CDA Interviews: Empowering Black and Minority-Owned Retail Businesses

Dec 19, 2022

After the death of George Floyd and the protests that ensued, Brookfield Properties sales leader Michelle Isabel was feeling what a lot of people were feeling: scared, angry, and anxious for the future. Michelle took all of that emotion, bundled it up with her professional expertise and a sense of needing to do something tangible, and created the Partner to Empower program. PTE creates opportunities for minority entrepreneurship through both monetary funding and business education with volunteers from across industries, including leadership team members from Chipman Design. In her latest interview, CDA CEO Lauren Chipman talks with Michelle about Partner to Empower, how the program empowers minority business owners, Michelle's current role as head of the program, and the birth of an ecosystem of support among graduates of the program.

Lauren: Michelle, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. A lot of people love you, but I feel like I'm president of the Michelle Isabel fan club here. I feel so honored that we've gotten to meet and work together.

Michelle: I have never even thought of the possibility of there being a Michelle Isabel fan club. So, Lauren, you are definitely the president because you're the first one who has ever said anything like that to me. I'm flattered you've asked me to be here.

Lauren: You have such an interesting career and journey. Can you tell us a little bit about where you started?

Michelle: I’ve been with Brookfield Properties for over 20 years, working with our team that manages mixed use properties: residential, office, and shopping centers worldwide. I've been leading a sales region most of my career in this industry and my teams have been all over our portfolio. And I had the opportunity, unfortunately, with the murder of George Floyd to think about what could we be doing to help break down systemic racism. What more should I be doing as a Black woman in this industry, in this country, who has experienced racism in my life. What is it that we can contribute to help break down systemic racism? And so here we are today.

Lauren: And that's really what we're here to talk about: this incredible program that you have started at Brookfield called Partner to Empower. How did Partner to Empower start?

Michelle: I had not thought about it prior to 2020. I was focused on leading sales teams. I've had a very successful career with Brookfield and my focus was delivering the goods, delivering what I've promised to deliver every year. After the murder of George Floyd— that event impacted me in a way that I've never been impacted. As a Black person in this country, you learn to deal with it and keep going and keep growing. But, for some reason, I just could not get past the murder of George Floyd and the events after that. I needed to take these tears, and this anxiety and in some cases, anger, and do something about it. And that's what started me on this journey with Partner to Empower. And Lauren, I have to tell you, it was the best decision I've ever made.

Lauren: That's extraordinary. And since the program’s inception two years ago, your full-time role is now managing and overseeing this program. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Michelle: Partner to Empower is a program dedicated to providing monetary and expertise support to Black and minority business owners including one-on-one business planning and guidance, funding dedicated to store construction expenses and a four-week, intensive Retail Workshop. We started our first cohort in 2021 focusing on six states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. When we started this, I had this grand plan of starting nationwide but you gotta learn how to crawl before you walk.

We started in the Southeast region because there is a large concentration of minority entrepreneurs in that area. When we launched in 2021, we received over 500 applications with the inaugural cohort featuring 20 new entrepreneurs.

Lauren: The goal of Partner to Empower, of course, is to get more Black-owned, Asian-owned, Latin-X owned businesses into Brookfield properties. But, you're not just giving them the lease or some money. Can you talk a little bit about this intensive training program?

Michelle: Absolutely. When I first started thinking about and developing Partner To Empower it was about funding entrepreneurs, giving them the opportunity to have working capital, and in so many cases, businesses failed early on because of the lack of working capital. But after I started thinking about it, my thought was: this doesn't make sense to provide people with this funding if we can't also provide them with the knowledge. That's where the workshop comes in. It provides them with the right information to start their businesses or to expand what they already have.

Our workshop is a four week virtual workshop, led by our industry partners. We talk about business banking, business taxes, hiring strategies, business insurance, marketing, advertising... We also have Chipman Design there to facilitate a session on architectural services and the process the retailers should expect. There are about 28 sessions that focus on all aspects of running a successful business.

