At the end of 2019, Rob Speyer, president, and chief executive officer of the real estate company Tishman Speyer, was in the final stages of bidding for a highly coveted development deal with Harvard. The winner would build and manage a 2 million-square-foot life sciences research campus in Boston, next door to Harvard Business School, including labs, offices, retail, housing, and a hotel. As the deal neared closing, the school came to Speyer with a request: Would he be willing to set aside 5% of the equity in the project for Black and Latino investors? Speyer agreed and, that December, won the contract to build Harvard’s Enterprise Research Campus.
As he began looking for investors, Speyer quickly realized his network was almost entirely White. He would never get to 5% by going to the usual suspects. It was, he says, a “mind-blowing revelation.” At 51, Speyer has been working for more than 25 years at the company his father, Jerry, co-founded, sharing the CEO job with his dad for seven years before taking over in 2015. Before Harvard, he says, no one had ever asked him to meet a requirement of this kind, and he’d never thought twice about it. “I didn’t understand that Black and brown investors weren’t getting access to investment opportunities that a White person of the same means would,” he says.
The federal government and state agencies routinely put diversity and inclusion benchmarks into their contracts, but these standards typically focus on builders and tenants. It’s unusual for a private institution to make requirements for investors.
In doing so, Harvard was recognizing an important fact about how economic power and wealth are built in the U.S. There’s a kind of charmed circle of private investment opportunities—venture capital, some hedge funds, big real estate projects—that most people don’t have access to but which have the potential for higher returns than other assets. When the oldest university in the country goes out looking for money, it’s considered a privilege to be asked.
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