Originally published on The Industry Cosign January 26, 2015
One can help a community one is familiar with in order to make things beneficial for that community. The beauty of giving back is knowing who you are giving back to, the purpose you’re giving back and the satisfaction of realizing that the community grows based on the contribution you are making. Brian Benjamin knows this firsthand and it’s the crux of his real estate development firm, Genesis Companies.
The Industry Cosign was able to talk to Benjamin regarding the basis of the reason Genesis Companies has been in existence for over 10 years and growing stronger as more projects land on his plate.
You are a partner in Genesis Companies could you explain to us what that is and your role in the company?
Genesis Companies is a black-owned real estate development and construction company focused on enhancing urban communities through the development of high quality affordable and mixed-income residences in New York and New Jersey. My job is to find new development opportunities and help steer them through the predevelopment process. I also work to ensure that we have community support for our projects and that they benefit communities and improve neighborhoods.
How did you get your start in your current business?
Karim Hutson founded the company in 2004, and he was actually the first person I met on a Harvard business school recruitment weekend when we were prospective students. He became a very good friend and so I was around Genesis since inception until I joined officially in 2010.
What gets you up in the morning to run your business?
Knowing that I am playing a role in creating quality affordable housing for residents is a great feeling. In many urban centers, like my community of Harlem, there is a lack of low-income and middle-income living opportunities, so doing something about it is challenging and rewarding.
How important, if it is important, is it to have a Black company doing business in Black communities for the benefit of Black people?
It is quite important. We primarily partner with nonprofits and churches, where trust is essential. They are giving us the power to build or renovate housing for their constituents so when they see us and communicate with us and understand that we are just like them, it puts them at ease. Furthermore, having grown up in primarily African-American communities, we understand first-hand some of the issues that our communities face due to poor quality housing, such as asthma or lack of security, and so we are very focused creating healthy and safe living environments. We know the experience of our residents, and I believe that makes us better developers.
I know this is your 10 year anniversary of Genesis, what was/is the most important thing your company has done that you are most proud of or is a high point in your 10 years?
First and foremost is surviving for 10 years through difficult economic times. It is hard work starting and growing a business in the development space. As a result, we are able to employ people and feed families, which will only grow over time. Additionally, we provided community space, at below-market rent, on the ground floor of one of our residential buildings in Harlem for a Dream Center to help underserved children and families. I recently did a site visit of the center, which is operated by First Corinthian Baptist Church, to view its progress and I was blown away by what the church is doing with the space. The amount of young people, who are impacted on a daily basis, as a result of the work we do is very gratifying.
What is next up for Genesis as far as major projects?
We are working on a 28 building, 357 unit renovation project in Harlem with the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem and it’s our biggest project to date. It is taking up a lot of our time and we have just finished walking the sites, speaking to residents and hearing their stories, and so as we are developing our scope of work for the rehab we know how important this will be for the community. We are also working on projects in Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey.
You are the founder of Young Professionals United for Change (YP4C), could you tell us what type of company this is and how you give back through this organization?
YP4C was an organization that I helped found in 2008 to mobilize young professionals of color to elect then Senator Obama. Since then the organization has been focused on helping to increase civic engagement among young professionals of color. I’ve noticed that our young professionals tend to be involved with nonprofits but not involved with our civic organizations like the NAACP, National Urban League, National Action Network, electing politicians, etc. I try to bridge that gap with YP4C to ensure we are impacting important policies that can better our communities.
If someone came up to you and asked what was the most important factor that you utilize to run your business, what would you say and what advice would you give someone who strives for excellence in what they do?
Leadership. As the developer, I am at the top of the work chain so I have to be prepared to make things happen every day, which includes motivating folks, who work for me to do their job in a timely fashion. It requires me to be focused, committed and to think ahead. Quality of work and execution timing are essential to being successful in any space but especially development.
You’ve done investment banking and you’re involved with business development with Genesis now, is there anything you’d like to do before you are ready to hang up the gloves?
I am in leadership on my local Community Board in Central Harlem. I see a future for myself in elected public office as well. Based on the work I do on a daily basis, I am very aware of the important role elected officials play in guiding our city, state and country on a range of issues. I think my experiences thus far give me a unique perspective to help make a difference in our people’s lives through policies that uplift and empower communities.