Commercial real estate may not be the first place you might think to look for examples of social impact. Yet for Ashley Mays, Senior Vice President and Head of Leasing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC), her position with the unique manufacturing and innovation complex has provided her with a platform to enact positive change.
“It’s like a dream,” she says of being able to leverage her professional experience to create opportunities for local residents and to contribute to the economic vitality of New York City.
For 165 years, the Brooklyn Navy Yard served as the leading shipbuilding facility in the nation. After being decommissioned and sold to the City of New York, the 300-acre waterfront site along the East River transformed into an advanced manufacturing campus that welcomed an extensive collection of tenants; by 2001, success at the site prompted overdue infrastructure upgrades and lured a swelling of new business occupants representing sectors that ranged from tech to the arts. During the previous decade, a $700 million development at the Yard helped to drive employment to now number more than 11,000 people who are responsible for generating upwards of $2.5 billion per year.
Mays says the many recent and planned advancements at the Yard are prompting innovations on multiple fronts, helping BNYDC to reach its goals as a mission-driven commercial landlord. And while those changes have allowed industry to flourish in the heart of an urban environment, they have also been a part of what excites Mays about her position: She’s driving diversity and equity efforts that connect 450-plus tenants to collaborate with each other and with people from the adjacent neighborhoods and throughout the borough.
On a Mission
Beyond the innovation taking place with industrial enterprises on site, Mays notes the presence of the vibrant artist and maker communities that have lent their vision to establishing a scene that is not only big on tech innovation, but also one rich with creativity. It’s something BNYDC is able to accomplish as a not-for-profit corporate landlord.
“Our goal is not just to maximize rent, but to bring in the businesses that can benefit from the favorable economic structure of our deals and also access the services that we provide; they are truly amenities that you want to see in the private sector,” she says. BNYDC’s Business Support Services department fosters a sense of community and relationships between tenants; 71% of tenants have collaborated with each other as a result of the team knowing what companies are involved in and what they are hoping to achieve.
That level of service, and indeed, all of the initiatives at BNYDC, support its role as the leading example of equitable urban development in the nation. Mays explains that one of the prime ways the organization measures success is through job creation.
“By way of the industrial sector, our goal is to create high-quality middle-class jobs for New Yorkers, connect folks from a hyper-local perspective to the jobs on the Yard, and create a cycle of economic development. That’s our mission,” she says. As a great deal of career potential can be found in the proliferation of high-quality jobs in advanced manufacturing such as tech hardware, she says that appropriate training provides quality jobs with paths for advancement. Many of those positions are filled by way of BNYDC’s employment center, which works with prequalified candidates who are often individuals impacted by the justice system, veterans, and residents of New York City housing developments located nearby. “Getting those jobs into the hands of people in our backyard is really important.”
As the Head of Leasing, Mays curates the tenants she expects will be the best fit with the community. Stressing the importance of attracting and retaining minority-owned businesses, she points to Next Step Labs, a Black-owned cosmetic R&D company assisting other Black-owned ventures in the beauty space with product development. And in addition to tech-based incubators already operating in the Yard, she says they are looking forward to launching a groundbreaking equity incubator specifically focused on supporting Black and Brown founders.
“There are real economic benefits to being on the Yard: We have favorable rents, and we want Black and Brown entrepreneurs to be able to have access to those type of services so that we can help address the disparities in business ownership in New York City. I would never have been able to kind of do this type of work with a traditional developer.”
Diversity and equity have also been topics of concern within the real estate industry itself, and Mays says she remains optimistic because of conversations taking place.
She’s also heartened by regularly coming across announcements of pipeline program expansions. Mays says that the Yard started a fellowship program targeting City University of New York students to provide access to true real estate experiences that empower participants to compete for entry-level jobs upon graduation.
But despite her enthusiasm, she insists that there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“I would like to see more work on amplification and acknowledgement of Black people and people of color who have already been working in the industry,” she says. While efforts tend to focus on creating or strengthening a pipeline for talent, Mays regrets that more can be done to support those who have spent years in the industry. “I’d like to see more movement with respect to intentional career development with the goal advancing BIPOC professionals to senior-level positions. I think that will make an immediate impact, infusing more senior-level diversity into organizations.”
She says that specific to the real estate industry, many issues prove to be “particularly compounded” as they relate to the intersectional nature of systemic racism and lack of diversity with respect to women and race.
“For example, on real estate panels, you might see more Black and Brown faces, but oftentimes they’re men. The misogyny is still there,” Mays says, also pointing out the need for a greater focus on disparities of pay between genders and between people of color and white people working in commercial real estate. “I would like to see more commercial real estate companies improve salary transparency and actively address the widening wage gap.”