Lauren: The amount of expertise that you're able to pack into a month is extraordinary. A unique part of it is that it's not only these workshops, but the Learning Circle program that functions as a peer support group for the participants to bounce ideas off of one another and problem solve together. My colleague Nelly Augustyn and I have been honored to lead two of Learning Circle groups thus far, and the amount of expertise that already exists within these business owners and how they're able to share lessons with one another is so phenomenal. 

Michelle: I couldn't have said it better. The bonding and relationships that are created virtually prove people do not have to be in the same room to learn, create and build relationships and to support one another. This program has been described as Harvard Business School on steroids. The person who described it as such graduated from our first cohort... and she's also a graduate of Harvard Business School. So, she could make that comparison.

Lauren: Do you see people keeping in touch with each other and continuing to support each other? Both from companies like Chipman and the entrepreneurs, and both internally within the entrepreneurs who are in a cohort together.

Michelle: So our real goal in all of this at the end of the day, is to be able to create this ecosystem of support. Ongoing support in the communities. So whether it's between retailers, whether it's between businesses and our facilitators and learning circle advisors like Chipman, that's what we want to do. And that's what we see so far.

Lauren: And it's all because you believe in these people and you're willing to back it up with both the expertise and the financial support. I think is so meaningful. How do you think Partner to Empower is different from other business organizations that are supporting, BIPOC and AAPI entrepreneurs and communities right now?

Michelle: Partner to Empower is not just checking a box. Brookfield has made a commitment through the end of 2025. We've committed $25 million to this program, which is a lot of money, and we're going to be able to help a lot of people's dreams come true. When I first approached our CEO with this, I made it very clear that I didn't want to be a part of a program that was here today and gone tomorrow. Systemic racism cannot be solved with a bandaid, or a few stitches. This is a gash in our nation that is going to take lots of businesses in many communities to heal. Partner to Empower supports entrepreneurs who are serious about having something of their own making who are serious about expanding, and creating a legacy. Creating that generational wealth that they've not had an opportunity to participate in. And so that's what makes us different.

Lauren: You really hit on it there. This is not just affecting these individuals, they're building a legacy for their families. When you look at the capacity for growth it's extraordinary. 

I think a lot of people see what's going on and they feel this calling to do more, but don't know where to start or feel like I couldn't really make a meaningful change or this is you have to start over the whole country or what can I do?

Michelle: You know what, Lauren, that's such a great question. It starts with communication, it starts with talking about it. Racism makes people uncomfortable. Period. If you talk about bullying, it makes people uncomfortable. If you talk about things that that you. Have not experienced, you're, we are just by nature, uncomfortable in spaces that we're not used to being in or uncomfortable in situations that we're not used to being in. So I think it starts with communication.

Lauren: Do you have any recommendations or advice, people who are willing to make this, their focus and who are in it for the long term and who are really passionate about it?

Michelle: First of all, you have to have a plan. Obviously. And explain to them why you wanna do it, how it can be done. And the plan may not have all of the details, because we sure we certainly didn't when we went in or when I went in to talk to our CEO listen, like to work for a company. That stands for something, people want to work for a company that believes in helping people who need to be helped. I think you need to have that conversation with your executives as to why this is so important, not just to you, but why it should be important to your company and why it's important to the community and why it's important to our country.

Lauren: So, what is next for you and the program, Michelle?

Michelle: What's next? We will continue to expand this program throughout our portfolio. We have shopping centers all over the country, including Hawaii. We will have three workshops next year but people from all over our portfolio are all over the nation are eligible to apply to the program anytime they want to.

At this point. I really am a department of one with some incredible, passionate, committed volunteers, who also work for Brookfield. I would also like to see us collaborate with more with minority-owned construction companies who can build out these spaces for these entrepreneurs.

Lauren: With the long term commitment that Brookfield has made and with your leadership, I see this going farther and farther. It's really an amazing journey you've been able to bring your passion to fruition in a very short amount of time; it speaks to not only your brilliance and how you push things forward, but also how you inspire all of those around you. 

Partner to Empower applications will open again in 2023, learn more about the program at Brookfield Properties' Partner To Empower website.