Senior Robbie Tillman said classes have been in session for more than a month and he still cannot believe his final year at UNC has been fully funded thanks to the generosity of a prominent real estate developer with deep Tar Heel roots. He said it is difficult for him to put into words not only the magnitude of the opportunity he has been given, but also the implications it could have on his future in commercial real estate.
“A lot of times someone can have a dream or a goal,” he explained, “but one of the main things that will hold them back from achieving that goal is dollars and cents.”
But dollars and cents are exactly what Wood Partners offered Tillman last spring, when they paid his entire senior year tuition at UNC, as well as provided him an internship this past summer in their Chapel Hill office.
Lynn Tocci, associate director at the Leonard W. Wood Center for Real Estate Studies, oversees undergraduate programming. She first learned of Wood Partners’ interest in providing an opportunity to a promising student from an underrepresented population back in March.
“The gift was essentially born out of this philanthropic idea from the company driven by their genuine desire to increase diversity within the field,” said Tocci. “The hope was that by providing this generous offer they would help continue a student’s career in real estate.”
Wood Partners’ Chief Executive Officer Joe Keough said that senior leadership is dedicated to increasing diversity in the company.
“As a company, Wood Partners recognizes that diversity is lacking in the real estate industry and we want to do our part to bring about change,” said Keough. “The company takes this issue very seriously and this scholarship program is one way of bringing about change. In addition to our efforts at UNC, we are in the process of duplicating this scholarship program across other prestigious universities across the United States.”
When deciding where they should extend this initial gift, Managing Director Caitlin Shelby (MBA ’12) said Wood Partners decided to first look in a very familiar place.
“We know the quality education that is offered at UNC,” said Shelby. “Our goal was to bring in bright students, who hopefully will be interested in staying on at Wood Partners in the future. We have many UNC alumni employed currently, a lot of the partners are UNC alumni, and, of course, Leonard Wood founded our company.”
Leonard Wood, who founded Wood Partners in 1998, is also the namesake and benefactor of the Leonard W. Wood Center for Real Estate Studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Tillman is not new to the Wood Center or to the real estate world. He is a member of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s inaugural real estate minor cohort, set to graduate in May. He also interned at Harbert Management Corporation in Dallas, TX, in 2021, as a part of the Real Estate Diversity Initiative (R.E.D.I.) Program through the Wood Center.
The R.E.D.I. program is designed to engage sophomores from diverse backgrounds who have an interest in commercial real estate or finance. Tocci, who oversees the program, advises the students through pre-internship training for interviews, gaining industry knowledge and quantitative skills preparation. Ultimately the students are matched with companies around the country for an 8-10 week paid internship the summer after their sophomore year.
“Robbie Tillman is an excellent example of how the R.E.D.I. Program and the real estate minor together can launch a student into a career in commercial real estate,” Tocci said.
Tillman spent his summer working alongside Shelby and Emmit Visconti (MBA ’18) at Wood Partners. He familiarized himself with commercial real estate development, worked on a scouting report for a major project coming to Raleigh and sat in on meetings with city officials and resident representatives. He said he felt that even as an intern, his supervisor found ways for him to add value.
“That is such a testament to how well the company works together,” he said. “They lean on Atlanta, Tampa and Charlotte in order to come together and make great things happen.”
As a part of his internship, he also completed two capstone projects: a market competitive supply study and a study of development effects due to the NC 540 southeast expansion.
“Robbie was eager to learn,” said Shelby. “He was a self-starter and fit right into Wood Partners’ culture.”
Shelby said working with Tillman was such a fantastic experience, and Wood Partners is looking forward to extending the opportunity to another student this upcoming year.
“In multifamily development, we work across different markets, neighborhoods and demographics,” said Shelby. “Our customers are diverse. Our investors are diverse. We believe that embracing and increasing diversity allows us to incorporate a variety of perspectives which leads to better decision making and better outcomes.”
Tillman said after his summer experience, he feels more secure about where he is setting his sights post-graduation. He hopes to continue as a commercial real estate analyst, either in investment or development, in a city with a thriving real estate market and bustling social scene.
“I really can’t thank [Wood Partners] enough,” said Tillman. “With stuff like this, it’s hard to say thank you because it almost seems like you should be doing something more. It is just a testament to how many good people work there.”
If there is anything his experiences have taught him, he said it is that real estate is all about having the right people in your corner. From relationships built on campus to the professional network Tillman has already begun to build, he recognizes his future depends on the people he will meet along the way.
At the end of his summer on vacation in Orlando, FL, Tillman said he noticed a development site with the Wood Partners logo. It served as a small reminder of just how far the opportunity he was offered and the connections he was making could reach. He said he has remained in contact with his Wood Partners colleagues since his internship ended.
“It shows that they were never just there to have me work, contribute for eight weeks and never hear from me again,” he said. “It shows that they want to help develop me as a person and not just as an intern.”
For more information on the Leonard W. Wood Center for Real Estate Studies, visit realestate.unc.edu.