“My goal is to help people achieve their goals,” said La Jolla resident Dustin Sutton. In service of that goal, Sutton became a real estate broker and then formed a group to help Black people in commercial real estate help each other.
The Philadelphia native moved to La Jolla after college, not knowing what he wanted to do other than figure it out at the beach, he said.
The first time he really felt connected to the community was as an assistant basketball coach for La Jolla High School in 2007.
He later became a real estate agent and worked for others in residential leasing and sales. Then he developed an interest in commercial real estate, pursued the required certification, and started his own commercial real estate firm.
He said Sutton Real Estate Advisors allows him to use all his talents without requiring him to be behind a desk all day. “It’s more in line with who I see myself as,” he said.
Sutton, who is of mixed race, said he thought he would meet other black people in the industry “and I just never did.”
“There is a lack of diversity in commercial real estate,” he said. “Coming from Philadelphia and having that diversity [and] come here, there is just no one. It always bothered me.”
After the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Sutton felt “I had to do something” to make an impact, he said.
Sutton founded a group on LinkedIn called the Black Commercial Real Estate Network and later developed a website, bcren.org.
“To be able to be with people who understand what it’s like to be the only one [Black] one in the room and to have a safe space to talk about it, where people actually understand what you’re saying… is empowering.”
BCREN began as a group of 20 people throughout Southern California who connected via Zoom and other virtual platforms. But it quickly grew to include people across the country.
Someone in Texas brought “about 30 people. Then we were at 60. Then we were at 100. And now it’s been almost three years [and] we have over 800 members across the country,” Sutton said.
The group — which is free to join — helps members connect by helping each other personally and professionally, both online and in person at industry conferences.
“To be able to be with people who understand what it’s like to be the only one [Black] one in the room and having a safe space to talk about it, where people actually understand what you’re saying … is empowering,” Sutton said.
“It is motivating to see the intentions of other people as well. What I got from that is, if you just start doing it … people are more likely to come and help you.”
“It’s not just opening the door for people,” Sutton added. “You have to shine a light on the door. You have to keep it open. And then once people are in the door, you have to stop them too and shine the light on them so that other people can see them” and follow.
Starting BCREN gave him the confidence to “step outside my comfort zone” and try new things, such as helping a tech company build a commercial real estate line, Sutton said.
His penchant for trying new things and his craving for connection is not new. Several years ago, this led him to volunteer with an organization that placed him to play basketball with children at the Polinksy Children’s Center, a facility in San Diego that temporarily shelters children who must be separated from their families due to abuse or other safety issues.
“It was so much fun,” Sutton said. “The children were so happy to be there [playing there]. … I began to understand more about why they were there and what the situation was and me [thought] If just coming here and playing basketball with them can make them so happy, and it made me happy, why wouldn’t I do that?”
He sought other volunteer experiences and became a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, trained to support youth in foster care.
“It was extremely rewarding,” Sutton said. “It doesn’t take much to make a big impact. … Once I realized that, it makes you want to do more.”
Sutton, who is married and has two children in La Jolla schools, later became a mentor for the nonprofit group Promises2Kids and is also on the board of the San Diego Center For Children.
All of Sutton’s passions — commercial real estate, BCREN and mentoring and advocating for children — stem from his belief that “it feels good to help people.”
He said he often encounters people who feel they have to wait until they reach a certain income level or status to contribute to others.
“You don’t have to wait,” Sutton said. “It doesn’t take more than a few hours a month to make an impact.”
Whenever he doesn’t know what to do in a situation, he follows his own advice to “just help.”
“Do something positive,” he said. “It’s life magic.”
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