Hanna Afolabi – championing sisters in Real Estate

Part of a series of articles for Black History Month 2023

Hanna Afolabi is a property development specialist who works closely with communities to create places people can live, work and play in. She is also the founder of Black Women in Real Estate, which is addressing under-representation within the Real Estate industry by empowering Black Women to raise their voice and profile.

Hanna grew up in East London and studied architecture at Sheffield University. She moved to Lagos, Nigeria to work as an architectural assistant before returning to the UK to work as an assistant development manager for a housing association. At this point she took a distance learning course at Oxford Brookes – MSc Project Management in the Built Environment.

“I wanted to improve my project management skills in a way that was linked to my work,” explains Hanna, “So Brookes’ distance learning course was perfect for me. It gave me a good overview and also the opportunity to travel and see project management in other settings, which I really valued.””

Forging a successful career

Hanna has forged a successful career as a development specialist, working on large-scale regeneration projects to benefit communities – including a major new development with nearly 2,000 homes as well as shops and public spaces on the Olympic Park in East London, near where she grew up in Hackney. And the idea of giving something back to communities has led Hanna to found her own company, Mood and Space.

 “The Olympic Park project felt like a huge accomplishment but also like the end of something. There was more I wanted to do. One of those things was to look at how we can improve the process of development, especially in large scale regeneration and urban neighbourhoods.

“So, I founded Mood and Space to really embed social values in the process, and to create a framework of how better to engage with communities.”

A tough industry for Black women

But when Hanna started out, it was a tough industry for a Black woman to break into. She had already suffered discriminatory behaviour, such as othering, as an undergraduate student. Difficult though that experience was – and inexcusable though that type of behaviour is – Hanna’s ability to learn from it stood her in good stead for her professional life.

“The biggest problem at first was the feeling of isolation. There just weren’t many other Black women in the industry. But I think learning how to manage cultural differences and nuances, and challenging them, has played a massive role in me having a better experience in the industry than others.”

And Hanna was determined that she wasn’t going to be unusual, as a Black woman, in succeeding in the Real Estate industry.

Founding Black Women in Real Estate

In 2019, Hanna founded Black Women in Real Estate. And from humble beginnings it has gone on to make a real difference – giving Black women a forum to share their experiences, better opportunities to network and raising their profile within the industry.

“When it was first set up, it was actually quite an informal organisation. I was mostly seeking out friends and found some women on LinkedIn. But from there, everyone identified the need for it to become a bit more formal and grow – so now we have a committee of ten women to support the work we’re doing.

“We have a focus on creating a community – host regular virtual calls and in-person events that are about creating safe spaces for Black women. Alongside that we run campaigns to highlight black female talent, and work with conference providers to give Black women access to speaking opportunities.

“We also work with senior leaders within the industry, hosting dinners that give networking opportunities for Black women and senior leaders to meet. These really help to humanise the conversations around diversity.”

A great impact

That focus on talking about diversity and inclusion as being about real people, not an abstract concept or a box to tick, is delivering results. In just four years, Black Women in Real Estate has benefited hundreds of women and made a real difference in an industry that was badly lacking in diversity.

“I think we’re having a great impact. Our membership has grown from 15 to over 400 – and the impact on them individually has been really good. But also, crucially, we are making Black women more visible and helping them to be better connected within the industry.”

And for Hanna herself, what does the organisation mean?

“It’s been such an amazing journey. It started out as something I needed personally and has evolved into something that has value and worth for so many other people.

“I’ve learnt a lot of skills in running the organisation and bringing people together. But I’ve also gained an amazing network and allies within the industry.”

Changing the culture

Much has been achieved in recent years, but lack of equality, diversity and inclusion is still a pressing issue for the Real Estate industry to address – and Hanna is determined to maintain the pressure for change. 

“I don’t think an increase in diversity and inclusion will just come naturally, the status quo has been the way it is for so long. But I am optimistic and hopeful that there is going to be an improvement. It takes organisations like Black Women in Real Estate and others to continue to raise their voices.  

“There are so many people and allies championing the work we’re doing, and the intention is not just for Black women, but for all diverse groups to benefit from the policies we’re lobbying for. I believe our combined voices are bringing a change of culture.”

Black History Month events

Black Women in Real Estate are holding events for Black History Month 2023 – find more information on their website.

See Oxford Brookes’ programme for Black History Month 2023.