Independent broker-owners Kofi Nartey and Quiana Watson are at the top of their respective markets, with each being an example of where hard work, grit, and determination can take you in an über-competitive luxury market. However, Nartey and Watson’s ascents have no means been easy, partially due to the racial and gender discrimination that colors Black professionals’ experiences at all levels of real estate.
“Sometimes when people think of a small, Black-owned brokerage, the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘They only have a certain clientele they can assist,” Watson told Inman of her newly minted Atlanta-based brokerage, Watson Realty Co.
“It’s unfortunate, but it is the truth that we are judged 10 times harder than other agents,” Watson added. “We’re expected to work harder, longer, and be more available than [agents of] other races, even when dealing with [clients] of our own race. We always have to be on our game.”
A 13-year real estate veteran, Watson said she knew from the beginning that more would be expected of her as a Black woman in Atlanta’s quickly growing and competitive real estate market. In the early stages of her career, Watson showed an average of 15 homes per day to build her client base, which now includes Atlanta’s most well-known professionals, celebrities and athletes.
“Working in the Atlanta area, you would be surprised because we are known to be predominantly African American and have a lot of African Americans in leadership roles here,” Watson said. “So you see that, and you assume that it would be so much easier in the luxury realm for us.”
“Unfortunately, I found that we have our own set of challenges,” she added.
Watson said many of her challenges come from other luxury real estate professionals, rather than from buyers and sellers who don’t want to work with a Black real estate professional.
“What happens when you’re touring properties, or you’re acquiring about a property, or you are out and about; it’s not so much of the clients that are the issue because they chose you, and they’re excited to work with you,” Watson explained. “I feel like some of the responses we get from the other side can be a little overbearing.”
Watson recounted multiple racial profiling experiences, where listing agents followed her and her clients from room to room during a tour to the point where her clients became visibly uncomfortable.
“I’ve found that once you are hitting a certain mark, not only will the agent meet you there, which is customary,” Watson said, “but I’ve had to ask agents to please back up or allow us a little room in the house to tour on our own and not be so hovering over us.”
“I speak to agents of other races; I don’t feel like they deal with that as much as we do,” she added. “I’ve had a client walk away from a house, not because she didn’t love it, but because of the fear that she felt with the [listing] agent.”
More than 2,000 miles away, Society broker-owner Kofi Nartey echoed Watson’s experience, saying he’d faced similar experiences while working his way up the luxury ladder in Los Angeles.
“Even as I’ve experienced my progression throughout my career, the point of launching Society with Side as my partner, from being an agent to then being an owner, people do receive you differently,” Nartey told Inman. “That said, the path to this to this position is one that obviously has been different for me as a person of color, and it is also something that I’ve seen, as it relates to my clients and their experience.”
For example, Nartey said he recently helped a Black male client find a rental in Los Angeles until he found the perfect home to purchase. The client was a finance executive with a Harvard degree, but the listing agent assumed the client could only afford the $25,000 per-month rental agreement because he was an athlete.
“I’ve had some very specific, interesting experiences with my clients where I’ve shown up to show them a luxury property or luxury homes in a certain neighborhood,” Nartey said. “And the other agent has, again, made assumptions about who they are with their background. ”
“There’s this quick assumption that it’s an athlete, they must be an athlete,” he added. “We put somebody in a lease [in September] at $25,000 a month, and he’s a finance guy.”
When it comes to serving Black sellers, Watson and Nartey detailed the same listing preparation process, which includes removing pictures, decor, books, framed degrees or any item that could give agents, buyers or appraisers a clue about who lives in the home.
“Sometimes when I’m representing sellers, I immediately [tell them what to remove],” Watson said. “It’s part of my first meeting, our second meeting and even the third meeting when either myself or one of my client care team members goes to check on the property.”
“I don’t want any personal photos,” she added. “It’s unfortunate, but I had a client who had a lot of Malcolm X books, and things like that. I said, ‘I’m going to need to take all of this, and we’re going to have to put it in a box.'”
She continued, “Even when it comes to their degrees, I’ve asked them to please remove them because if you’re an HBCU graduate, and people can assume you’re African American. The hardest thing is that you have to mute the home so you can at least get a fair price.”
Both broker-owners said the luxury industry, especially when you’re serving Black clients or other people of color, can be mentally taxing and requires great emotional maturity to navigate fraught situations expertly.
“There’s that quote about the ability to accept the things you can’t change,” Nartey said. “That’s part of it, but I think you have to always have to give yourself a moment to be human and also give your client a moment to be human.”
“What I mean by that is, as humans, we have moments where we have an emotional reaction to things, right? But then I always say beyond the emotional reaction, which is sometimes immediate and sometimes beyond our control, is the logical response,” he added. “The logical response is almost always within our control because it requires thinking and asking ‘Well, how am I going to handle this?'”
Nartey and Watson said they address issues immediately and frame their comments as them simply doing what’s best for both parties.
“The best way I like to approach it is to pull them to the side at the moment, so they don’t ruin the experience for your client,” Watson said. “The client is not just buying four walls; they’re buying the feeling they had when they walked into the property, and anyone that’s going to disturb that, I’ll make it my business to address it immediately.”
