Harvard for Real (Estate)
When the text message arrived last November inviting me to go to Harvard and talk about branding in real estate, the reaction was the same as always, and with almost everything: of course! Everybody knows I like to talk, so, any opportunity to do it and I'm in.
The Harvard Real Estate Weekend is an event organized by the real estate clubs of both the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Harvard Business School. It’s about connecting the students with industry professional, mostly to share and learn over the two days, but also to network. The weekend has a few different events on the agenda, from panels to keynotes, competitions, exhibitions, all involving the students and the guest speakers.
My contribution looked like this:
1: Taking part in a panel discussion about real estate mega projects.
2: A keynote on the role of branding in architecture and real estate.
Usually I look at these opportunities as moments to share whatever life has been throwing at me, and in the end try to have some impact in the lives of the people listening. And that was the driver for my preparation; this isn’t a chance to be a typical academic speaker, but to bring another take on these subjects, through life experiences.
Fast forward a few months, and after two very therapeutic days as a brand tourist in NYC I’m chilled to the bone in Boston with snow and sub-zero winds. Was it cold enough to not bike though? Not a chance. Boston is perfect for two wheeled movement so renting a single speed and making my way to the Graduate School of Design seemed like a plan.
What drives me to these places is the opportunity to, in the middle of many people, find the one that will in some way make the whole experience memorable. I was sure that I would be surrounded by interesting people, and by interesting I'm not saying people that I agree with, but even in that, listening to opinions that differ from mine make me look for the real arguments on why I believe what I do.
And that was what I was looking for from the first day. You don’t always get what you're looking for, and usually it takes some time and effort to find that conversation and that person. But the other side of the coin is that you can be that person for someone else and the moment you let that sink in and enjoy all the conversations, the ones that bring you something and the ones that don't, is when the purpose of the trip finally starts having an effect.
And then it was here - the last panel of the weekend. I have to say that I truly felt humbled by the experience. When I thought that no talk would ever make me nervous, there I was, in the massive Harvard Business School auditorium with a few hundred people looking on, and sitting between some very smart and interesting co-panelists.
Why would these people want to listen to me? What could I bring to the table that they don't know yet?
And then the answer: be yourself. Share what you really think about the subject, follow the presentation, and above all, be honest.
Not only was I the only non-American (and non-english native speaker) on the panel, but I’m also not a "real estate" person. What I had to give was what I came here for: insights on how branding, real branding, can add value to mega projects, in a period where people are looking at property from a narrative point of view.
Is the story real? Why should I invest in this project? and how can it impact my life, and the lives of others?
I never went to college, so every time I have the opportunity to be at one I always try to make the most out of it, mostly by challenging some of the established ideas that life might have shown me in other ways. And that happened here, especially because the event was dominated by real estate related people and the industry pre-assumptions were all over the place.
I remember how upset I was listening to one of the panels on the current changes in hospitality, and disagreeing completely with what all the panelists were saying.
The context was that everything that challenges the industry, in this case AirBnb, or boutique hotels, or whatever is being innovated these days, wouldn't last. And even knowing that it might even be true (one day), the fact is that not only is the end consumer benefiting from all these “irreverent” concepts but the industry will benefit in the long term, and probably even the short term.
The fact that they are being pushed out of their comfort zone, out of the stinky-carpet eighties mega hotels, where customer service and customer experience where forbidden words, to a place where even those mega brands now start to really understand and care for the customer, all of that is the impact from the AirBnb's and Ace Hotel's of the world.
Being uncomfortable is good. It makes us look for something else, something better. It makes us move forward. Wasn't that what drove people like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and others? Going against the flow, and challenging assumptions that everybody took for granted?
I probably didn't use the "normal" words, and I probably (definitely) even said something I shouldn't have, but I meant it. And judging by the number of people that wanted to continue the conversation after, the message went through.
I have been involved in enough projects to know that there are more followers than leaders. And at the end of the day, that was where I tried to have just a little bit of impact during the weekend, first by expressing my not-very-polished opinions, and second by trying to motivate all the students around me to think with their heads, even when everybody else disagrees.
The day of my keynote started by visiting the amazing architectural landmarks of Harvard. Seeing Saarinen's chapel alone, or Alvar Aalto dorm was one of the high moments of my trip. These guys were just amazing, and they always inspire me because they did "their thing". They never tried to please anyone. They knew what they wanted, and they did it.
When I was preparing my keynote I didn't know what the expectations of the attendees would be, not only because I was speaking at a real estate event at Harvard, but especially because the organizers said that there was a demand for content about branding in the industry. My first reaction was of surprise, but then it hit me that by branding they meant meaning, purpose and the impact of those brands on the projects perception.
This is the generation that wants to know why, even when buying a property. They want to know how that decision is going to impact their lives. That made my job so much easier.
This was a different moment. A smaller crowd, more my thing: intimate, closer to the participants, and the opportunity to share what Slash has been doing over the years. It was not a moment for portfolio, but a moment to share who we are, and how we do things. And more importantly, WHY we do it. It felt so good looking into everyone's eyes and seeing that they were listening, and that they were just waiting for the opportunity to ask questions. And it happened. One of the longest Q&A moments I have ever had.
The questions weren’t about logos or colours, but about how you impact through design and how you impact organizations, but above all lives.
“How do you create a team that believes in the same as you?”
"How can a narrative impact the positioning of a property?”,
"How can we gather the right team for a project?”,
"How can we communicate the right message, without looking always over our shoulders?”.
Without wanting to be too obvious, my answers were always based on our life at Slash, and quoting Kingdom's tagline, don't be afraid to "be yourself". It might take longer, but it's more sustainable than simply following without thinking, or forcing things that you don't believe in.
If there's something all these years told me it’s that, in life and at work (can they be separated?), you need to stand for what you truly believe that is right, and you will always collect benefits from it. Always.
It might hurt, it might take time, but the return on investment (ROI - good real estate lingo there) will be long lasting, and you'll reflect the joy of happiness to everyone around you.
And that’s why I came all the way from the UAE, I wanted to be asked these questions, because this is why we, at Slash, wake up every day. We want to feel that we mean something to the people around us, and that, at the end of the day, their lives are going to be better through what we do.
And we mean it.