Ryan Williams, a black CEO, has a message for other leaders
New York (CNN Business)The United States is experiencing a “reckoning” over race, justice and inequality that has been decades in the making, fintech CEO Ryan Williams told CNN Business.
“We’ve been hallucinating as a country for a long time,” said Williams, the 32-year-old African American founder of Cadre, a startup disrupting the real estate industry with the support of elite investors including George Soros, Mark Cuban and Peter Thiel.
Williams, who was on the cover of Forbes in February 2019, said the unrest gripping the United States means these long-simmering issues can no longer be ignored.
I was given an opportunity. I seized the moment. But that opportunity needs to be democratized."
Ryan Williams, founder and CEO of Cadre
“There are huge opportunity gaps that exist in this country economically,” the Harvard graduate said. “Coronavirus, in many ways, exacerbated and brought those to light.”
Racial inequality has been a major problem in the United States since long before the pandemic struck.
In 2016, the median net worth of white households is about 10 times that of black households, according to the Federal Reserve. The white-black gap in median net worth widened by more than $20,000 to $153,500 between 2013 and 2016, the most recent year statistics are available.
‘Heartbreaking’ to see division
Williams, who rarely discusses race or his background in public, felt compelled to speak up after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police.
“It’s been hurtful…to see someone literally be murdered. Not die in front of us, but be murdered,” Williams said.
After days of protests and riots, all four former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death are facing charges.
Williams is distraught by how inclusion and diversity are now dividing the nation.
“It’s been heartbreaking to see the very strengths and ideals that this country was founded on being the same thing that tears us apart,” he said.
Living the American Dream
In many ways, Williams is living the American Dream, one that is far out of reach for many people.
He grew up in a working-class household in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — which Williams says is a “Deep South city that in the past has been plagued by segregation.”
In high school, Williams was told by guidance counselors and teachers not to bother applying to Harvard because nobody with his background had gotten in before. He applied anyway, and launched his first real estate company during his senior year there.
“I was just really, really fortunate that there were people who believed in me,” Williams said.
After stints at Goldman Sachs (GS)and private-equity giant Blackstone (BX), Williams founded Cadre in 2014. The digitized investment platform’s high-profile investors also include Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
“I was given an opportunity. I seized the moment. But that opportunity needs to be democratized,” Williams said. “People around this country don’t have access to the American Dream and to the economy.”
Dealing with racism
There remains a wide economic disparity along racial lines in the United States.
The median income for black households is $41,000, compared with $71,000 for white households, according to the Fed. The poverty rate for black Americans is more than double that of whites.
Health care is another major fault line. The percentage of black Americans lacking health care is nearly double that of white Americans, according to 2018 the US Census Bureau.
Williams said he experienced racism in his career, though it wasn’t always explicit.
“A lot of the discrimination, racism and bigotry today isn’t always in-your-face,” he said. “It can be behind the scenes, behind doors. It can be in the boardroom where you might not be.”
Even after years of pushes to improve diversity, there are still far too few black professionals in Corporate America.
Black professionals held just 3.3% of all executive or senior leadership roles in 2018, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And there are just four black CEOs in the Fortune 500, down from 6 in 2012, according to Fortune.
Williams said that boards must hold companies accountable by creating diversity and inclusion metrics that can be measured, not unlike internal targets for revenue growth.
The Kushner connection
Despite the controversy over the Trump administration’s handling of the race crisis, Williams indicated he isn’t concerned about his company’s ties to Kushner, a senior White House adviser.
Kushner’s stake in Cadre is worth up to $50 million, according to a 2019 financial disclosure form. Cadre, which was co-founded by Jared Kushner’s brother Joshua, was valued in its most recent round of funding at about $800 million, according to estimates by PitchBook.
Cadre has said that Jared Kushner has no involvement in the company. Kushner reached a deal earlier this year to fully divest his stake in Cadre, however the closing of the transaction has been delayed by the pandemic, a person familiar with the matter told CNN Business. Both sides are still committed to completing the sale as soon as possible, the person said.
Expanding access to investment opportunities
Williams is hoping that Cadre can be part of the solution to the nation’s inequality problem.
The platform, powered by machine learning and statistics, gives individuals the ability to invest in real estate projects that were once open only to wealthy and well-heeled financial players.
Williams got his feet wet in the real estate market during the Great Recession. That experience made him realize periods of distress can also bring opportunity.
But it also made Williams understand that many Americans didn’t have the money or connections to invest in real estate. And that obstacle limited their ability to create wealth.
“The people who were investing around us (during the Great Recession) were not individuals. They were institutions. These were people that were going to basically have even stronger holds on wealth creation and upside.”
As the real estate market once again enters a period of turmoil, Cadre plans to launch a recovery-focused investment vehicle that will lower the minimum investment below the current level of $50,000. Cadre has not announced how much lower it will go.
“This is an incredible opportunity for us to democratize access,” Williams said.
Millennials moving to the suburbs
But the disruption caused by the pandemic is also a time of enormous uncertainty. Nervous developers are shying away from risky real estate projects, even in major cities like New York that were booming just months ago.
“The commercial real estate markets are pretty much frozen right now,” Williams said.
That slowdown in deals is squeezing Cadre, prompting the company to slash costs. Cadre recently laid off 27 people, or roughly a quarter of its workforce, to keep the company on solid financial footing.
“It was by far the hardest day of my career,” Williams said.
Although Williams is still “hunkered down in the city,” he believes that the pandemic will set off a migration to the suburbs by young people who suddenly value space.
“You’ll see Millennials saying, ‘That idea of being in the city for the rest of my life, maybe it’s not as interesting or exciting as I might’ve thought. It’d be nice to have a little backyard and to see the sky every now and then,'” he said.
But Williams doesn’t think that shift will last forever because cities will remain cultural, economic and social hubs.
“Longer term, cities will rebound,” he said. “We will see people return.”
‘Let’s seize this moment’
Williams said he tries not to get “intertwined” in politics and he speaks to people from across the political spectrum about race.
“There’s going to be an opportunity from a voting perspective for people to use their voice,” he said.
Asked what his message would be to Trump, Williams urged leaders to have “uncomfortable dialogue” that can lead to real change to the system.
“Let’s seize this moment. Let’s use the ideals of America, the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity…to actually make progress in America,” he said. [
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