“In this space, I am intentional about how I speak to people. I’m not going to come from a place of frustration or anger, but a complete place of professionalism,” she added. “Saying it in such a way where we’re all on the same side because truth be told, we are here to represent our clients, but as agents, our goal is to sell the property. When you lead with that, it makes it easier.”
Nartey said he takes a more direct approach than Watson but always leaves the door open for further conversation with the offending agent.
“I don’t profess to be an authority, and I know that I get it wrong sometimes,” Nartey admitted while noting that he believes most agents’ gaffes come from a place of ignorance or unconscious bias. “I also know that given the day, everyone is going to come back with a better way of saying something in a better way.”
“That said, I almost always address it in real-time, and it doesn’t mean that I’m addressing it aggressively with anger, but I’m shedding light on what happened,” he added. “Maybe the conversation is going to be longer tomorrow or next week, but let’s highlight the moment as it has happened.”
Either way, both broker-owners agreed it’s important to protect their clients’ mental and emotional health by keeping them out of the fray.
“I don’t allow the emotions of other people to shift my emotions and train of thought, and sometimes it’s not just the client, it’s the agents on the other end that can really turn a deal into a nightmare,” Watson said. “Sometimes it could be the closing attorney, it could be the lender — there are so many outside forces that have nothing to do with you and your client that could really shift your energy and shift the experience.”
“My job is to maintain a pleasant experience for my clients, and I make sure I shield [negativity] away from my clients,” she added. “Everything that’s said doesn’t have to be repeated to your clients if it doesn’t make a difference in the deal.”
Watson and Nartey said it’s unfortunate Black professionals still face high levels of discrimination, no matter where they are in their real estate career. However, neither one of them is giving up on the goal of creating a more diverse and inclusive industry so up-and-comers don’t have to struggle as they did.
“When I decided to transition into luxury, and I wanted to build my luxury brand, I was about five years into the business,” Nartey said. “I built my brand around a new website, new business materials, marketing materials and I didn’t put my face anywhere on the website.”
“Now, if you look at 99 percent of real estate agent websites, they have the agent image. But I knew a lot of the markets that I was going into, there were not many, if any at all, African American real estate agents or professionals in those markets,” he added. “I wanted to be judged based on my professionalism and experience and the services I provided versus what I look like where assumptions could be made in one direction or another.”
Nartey said he no longer faces that particular struggle, but it’s still a reality for thousands of young professionals of color who worry their name or appearance will tank their careers before they get started. Greater diversity and inclusion, he said, will help these young professionals build the network and rapport needed to succeed without feeling they suppress who they are.
“People establish rapport and trust in different ways. So if you walk into a room, and it’s full of people who are similar ages, you’re at a similar position in life, maybe even a similar industry, the one to 10 steps to building rapport is now reduced from one to five steps, because half the rapport built already,” Nartey explained. “Now the challenge is if you’re walking into an industry or segment of the industry where there just aren’t a lot of people that look like you, you’re going to experience [things] differently, and they’re going to experience you differently, and this is why it’s critical that we push for more diversity.”
“Now we’re not having to take those 10 steps, we’re taking five, because we’re used to seeing a lot more people of color, we’re used to seeing different ethnicities, different ages. It’s not now a barrier, it’s more of a norm,” he added.
Meanwhile, Watson has dedicated herself to become a mentor for Black women who want to enter the industry, starting by hiring two up-and-coming Black real estate agents to her two-month-old brokerage.
“My ultimate goal is to show the world that we can be a Black-owned firm, operate in excellence, handle luxury transactions, and be respected in the industry,” Watson said of the coaching and mentorship she offers in her brokerage and online classes. “I affirm to myself and my agents that we’re getting the right clients at the right time, and not only are we professionals but any room we walk in, we belong in that room.”
“When you’re actually building yourself up and getting into luxury, you start to have that imposter syndrome where you don’t believe that you belong to be there,” she said. “But I know that I’m supposed to be there.”
Lastly, Nartey said it’s important for the industry not to heap the responsibility of addressing discrimination and dismantling racist systems on people of color. It will require allies to step in and make the sacrifices needed to build a better industry.
“This agent was a white agent, who was representing their client, I was representing my client who was African American, and without saying it, the other agent knew that their [client’s] decisions were racially driven,” Nartey said. “This other agent was somebody I’d worked with before, knew extremely well, and I thought was a good person. Sure enough, they quit working with that person. They said, ‘I can’t be a part of how this person is making their decision, and just for my own sanity, and my own integrity, and my own moral compass, I’m actually stepping away from this person as a client.'”
“A month ago I had a conversation with an agent who is not African American, but left her firm, a household name firm, because they didn’t address anything related to the social unrest from this year, and she just thought I can’t be a part of a company that doesn’t see fit to comment on the unrest and people being killed in the street,” he added.
Nartey said the actions of these agents reflect what needs to happen in the industry to move the needle forward in a real and meaningful way.
“This is something that has to happen more,” he said. “We have to have accountability and we have to hold organizations accountable.”