Project Destined Partners With BGO, Walker & Dunlop on CRE Certificate Program

The platform long known for internships and job interviews expands its diversification efforts

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In just a few weeks, when college senior Cristina Ciacciarelli dons a cap and gown, she’ll earn her degree in business administration, and then prepare to start at commercial real estate giant Greystar as an investment and development analyst. 

Just four years ago, as a Baruch College freshman, Ciacciarelli thought the only career in real estate was selling houses. It wasn’t until joining student mentorship program Project Destined as a rising sophomore that Ciacciarelli truly learned about the industry, though her education didn’t stop there. 

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Following her time in Project Destined’s internship program, Ciacciarelli continued with the organization through affiliated classes, which helped her prepare for a career in real estate.

In 2020, Project Destined expanded beyond its internship program to develop online courses for college students. Graduate school professors within the Project Destined framework teach the classes, which cover industry fundamentals such as development, capital markets, underwriting and the like. 

But, just like Ciacciarelli’s career, Project Destined appears to be just getting started. Now, the organization is expanding beyond both its internship program and previous course offerings to launch a full portfolio of real estate courses through the Project Destined Real Estate Certificate Program. Through a practical, hands-on curriculum, university students can earn a certificate in real estate, ideally included in the cost of their tuition — even at schools that don’t offer such certification. Depending on the school, students can also earn academic credit and have the chance to earn scholarship stipends.

To make the program a reality, Project Destined just announced a partnership with BGO and Walker & Dunlop. “Not all universities have a real estate curriculum and internships don’t always result in college credits,” Susan Weber, executive vice president, community engagement at Walker & Dunlop, told Commercial Observer via email. “This is a win-win. They get credit, experience and access to a whole network of experts who can help mentor them on their journey.”

Through those corporate partnerships, the certificate courses don’t require any investment on the university’s behalf; Project Destined promises to not only build a curriculum but to also deliver training, engage adjunct professors and then offer course loads every semester, with a set amount of slots available to a given university. 

“How can you get to the NFL if you don’t go to a school with college football?” said Cedric Bobo, Project Destined’s CEO and co-founder. Real estate has historically consisted of family businesses, he said, so there is a massive gap in the industry when it comes to low-cost access to great training. Case in point: Project Destined has nurtured the careers of  more than 8,000 students across 1,300 universities, “but 90 percent of our students go to colleges where they don’t have real estate programs,” Bobo said. 

Even when a school offers a real estate major or concentration — or both, as in the case of Baruch — Project Destined’s classes come in handy. The courses are meant to complement what a university, like Baruch, already offers, said Bobo. Take Ciacciarelli, a major in business administration, who didn’t know if she necessarily wanted a degree in real estate. Ultimately, she  opted for the concentration — but only after she’d already gleaned industry exposure from her time in Project Destined. 

Project Destined’s courses have already proven successful across universities from Manhattan’s Baruch to the Bronx’s Lehman College. Yet Project Destined is now taking things a step further with a curriculum of more than 10 courses.

Across those schools, students will have access to options that include commercial real estate fundamentals, real estate development, asset management, and financial modeling, among others. Instructors include professionals and academics — Project Destined identified professors who were experts in course topics, as well as industry practitioners — and Bobo himself does some of the teaching. His class on real estate investment and management includes meeting hours with mentors and teammates and combines project-based, experiential learning with lectures.

At Lehman College, for example, students can take Project Destined’s classes for course credit. The cost of the classes is included in a student’s standard college fees, explained Bobo, who called the course credit component “a massive win.” 

Schools like Lehman College primarily serve commuter students who comprise a diverse economic population. By lowering the cost of a real estate education, more people can explore the field, said Bobo, whose courses are intentionally virtual; the digital aspect reduces the cost of delivery and allows for better access and the ability to scale.

“[We’re] lowering the cost and [we’re] also expanding access,” said Bobo, “Because the kids are getting low-cost education, but now they’re getting access to professionals in our 250 different firms.”

The push for real estate education goes beyond Project Destined. Partnerships between universities and real estate heavy-hitters are expanding, as there’s an increased demand for both talent and more accessible, hands-on real estate courses. In October, Morehouse College — a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Atlanta — raised $3 million from Prologis to develop its real estate program. 

