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How agents transition successfully from residential to commercial real estate

NAR’s Spire membership program was birthed out of efforts to diversify the real estate field and a commitment to mentorship.

Two people working in office on laptop representing ethical business.

At some point in our lives, we all need someone like Mike.

Ahmed Islam left a successful career in banking to become a commercial real estate agent in Pennsylvania’s burgeoning Lehigh Valley. But six years after passing his licensing exams, Ahmed was still only closing residential deals.

Sometime in early 2021, battling professional frustration and prompted by an email from the National Association of Realtors®, Ahmed decided to get involved in NAR Spire.

This mentorship initiative – created in part to foster real estate careers within traditionally underrepresented communities – kicked off last summer with a professional development webinar series.

Ahmed tuned into every session, including one co-hosted by Mike Vachani. He listened intently as Mike, the managing broker of a Southern California firm 2,700 miles away, dove into the question Ahmed had spent more than a half-decade asking himself: How do agents transition successfully from residential to commercial real estate?

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For Mike, who had agreed to participate in the Spire program as an occasional guest speaker – not as a mentor – what came next took him by surprise.

“Since the day I became a Realtor® I always wanted to be a commercial Realtor®,” Ahmed notes.

“Everyone I talked to told me that commercial Realtors® are in a world of their own. I knew of this stigma going in.”

“But when Mike came to speak to us, I was like, who is this guy? Commercial Realtors® don’t talk like that. He really seemed to understand the challenges that residential Realtors® face when trying to break into the commercial world.”

In the days that followed, Ahmed left voicemails on Mike’s phone. Then emails. And more voicemails, until Mike called him back and agreed—despite the physical distance between them—to mentor Ahmed through his transition into commercial real estate.

“I really bugged him,” Ahmed recalls more than a year later, still apologizing for his persistence.

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“It paid off,” Mike interjects.

Ahmed knows he’s right, and he knows that determination was worth any mild embarrassment that came with it.

“It paid off big… What I had tried to do for seven years, Mike did for me in seven months.”

Ahmed was born in Bangladesh, where he spent much of his childhood. His father, an engineer, later found a job in the United Arab Emirates, about an hour from Dubai, and the family relocated with him. Ahmed finished school and came to America “as quickly as I could,” enrolling in an undergraduate program at the City University of New York.

About a year after his transition out of banking, Ahmed interviewed with a commercial brokerage but was never offered a position. He wouldn’t apply to another commercial firm until after meeting Mike.

“I didn’t blame them,” Ahmed says today of that initial rejection. “I didn’t have the experience, the knowledge. I didn’t have someone like Mike to show me the way.”

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Ahmed had tried his luck reaching out to other commercial Realtors® for support over the years. But no one, he says, was like Mike.

“They weren’t rude or anything, but everyone seemed like they weren’t ready to take someone on. Then the Spire program came around, and Mike came and spoke to us, and I really bugged him,” Ahmed recounts today with another apology.

“Mentors are not there to build your business, they’re there to guide you. And he was a great guide,” Ahmed adds.

“Mike really helped me understand the commercial side in a different context.”

There are many parallels to how Mike approaches his relationship with Ahmed and how he runs his firm in Monrovia, California.

“I have a different philosophy,” Mike said. “Mine’s all about synergy. I believe that if you help others, they’ll always help you back. For my company, I like to keep a small staff because I want an environment where each team member is going to grow and learn from one another.”

Today, Ahmed and Mike consider themselves close friends. They spent the first few months of their partnership meeting every other week via Zoom. As the virtual interactions became less frequent, the two found ways to connect in person at NAR conferences and meetings, including last year at the REALTORS® Conference and Expo in San Diego, and this May at the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings. Mike and Ahmed are also planning to connect in Manhattan at NAR’s upcoming C5 Summit, the nation’s premier event for commercial real estate, from August 15-17.

Spire was formed as part of NAR’s efforts to attract people from different backgrounds to a profession that has historically been largely homogenous. Overall, Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 11% of Realtors® in 2021, followed by Black/African Americans at 8%, and Asian/Pacific Islanders at 5%.

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But with all the challenges facing U.S. real estate today, one of the most positive trends we see is the increasing diversity among those newest to the field. NAR’s 2022 Member Profile found that 37% of those with two years or less experience in real estate were racial minorities, a substantial increase from just 12 months prior.

Through Spire, it is our hope that Mike, and other volunteers like him, will continue to lead new and blossoming members through their own processes of professional growth, advancement, and transition.

It has now been about six months since Ahmed fully shifted from residential to commercial real estate. While the mentorship from Mike has been invaluable, this is a significant move that takes most agents years to establish.

“That’s a big shift,” Mike notes. “And the transition doesn’t happen overnight. But that’s why Spire is so valuable because it helps spearhead these changes and makes everything move faster for agents who are working with a mentor.”

The benefits are not lost on Ahmed.

“Mike showed me the way. He came in and gave me all these tips that I still use. He is the reason why I am a commercial Realtor® today. And I love it.”

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Chief Executive Officer, National Association of REALTORS, Bob Goldberg has overseen transformations that have positioned NAR as real estate's leading figure in the fight for diversity and inclusion; the industry's primary driver of technological innovation; and as an association lauded for a genuine, unwavering commitment to its members. Bob's full bio is available here.


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