Looking back on her career thus far, Mays says she continues to draw from all of the roles she’s taken on throughout the years—even the “grueling experience” of her first summer job in high school washing dishes.
Her first professional position after graduating from the Commerce School with Rolls-Royce North America was part of the company’s first management training program with a cohort of UVA students. “That experience was pivotal for me. Rolls-Royce has a complex structure, and so I really learned how to collaborate with different teams and colleagues based in the UK and Germany.”
She says that the time as Customer Business Administration Manager served as a loose blueprint for how she wanted to define the rest of her career, one defined by different experiences from which she could learn and grow while being free to be her authentic self.
At that point, less than two years after McIntire, she decided to move back to New Jersey to network and search out opportunities in commercial real estate. What she found began as an entry-level leasing job with SL Green Realty, a real estate investment trust in Manhattan, and over the course of 10 years, she became the Vice President of Leasing.
“That was really where I amassed on my technical knowledge about leasing, commercial real estate, and the New York City market. I got in at a great time when I was eager, ready, willing to work, and the work was there. I was able to spend a big chunk of my career there just because of the sheer size of the company, the variety of experiences that I was able to get, for example, with involvement with different types of building repositioning and working with a range of companies like Viacom and Pandora and Credit Suisse to law firms or startups,” she recalls.
She then learned of an opportunity at The Durst Organization, a fourth-generation family company known for a stellar reputation and portfolio of buildings to match. The unexpected result of becoming Managing Director of Commercial Leasing at Durst was cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit; exposure to ground-up development made the position eye-opening for Mays. Opportunities taking her from her original comfort zone of midtown Manhattan saw her working on projects in different areas of New York City and then in Philadelphia. Yet Durst’s focus on its relationships with clients impressed her and shifted her perspective.
“They look at their tenant relationships long term, and it’s incredibly admirable how they center the needs of the customer,” she says. “That generational approach is also reflected in how they run and invest in their buildings. It’s also a reflection of integrity: They’re willing to not settle for the cheapest solution but to choose what’s best for the long term. That’s a sentiment that I try to embody: keeping the needs of the customer first.”
After more than four years at Durst, Mays found herself longing for more variety in experiences outside of what could be found in midtown Manhattan and the lack of innovation she was witnessing. When a recruiter reached out about an opening at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Mays wasn’t immediately sure.
“Actually, I didn’t know much about the Yard before I got the call. But after doing some research, I realized the Yard is an innovation hub and really exciting,” she says. Once discovering the company’s plans to undertake the largest expansion of the area since it was functioning as an actual navy yard, as well as learning about its mission and social impact goals, Mays was sold. “It presented an opportunity for me to lead a team and really shape a vision for the department.”
More Important Lessons
There’s no question that real estate has been a hot topic in the news, between post-pandemic office space stories and the price of rising rents, but it also has been an industry that many UVA students—both at McIntire and at schools across Grounds—continue to find an attractive field in which to work.
Mays says that McIntire’s recently launched pan-UVA Real Estate Minor and Center for Real Estate and the Built Environment are welcome arrivals to inform an industry that has a need for fresh points of view.
“I am so excited for Commerce School students with this minor! This is the perfect time because there’s so much disruption happening in the business. There has been a lack of innovation; we need new voices and new perspectives to develop solutions for the future of work. There is such an opportunity for ambitious thinkers who will challenge the status quo. It’s going to be incredible to see how students will be prepared for the for the industry when they graduate. I expect that I’ll probably be working for some of them,” she says half-jokingly.
Wherever Mays’s career journey takes her, lasting impressions and experiences continue to inform her professional approach. She recalls that applying to and being admitted into the Commerce School were eased greatly by the Black Commerce Student Network.
“It was really important for me as I was applying, a safe space providing resources, and where I could connect with other students as we were going through the process and taking prerequisite courses.” She says that her connection to the student organization showed her the significance of “paying it forward to other students going through the same thing.”
She also says that Professor Bill Kehoe played a pivotal role in her time at McIntire. Because of concentrations in International Business and Marketing, Mays says she connected with him over content, but he also provided “another safe space with unwavering support.”
“I can only hope that other students will make similar connections with a professor who sticks with them and gives them the confidence to power through some of those Comm School projects,” she says.
It’s projects such as those, and the teamwork that forms such an integral part of the McIntire learning experience, that have shaped a professional philosophy that holds collaboration as paramount to her success. “As a leasing professional, we can’t do anything without collaboration and without developing those strong relationships. I’m client first, people first,” Mays avows. “Remembering that we are human beings is central to the way that I want to be treated and the way that I aim to lead.”