Walking the Walk

Michelle Mills Clement, CEO of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®, is breaking barriers between the city's 77 neighborhoods.

Michelle Mills Clement, RCE, CAE posing by Chicago River

A native Chicagoan and longtime association executive, Michelle Mills Clement, RCE, CAE, has led the Chicago Association of REALTORS® since 2018. Along the way, she participated in the Chicago Urban League’s Leadership Development Program and was named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ 40 Under 40 list. Mills Clement is also president of Delta Sigma Theta’s National Social Action Commission, which sets the legislative agenda for the 300,000-plus women’s organization.

REALTOR® AE asked Mills Clement about running a large association during the pandemic and how CAR champions diversity and inclusion in its leadership ranks and in America’s third-largest real estate market.

Q: What’s the most effective thing you’ve done during the pandemic to drive home the value of association membership?

We made a quick transition into the virtual realm for members by providing them with the tools and information they needed to continue business in a new normal. As of June 24, we had held more than 50 virtual events with more than 2,600 attendees. We also created a COVID-19 webpage to continue to push important information to our members.

Q: What advice do you have for association executives who want to foster diversity and inclusion, both in the business and within their volunteer and leadership ranks?

CAR is trying to be a model for what diverse leadership should look like in the real estate industry. We believe that those working for and volunteering for CAR should reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. You can’t say you value diversity and not reflect it in your leadership and staff.

Q: What challenges have you experienced as a woman of color on your journey to association leadership?

I have experienced racism, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and flat-out disrespect because of the color of my skin. I’ve had to prove myself repeatedly to gain an ounce of credibility in some circles. At CAR, these challenges are not the norm. I’ve been surrounded by support.

Q: What can women and people of color do to guarantee themselves a seat at the leadership table?

There are barriers galore, so knowing how to navigate them is vital. But more importantly, once you get that seat at the leadership table, ensure you’re not the last. My idol—Michelle Obama—says, “If you’re afraid to use your voice, give up your seat at the table.” I live by this quote. Be vocal about change that needs to be made.

Q: There’s a lot of attention— in the country and within the association—on doing more to enforce fair housing and increase the homeownership rate among people of color. What are some ways you are approaching these issues?

We approach this by discussing race and racism openly. Not discussing it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it means that there’s room for bias to creep in. We launched a diversity committee called The 77, which includes one representative from every neighborhood in Chicago. [It] is our grassroots attempt to make improvements.

For our leadership, we are implementing unconscious-bias training, and the entire staff is taking a seven-week course on race and privilege. If we are going to talk the talk, we all need to walk the walk. It’s hard, but the team is committed to having tough conversations and learning from each other.

Q: Any other words of wisdom you would like to share with fellow AEs?

You don’t have to have all the answers right away. It’s OK to take a step back, look at the big picture, and proceed strategically. We are all in this together.

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