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Alumni Testimonial: John Pollock ’17
When I started the MBA program at Columbia Business School in 2015, I was a prospective career-switcher. My work experience was in institutional investment consulting and private equity, but I wanted to change gears and pursue a career in real estate. For me, Columbia’s real estate program was exactly what I was looking for: a combination of strong academics and real world, hands-on experiences in a collegial environment, as well as access to a strong, active alumni network.
Students in Columbia’s MBA program are not required to pick a “concentration,” although many do to focus their academics and recruiting efforts. In other words, students pursuing an MBA, but focusing in Real Estate, do not receive a separate degree such as a Masters in Real Estate Development, which is obtained within a separate school. The MBA Real Estate Program is a series of real estate electives which build upon one another, interwoven with academic activities which complement the curriculum and is fully supported by the Paul Milstein Center for Real Estate (PMC), which helps develop the academic experience, holds industry conferences, connects students with alumni, and supports the students’ initiatives within the Real Estate Association.
The Real Estate Association (REA) is Columbia’s student-led real estate club. The REA organizes alumni networking, social, and educational events in addition to disseminating career opportunities throughout the school year. This is a very active club and student participation is extremely high at all events, even for students who are not actively pursuing real estate as a career. The board of the REA is elected by students, and there are opportunities for both first and second year students to be involved. The REA greatly contributed to my education and social network and ultimately played a major role in helping me get my internship and full-time position.
In my perspective, the three most valuable aspects of the program include the school’s location within New York City, the prestigious (and generous) alumni, and the students. While academics are very important, even the most scholarly professors would probably agree that real estate is an industry in which you learn a tremendous amount from experience “in the field.” This is where the school’s location and alumni network come in. The PMC and the students, as part of the REA, regularly invite experienced practitioners for breakfasts, lunches, happy hours, and class lecturers. In many cases, it’s just a taxi ride away for the speakers to get to campus. Some of the guests that I was lucky enough to hear speak include Jon Gray of Blackstone, Sam Zell of Equity Group Investments, Dean Adler of Lubert-Adler Partners, Nicholas Bienstock ’96 of Savanna, Paul Pariser ’78 of Taconic Investment Partners, Andrea Olshan ’04 of Olshan Properties, David von Spreckelsen ’89 of Toll Brothers City Living, Wendy Silverstein of New York REIT, Jeffrey Barclay ’83 of Goldman Sachs, John Vickers ’85 of Tishman and many more. Even Jonathan Mechanic, one of the most well-recognized real estate attorneys, served as a guest lecturer in two of our Real Estate Transactions classes.
In addition to attending speaking and networking events, students regularly visit development sites and company’s offices. After all, some of the most exciting real estate developments in the country are currently underway in New York City. From major developments such as Hudson Yards and Essex Crossing to super-tall skyscrapers on 57th street and the massive development of Long Island City, there’s plenty to see and explore. In my final class at business school, NYC Immersion Seminar: Real Estate Development with Professor Emerita Lynne Sagalyn, our class spent nearly four hours with Related Companies at Hudson Yards hearing from the leaders of each of their construction, design, and engineering teams before touring the development. A single class such as this teaches students a semester’s worth of knowledge. Another major advantage of our location within New York City was our ability to network with alumni and other real estate professionals. All of the students spend a significant amount of time meeting one-on-one with professionals around the city both to network and learn from their experience. In many cases, these coffee chats / drinks / meals were as valuable as spending an hour in a classroom, and with so many alumni in New York working in real estate, there’s no shortage of contacts in the city.
Finally, my classmates rounded out my experience in the Columbia real estate program. Within the program, there was a mix of students who were career-switchers like me and students who had some level of real estate experience but wanted to switch functions or accelerate their careers. I found the students within the program to be collegial, intelligent, intellectually curious, and social. Early on in my time at Columbia, I was told the real estate students were a tight-knit group, and I found this to be very true. Many of us became close friends during our first-year spring break trip when we attended a real estate–focused Chazen Global Study Tour of China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In fact, many of my closest friends in my graduating class were students in the real estate program. I believe this network will be critical to all of our careers. I now have close friends who will be working in development, acquisitions, lending, and asset management across many different property types and across the country (and world). During my first year, the students in the class above us served as mentors, and we did the same during our second year for the new students. The collegiality among our classmates occurred both inside and outside the classroom. We took many of our classes together, worked together on group projects, and helped one another along the way. Outside the classroom, we regularly shared career opportunities, helped one another prepare for interviews, and shared contacts. I cannot emphasize enough how much my classmates contributed to my experience.
Last summer, I worked in acquisitions and asset management at Spear Street Capital, a real estate private equity firm. This summer, I will begin a full-time role as Senior Associate of Investment and Development at Trammell Crow Company in Philadelphia. My Columbia Business School MBA played a critical role in my career transition and has opened more doors for me than I ever thought possible.