The commercial real estate industry remains a particularly white, male business in Minnesota, standing out even in a state that's considerably less diverse than the nation as a whole.

And while women have struck some blows for gender equity in certain areas, such as retail real estate brokerages and property management, the lack of racial diversity within the real estate world is still pronounced, particularly at the upper management levels, according to surveys.

An industry-sponsored study conducted in 2013 revealed that, nationwide, 78 percent of senior commercial real estate executives were white men. Only 5.8 percent were male minorities. Women, meanwhile, held just 14 percent of those senior executive positions, with minority females accounting for less than 1 percent of the total.

Sensing such progress wasn't likely to come on its own, some committed individuals, including Cushman & Wakefield/Northmarq Executive Vice President Lisa Dongoske and Michele Foster of Foster Real Estate Advisory Services, teamed up with local industry trade groups such as NAIOP in 2009 to launch the Commercial Real Estate Diversity Collaborative, which seeks to make the case for the benefits of diversity within the Minnesota industry.

Tasked with giving voice to that message is Chantily Malibago, a real estate portfolio manager for UnitedHealth and previously an adviser at Cushman & Wakefield/Northmarq. As a woman of Filipino heritage, Malibago says she's felt the alienation that can come from being a lonely minority face in an industry that in many ways remains a throwback to an earlier era.

"The TV show 'Mad Men' represents the workforce of the '50s and '60s, yet today the [commercial real estate] workforce oftentimes still looks like that," she told a gathering of the Minneapolis Building Owners and Managers Association this week. The association is one of the trade groups partnering with the Diversity Collaborative on the effort. "The need to create a more diverse and inclusive industry must be our imperative," she said.

But aside from the laudable goal of giving women and minorities a break in an industry that can be very lucrative, why should its leaders care? One of the biggest reasons, Malibago said, is to reflect the changing demographic makeup of the industry's customers as the state itself becomes more racially diverse.

"Diverse workforces can more effectively market to clients from different races, ethnicities, genders or sexual orientations, thereby increasing market share," she said.

Part of the Diversity Collaborative's strategy for encouraging diversity is awarding scholarships for minority students at area universities, aiming to introduce some to commercial real estate and uncover hidden talent.

The first recipient was Dorcas Gyamerah, 24, a former St. Cloud State student from Africa's Ivory Coast, now working in property management for Minnetonka-based Welsh & Colliers. Gyamerah said she was completely unaware of commercial real estate while majoring in finance at St. Cloud State, but when finally exposed to the business by her professor, found her calling.

"I just really am fascinated with buildings and how they serve people. I love their architecture, their design, how they function … everything about them," she said. "I know there aren't many people like me in the industry now, but I think I have the strength and faith to succeed, as well the support of my family to help me."

Her boss at Welsh & Colliers is company CEO Jean Kane, who is well-acquainted with the general lack of diversity in the industry both as a woman who faced career pigeonholing while working her way up the ladder, as well as the 2014 national chairwoman of the NAIOP industry trade group.

"When we met Dorcas, we were immediately impressed by her talent and enthusiasm and think she'll do really well in the industry," Kane said. "I'm very supportive of the goals of the Diversity Collaborative for a lot of reasons. Having a more diverse workforce, tapping the kind of talent that women and minorities have to offer, I think is necessary if the industry is going to grow as Minnesota's and the country's demographics change."

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul freelance writer and former editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Real Estate Journal.