Meanwhile, not far from Morehouse, another Atlanta HBCU, Morris Brown College, caught the attention of Raoul Thomas, founder and CEO at CGI Merchant Group. After losing its accreditation in 2002, Morris Brown struggled financially and filed for bankruptcy. In 2021, CGI saw an opportunity to partner with the college; the company announced development plans for a 130-key hotel on Morris Brown’s campus with instructional space for a corresponding hospitality management training program. Right now, CGI is in the stages of getting its design finalized, with hopes to open the new development in 2026. (In 2022, Morris Brown regained its accreditation.) 

Through the program, Morris Brown students can experience the industry firsthand via internships and rotations at the hotel, in addition to their in-classroom studies. (Continuing with the theme of partnerships, Hilton — which will operate the hotel — contributed about 5,000 hospitality books to the school, said Thomas.) The curricula minutiae is ultimately up the school, clarified Thomas, but it’s “very much on-the-job training.” 

“With this curriculum, they will be rotated,” explained Robert Festinger, CGI’s senior managing director. “They will go through housekeeping, they will go through food and beverage, they will go to accounting, they will go through human resources.”

In doing so, students will gain exposure to all aspects of hospitality, some of which will better suit their personalities and interests. If students are more outgoing, for instance, they may prefer sales and marketing, whereas analytical, numbers-oriented students may find a passion for revenue management, said Thomas. 

“It’s great to have a theoretical textbook to guide you through the principles of hospitality management and so forth,” said Thomas, who compared the hotel to a teaching and learning center. “But having that hands-on practical experience while you’re gaining a theoretical knowledge … I think it’s going to be a game-changer.”

Ciacciarelli would agree. “I really enjoy the tangible aspects of [Project Destined’s] course and that you’re not just learning facts — and you’re not just learning concepts — but you’re also getting to hear industry leaders apply them to [the] real world,” she said. 

That practical component of real estate courses serves a purpose for both students and industry employers; students want to get jobs they’re prepared for, while commercial real estate wants to nurture — and hire — industry-ready talent. 

“The search for top diverse talent demands that we create new opportunities through active engagement and relationship building,” Sonny Kalsi, co-CEO of BGO, told CO via email. “The certificate program is a thoughtful approach that will fill learning gaps and equip hard-working students with the knowledge and skills to compete in an increasingly challenging job market.”

When applying for jobs, students can cite the classes they took with Project Destined, which comes with name recognition. Real estate companies know the Project Destined brand, so an associated course —and, soon enough, a certificate — yields a greater understanding and transparency about what, exactly, the student has learned. 

It’s for this reason that Bobo works with professors to build Project Destined’s syllabi — and then shares the syllabi back with the industry, asking how the course curriculum may help students get jobs at a given firm.

Students, however, are not the only ones to benefit from well-designed curricula. Since the pandemic, both finding talent and finding competent talent has been challenging, said Festinger, emphasizing “competent.” 

Preparing students for real estate careers at the university level can therefore make all the difference, as an industry-driven curriculum can tap into underrepresented pools of talent. Atlanta is a particular hub for hospitality, so the local market demand for talent already exists, said Thomas. He eventually hopes to educate high schoolers about the industry to further bring awareness to what hospitality really means. 

To ensure that CGI is achieving its goals to prepare students for the industry, Thomas plans to quantify the learning program’s success. By working with analytical firms to develop a set of key performance indicators, CGI will measure and track how many students go through the program, the impact they leave, where they ultimately work and so on. 

Of course, some students’ successes may be easier to monitor than others; Thomas wants to employ students at either CGI hotels or hotels through the company’s connections. “Every graduate that comes out of this program, we’re going to assist in finding a placement for them within our ecosystem of relationships,” he said. 

Bobo, likewise, sees a benefit from a talent perspective, which offers an incentive to Project Destined’s corporate partners. They’ll access screened, well-trained talent across a range of schools. 

This range will only continue to grow, as Bobo hopes to scale Project Destined’s certificate program nationally. For now, the curriculum will launch at the City University of New York (CUNY), as well as HBCUs that include Howard University, Florida A&M University and Claflin University. Florida A&M already offers students college credit for taking a Project Destined course, whereas CUNY’s Lehman College eventually wants to offer a real estate minor via the curriculum. 

“Ultimately, it’s about: How can you add value to schools and to great companies?” said Bobo.

Anna Staropoli can be reached at astaropoli@commercialobserver.com