Ramgelly Espinosa adjusted her lavender-frame eyeglasses and scanned the room, sizing up the competition. She was among 50 smartly dressed high school and college students milling around the lobby of a gleaming Fifth Avenue high-rise in Manhattan, hip-hop thrumming through the speakers on a snowy Saturday morning in late winter. A few feet from Espinosa, a group of teens clustered around a touch screen kiosk, scrolling through slick architectural renderings.
In an hour or two, the teen, a senior at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx, would be whisked with her teammates to the 20th floor to stand in front of a panel of seven judges. In a simulated business meeting, the students would pose as real estate developers, and the judges, as investors contemplating a new venture. Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankees All-Star turned real estate magnate, was among the judges.
Espinosa and her team’s mission was to persuade the panel to support their plan to build a 60%-market-rate apartment complex in Mott Haven, a South Bronx neighborhood known for its history of violent crime and poverty—and, more recently, for rising rents and its first crop of luxury apartment buildings.
The stakes were high: a total of $25,000 in scholarship money would be awarded, with five teams of 10 students each vying for the first-place grand prize of $10,000.
Many of the students were raised by working-class immigrant parents and will be the first in their families to attend college. Espinosa, 18, was born in the Dominican Republic, moved to the South Bronx as a toddler, and was awaiting acceptance letters from a couple of Ivy League universities. She ran through her pitch one more time: “We’re not trying to change the Bronx; we’re trying to elevate the Bronx.”
The competition was the finale after months of work by students taking part in Project Destined, a national education program that employs the real estate industry to provide underprivileged city kids with leadership training and financial literacy skills.
About 200 students have participated and $150,000 in scholarships have been awarded since 2016, when co-founders Cedric Bobo and Fred Greene launched the program in Detroit. In addition to New York, they’ve worked with students in Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, and Oakland, Calif.; a Los Angeles cohort is expected this summer. An offshoot program serves veterans in Detroit.
Bobo, 43, a Harvard University–trained investment banker from Memphis, and Greene, 36, a real estate developer with degrees from the University of Chicago and Georgetown University who grew up in Washington, D.C., are both based in D.C. They met through mutual friends and bonded over the 2017 film Destined, which envisions two possible trajectories for a young man from the Detroit projects—in one, he falls into a life of crime, and in the other, he becomes a successful architect striving to help his old neighborhood.
Bobo and Greene were inspired by the film and say Project Destined is rooted in their desire to equip residents of gentrifying urban areas—often young people of color, like themselves—with the tools to benefit from the changes sweeping through their neighborhoods.
Students in the program get a crash course in real estate development via an online course and meet monthly for training with experts. Over the period of the school year, they devote hours after class and on weekends to designing a hypothetical building project with help from volunteer coaches, culminating with the final presentation in the spring.
This year’s Bronx cohort was mentored by associates from Brookfield Property Partners, the global real estate firm that, as it happens, is developing luxury housing in the Bronx.
The unique philanthropic effort combines the strait-laced rigor of a corporate internship with the scrappy nature of a start-up. The educational program and scholarships are supported by Project Destined, a nonprofit that has more than a dozen sponsors, including Brookfield Property Partners, the Gray Foundation, and the Detroit Pistons. Separately, the founders use a limited liability company to purchase residential properties in cities where Project Destined is active. So far, they’ve bought 240 units and plan to use 10% to 20% of the profit to fund additional student scholarships.
Greene and Bobo used their own funds to launch the project, and in a couple of years attracted some heavy-hitting supporters, including Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez, who’ve contributed to the Bronx and Miami programs. Bobo met Rodriguez backstage at a Lopez concert in Las Vegas in June 2017, shortly after launching the initiative. (Project Destined declined to disclose its budget or charitable contribution amounts. A representative for Rodriguez did not provide comment about his ongoing involvement.)
Some students see parallels between their own lives and Rodriguez’s coming-up story. Raised in the Bronx by a single mother, Rodriguez and his family lived “paycheck to paycheck” and moved whenever the landlord raised the rent, he told an audience at the event.
“I remember, as a 10-year-old boy, I got down on my knees and I prayed, and I said, ‘God, if I can ever trade places with the landlord and not be the tenant, I would do that,’” he said.
His first opportunity to embark on a real estate investment career came at age 23. As a rising baseball star, he sold two Rolex watches and drained his savings account to make the $48,000 down payment on his first property, a $200,000 waterfront duplex in Miami, he said. The strategy was to sell it for double the purchase price a couple of years later, kicking off a portfolio that would ensure his financial security once his athletic career and its sizable paychecks were behind him. It worked. He now runs A-Rod Corp, an investment and development firm with hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate assets.
While not all Project Destined students will follow Rodriguez’s path into the real estate big leagues, the “soft skills” and influential networks they gain make it worthwhile, Bobo and Greene say. And their biggest measure of student success is whether the experience helps normalize what once seemed foreign, such as why the dollar value of a building on a student’s block can make a difference in their lives.
Later, lingering in the lobby after the $10,000 grand prize and a gemstone-encrusted championship belt had been awarded, Espinosa admits she’s a little disappointed about her team’s second-place finish. But she appreciates that the program is about a lot more than pitching a condo concept for cash. The experience intensified her goal to become a financial consultant, she says, so she can “be a bridge” between her struggling neighbors in the South Bronx and profitable investment opportunities that they may have never considered.
“Not everybody will come across a program like this that will teach us this much about real estate, that will allow this many important people to be in a room who we can connect with,” she says. “Just having this on my résumé—that will open doors for me for the rest of my life.”