Malia Lazu

Across every industry and business sector, it’s well recognized that increasing diversity and inclusion leads to better outcomes, from attracting the best talent to generating more innovative ideas. And yet, the real estate industry continues to be behind the times by continuing to be largely white and male. Despite these challenges, Black professionals such as Gosder Cherilus, founder and CEO of Bastion Cos., are making moves. I sat down recently with Gosder to talk about his successful National Football League (NFL) career – playing with the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – to commercial real estate, and his vision for a more equitable future.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Since retiring from the NFL, you went on to work in real estate and recently founded your own firm, Bastion Cos. What was it about real estate that grew your passion for your next chapter?

I am extremely appreciative of the football platform and how it’s allowed me to showcase my talent at the highest level and the opportunities it’s provided for myself and my family. The work ethic, the building of relationships – I learned all that from playing football and it will stay with me for life. My interest in real estate started with a few jobs and internships when I was in high school and college. I knew when the time was right that I wanted to be an owner and to impact change in the Boston community.

Most of us know that the real estate space in Boston is very white, especially in comparison to other major cities. What was the turning point for deciding to begin your own firm within such a challenging market?

You’re absolutely right about that. I played football at the highest level, blocked some of the toughest defensive linemen in our league – but I was not ready for the fight that was ahead for

me. I did all I could to get in, to network, and to learn the business. I was taking meeting after meeting to introduce myself and my company to literally every major developer in the city – and even the mayor’s office, but never received a call back. Despite working with one of the best developers at the time, multiple people shut me out and did not want to give me a chance.

After spending about six years trying over and over again, I made the decision that maybe real estate wasn’t for me and decided to go back to what I knew … football. I reached out to a friend in Tampa and asked if I could come back and help out for training camp and hopefully get back into coaching. I was there for about a week when I received a call from my Boston College classmate, John Hynes IV [of Boston Global Investors] about an opportunity in the Seaport. He convinced me to come meet with him and his father John Hynes III at BGI. That meeting is really what turned it all around.

Bastion is a venture partner on an exciting new project that just broke ground in the Seaport area – 10 World Trade. This is your largest project to date. Tell us a little about this project and the process it took to get here.

It was a long and strenuous process, but we are grateful for the Massport model, which gave us and every other team a fair fight for a bid. In the beginning, they started with 21 teams, then it was down to 11, then three – until we were told we were the best team for that job.

Last year, the Boston Globe reported that the city of Boston spent $2.1 billion in contracts over five years, yet only 1.2 percent of that money went to Black-owned and Latino-owned businesses. Do you have any ideas about what Massachusetts might do to help open the door to more black and brown partners in this process?

I think there is an opportunity to build more accountability on a bigger level, especially when Massport and the city keep encouraging diversity and inclusion in every deal. But I wish there were more who cared enough to enforce it. My goal was to reach out to minority/women-owned business enterprises [MWBE] about opportunities in our project. If they’re having issues finding partners, we introduce them to other companies; if it’s their first time we introduce them to other minority professionals who can help them understand the deals and the RFPs. Through that work, we found out that all those MWBE companies were more than qualified for all those projects, they just never had anyone really give them a fair chance.

You have made it a personal goal to contract with MBEs on your projects to create access. How has that built your network around New England to help others?

Having had the door shut in my face for many years, while knowing I was good enough to work on those projects, I became determined to create access and connect people to educate them more about the business. The future of this business is to expand and flourish with even more diverse ideas, greater equity, and the people willing to do the work to keep the gates open.

Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.   

Opening the Door to Great Diversity: A Conversation with Gosder Cherilus

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min