Fellow Travelers: REBNY’s 2023 Leadership Fellows

Now in its third year, the Real Estate Board of New York’s fellows program is proving a durable networking opportunity.


When Rudin Management operations manager Natisha Thomas decided to participate in the first Real Estate Board of New York fellows program two years ago, she expected to meet new contacts and learn about areas of commercial real estate outside her expertise.

What she didn’t expect was a soul-searching enterprise so emotionally revealing that she would wind up in tears.

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“There’s an exercise called brown bag,” said Thomas. “On the outside of the bag you put how people see you on the outside.”

On the inside, people were asked to write how they see themselves, and this became a far deeper exercise than she was prepared for. 

“You let things out, and you don’t realize how personal it is, and tears come out,” said Thomas, who stays in touch with the other fellows from her class. She said the program improved her ability to deal with the different personality types one encounters in the business world. 

“I was like, ‘What’s the purpose of this?’ And they said, ‘You have to understand that people have feelings, people are going through things, and they come to work and you don’t know that. You have to remember that people are more than just their surface.’ ”

The REBNY fellows program, a six-month course in which mid-career commercial real estate professionals engage in high-level seminars and leadership training to grow their professional skills, was launched in April 2020, and is now starting its third class. (The first class actually took place in 2021 due to the pandemic.)

The program is run by REBNY in accordance with the Coro New York Leadership Center, a civic leadership training organization. Coro’s training focuses on adaptive leadership, which emphasizes the ability to shift leadership styles depending on the situation.

In addition to training sessions run by Coro, this year’s 24 fellows, selected from a pool of over 50 applicants, examine and work through various issues selected based on feedback from the fellows in the previous two classes. 

“There is one day when we will cover different aspects of diversity and inclusion, one day where we’ll talk about sustainability, and then a third day around the continuum of housing,” said Yvonne Riley-Tepie, REBNY’s senior vice president of social impact. “Commingled in all of that is the common thread of what would you do as a fellow after this program to improve the state of real estate in New York.”

Riley-Tepie says she is especially excited for this year’s program, which held its orientation just last week, as it will be the first fully in-person version of the program, given past restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The first year we were completely virtual because of COVID, and in year two we were tiptoeing and working around COVID protocols. So, while we had in-person meetings, we did not have as much of the experiential feel that we wanted the program to have,” said Riley-Tepie. “So, this year, we’re incorporating a lot more tours of different projects. We’re going to different neighborhoods, and have introduced a lunchtime speaker series where we’re bringing in real estate owners, operators, project managers and developers to speak directly to the fellows. It’s a much more dynamic program, and every year our goal is to give the fellows a broader experience. This year, I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Speakers participating in the program will include Anthony Borelli, senior vice president of planning and development for Edison Properties; Vicki Been, former New York deputy mayor for housing and economic development and currently the faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; and Bill Rudin, CEO and co-chairman of Rudin Management.

Participants see numerous advantages in participating in the program.

“It’s a great opportunity for anyone in the early- to mid-stages of their career,” said Eduardo Fiallo, a vice president of property management at developer and owner Hines who participated in the program last year. “The networking was fantastic, as was the ability to get insight into different leadership and management styles. It was very insightful. And knowing that I could share my own personal experiences and understand that others are going through similar things was very helpful.” 

This year’s participants say they are eager to delve in. 

“I’m very excited about growing my network beyond just the affordable housing space, and connecting with other leaders who are working in similar spaces with different creative ideas for financing,” said Nicole Zaccack, one of REBNY’s 2023 fellows and a development manager at Jonathan Rose Companies who works on sustainable affordable housing in urban centers like New York and Los Angeles.

“I wanted to enter into an industry group this year that had cross-disciplinary leaders that were focusing on some of the city’s largest issues, and how we can address them through the built environment,” the New York-based Zaccack said. “A lot of our cities are experiencing unprecedented homelessness and inflation costs, so it’s a critical moment for us to think about how we can start to address these problems across multiple industries.”

Hironori Imaizumi, a senior analyst at brokerage CBRE (CBRE), describes himself as being one of the people dedicated to making sure his company has the best information in New York City. He sees his 2023 fellowship as a step toward that goal.

“It’s exciting to be in the same room with big names who work with other property types, and play larger roles than myself in other companies,” said Imaizumi. “I really look forward to learning how different individuals approach challenges the real estate market faces in the city that I can’t see just from sitting as an analyst studying retail. I really want to get deeper into things like sustainability, finance and the management of operating properties during COVID. Overall, I want to learn from the discussions and the cross-training to take my career to the next level.”

Nekesha Sawh, a senior portfolio program manager at Hines, manages sustainability, environmental health and safety programming for a portfolio of properties in Midtown Manhattan and in Washington, D.C. Sawh said she looks forward to her fellowship for the ability to embrace the program’s leadership aspects.

“I want to work on being able to navigate within the more senior C-suite arena,” said Sawh, a 20-year veteran of the commercial real estate industry. “In this role, I’m presenting more on a portfolio-wide, global platform, doing a lot of speaking engagements. I want this to help me fine-tune that, and also, as a leader, be able to figure out how I can inspire other young leaders along the way to meet their needs.”

Interested commercial real estate professionals can apply for next year’s cohort on REBNY’s website at www.rebny.com/
. The trade organization suggests that applicants have at least five years of industry experience. REBNY will begin recruiting for next year’s program in September.

And it will continue to tout the advantages it has found these past three years that it can provide: namely, fresh and lasting networking opportunities and a way for participants to improve their leadership skills.  

“Fellows walk away with more confidence that their career is on the right trajectory,” said REBNY’s Riley-Tepie. “That’s one of the greatest joys after the program is overseeing them walk away with this confidence.”