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Pittsburgh’s Black Excellence in Real Estate Movement

Mary Hester and Tammy Thompson at the 2023 BERE gala
Q&A with Founder of LifeVenture Real Estate Solutions Mary Hester and Catapult Executive Director Tammy Thompson to learn about Black Excellence in Real Estate.

If you’ve ever attended a Black Excellence in Real Estate awards gala, you know you’re in for a good time. From the lavish decorations to the impeccably dressed guests, it’s a moment for Pittsburgh’s Black real estate community to celebrate and shine. In attendance, you’ll find some of the nation’s largest lenders mingling and dancing alongside members of grassroots community organizations. What do they have in common? They’re all united in the mission of increasing Black generational wealth.

Catapult team attending the 2023 BERE Gala

The gala was founded in 2021 by Founder of LifeVenture Real Estate Solutions Mary Hester and Catapult Executive Director Tammy Thompson. Since then, the event has evolved into a rapidly growing movement that is creating intentional opportunities for Black families in Pittsburgh to achieve homeownership. Alongside the annual gala, Black Excellence in Real Estate hosts quarterly mixers and other events throughout the year to keep the community connected and informed.

We sat down with Hester and Thompson to learn more about Black Excellence in Real Estate, from how they first came up with the idea to where it’s all headed.

Dive in below.

Be sure to mark your calendar for the next gala coming up on September 26, 2024.

How did Black Excellence in Real Estate get started?

Thompson: I got a phone call from Mary one day, and she said, “We should do a gala!” I was like, “Are you crazy? We don’t have time to do this.” But Mary was passionate about it and said that we should partner and do this event to celebrate the folks in the industry working toward improving the Black-white wealth gap, particularly around homeownership. It would give us an opportunity from the stage to talk about why this is important, not just for individual families, but also for communities and society. Our first event was at the Heinz History Center in September 2021 with around 200 people. I didn’t realize how many people would be interested in and excited about this, but it’s grown from that first conversation to this big event that people look forward to every year.

Hester: When we started, it was just going to be a one-off celebration, but the turnout was so much more than we anticipated that we turned it into an annual event. This allows us to keep up the momentum for our mission of building Black generational wealth, homeownership opportunities, and also sharing the stories and people behind the work.

What gap do you think Black Excellence in Real Estate is filling in the Pittsburgh market?

Hester: I think it’s different than anything else in Pittsburgh, because it’s not an organization — it’s a movement. There’s not a lot in our city that’s focused on the work that we do as far as raising awareness and celebrating people. A lot of people don’t get the recognition for the work that they’ve been doing for years — and it’s a lot of work. It’s an event where we have a great time, but the priority is to make sure that we’re recognizing people.

Thompson: The reality in Pittsburgh is that things specific to the Black community are often an afterthought because of the demographics here, and we just felt like this is too big of an issue not to draw attention to it. It is really at the core of some of the biggest challenges that we have in the Black community, from poverty to housing instability to creating opportunities for the transfer of generational wealth. It’s all connected to homeownership. So, it’s a big, big, big issue that needs to be addressed, and not just from the perspective of, “Well, that one family wants to buy a house.” It’s bigger than buying a house — what homeownership represents for Black families is so much more than that. We want to continue to keep it at the forefront of people’s minds and educate people about the history of homeownership in this city and across the country.

It’s also a chance to show the people behind the reports, statistics, and articles. Now we’re up to around 300 guests. 300 people from across the real estate industry, from lenders to nonprofits to government to real estate agents — people who need to be reminded when they’re running around selling houses, issuing loans, or developing their programs, that this is a fight, and at the crux of it, are the people that we’re doing this work for. It’s a fight we’ve been in for a very long time, and we haven’t gotten as far as we think. For example, the percentages of Black folks across the country who are homeowners has not improved very much since the 1960s. So, although people think we’ve made such great progress — and we have made some around the areas of wealth building — the numbers are still not good. We’ve got to work together to figure out why.

“It’s bigger than buying a house — what homeownership represents for Black families is so much more than that. We want to continue to keep it at the forefront of people's minds and educate people about the history of homeownership in this city and across the country.”

At the gala, you give out a range of awards, including real estate agency of the year, nonprofit leadership of the year, and even homeowner of the year. Can you tell us more about the awards and how you select the awardees?

Thompson: We select the awardees based on people that we work with throughout the year. Is it a lender that went above and beyond to make sure a homeowner got through the underwriting process? Was it a nonprofit who developed a down payment and closing costs assistance program? Is it a nonprofit leader who has been in the trenches and supporting work around homeownership for a long period of time? We’re really looking at people who have done work that has yielded Black homeownership, and we’re paying attention to what kind of programs and products they offer, how they’re engaging with the community, etc.

Tammy Thompson and Mary Hester with 2023 BERE Gala award recipient

Hester: A lot of the real estate brokerages have award celebrations where they give out awards for high performers, or you’ll see banks give out awards to people in their own organization who are bringing in a lot of volume. This sets us apart, because we’re not giving people awards based off how much money they make or produce for any organization. It’s not about how much money is made, it’s about the people that you serve and the families you help. People will also suggest potential awardees to us, and Tammy and I will sit down and look at their work if we don’t know them personally. But so far, we’ve known every single person or organization, because we are immersed in this industry and seeing the work every day. I think that it’s a great incentive for people to put their best foot forward throughout the year.

“It's not about how much money is made, it's about the people that you serve and the families you help.”

Tell us more about the celebration aspect of Black Excellence in Real Estate. Why is that so important?

Thompson: The celebration piece is huge for us. We want to celebrate the people that are doing this work, because they deserve it. Working with people in general is tough, but working with vulnerable populations of people to do wealth building endeavors is even harder, because it’s a drain emotionally, physically, and mentally. It’s exhausting work to navigate these waters with and for people while also keeping them inspired, motivated, and covered from their fear. It’s a heavy lift, and we know that not only is it tough to support Black families in this space, but it’s also tough to be Black professionals in this space, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, where it’s historically a tough place for Black folks to succeed. So, we think it’s worth celebrating these folks and the fact that they’re sticking to it, that they’re staying here in Pittsburgh and committing their talents and skillsets to these families. We want them to know how much they’re appreciated. We want to give them an opportunity to look around a room and see like-minded folks who are working toward the same goal. It’s a reminder to them that they’re not doing it alone.

“Not only is it tough to support Black families in this space, but it's also tough to be Black professionals in this space, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, where it's historically a tough place for Black folks to succeed.”

What’s next for this movement?

Hester: It’s getting bigger and bigger every year, that’s for sure. The galas always sell out, and last year we had over 300 people attend. That right there shows us that it’s something that is not only necessary but also something that people appreciate. Since next year is our fifth anniversary, we are looking to do a little something different, maybe a retreat or an expo where we bring the people in that have been contributing to Black Excellence in Real Estate, and they can share what they do in this industry. Of course, we still plan to have the gala, because people look forward to those annual awards.

Tammy and Mary celebrating at the 2023 BERE Gala

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Hester: I hope people understand that it’s not only about increasing homeownership for families, but it’s also about making sure that people have access to opportunities and that we are being mindful of predatory practices. Things like biased appraisals or unfair lending practices can really stifle the growth of homeownership and communities, and those are barriers that still exist. So that’s a big part of it too, to make sure that people are keeping their eyes on things like that and calling them out when they see them.

Thompson: I’m just so happy that we could bring this to life and that it’s something that people look forward to. I think the reason why it’s so well attended is that nobody else has celebrated Black professionals and Black homeownership in this way. I love it.

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