Diversity management overall remains a challenge for the real-estate industry, Brown notes. A report from the National Association of Realtors found that 89 percent of commercial Realtors are white and 76 percent are male.

"Many companies grew out of family businesses; they operated with similar family-owned businesses," Brown explains. "Over the years, it evolved into the unintentional exclusion of people of color and women."

As such, Brown's goal is to work with President and CEO David LaRue to "position the company as a leader in an industry that has been predominantly white, male and heterosexual."

"What I want most is for this organization to start feeling really good about its progress by executing on the strategies that everyone in the organization can own in some way," Brown explains, emphasizing the role of accountability in achieving results.

Inclusion & Economic Prosperity in Greater Cleveland

The Greater Cleveland Partnership and its corporate members are working to ensure that economic prosperity is shared by all demographic groups in this increasingly diverse region.


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