City Realty Group and The BASE: A gold standard of partnerships
(Written By: Joe Kahn for The BASE)
Five years ago, Paul Epstein brought his friend Steve Whalen to meet Robert Lewis Jr. at The BASE headquarters in Roxbury. It was Thanksgiving break, and many former ballplayers and other program alumni were dropping by to visit.
Epstein co-founded the Foundation to Be Named Later (FTBNL), a longtime BASE supporter. Whalen is managing partner of City Realty Group, a Brookline-based, 80-employee company that owns, renovates, develops, and manages properties throughout Greater Boston.
The two men share a strong belief in supporting community-based organizations that serve urban youth. Epstein wanted Whalen and Lewis to meet for obvious reasons. What happened next was far from obvious – or ordinary -- however.
“Robert would get up from our meeting every two minutes and give some kid a hug,” recalls Whalen, the father of two teenagers himself. “To me, that was really powerful. His priorities were clearly focused on the kids and not so much on fundraising activities or meetings. And those kids, you could just see that they were walking back into what felt like a family home.”
Steve Whalen speaking at The BASE's 2019 College Matriculation event. CityRealty sponsors laptops for our students heading off to college.
Out of that meeting came a partnership that has gone way beyond ceremonial visits and generous check-writing. From providing laptop computers and sponsoring BASE events to hiring its student-athletes as crew workers, interns and realtors in-training, Whalen and his City Realty team have modeled a brand of leadership that has become the gold standard for BASE corporate partners.
“This is how corporate engagement should work but all too rarely does,” says Lewis. “Steve regularly brings in other business leaders to meet with us. He serves on our Advisory Board. He’s spoken at our banquets. When our old facility flooded, his company provided in-kind support.”
“This is what authentic leadership looks like,” continues Lewis. “Steve and his team have stepped up in every way to support our core mission.”
For Whalen, that mission lines up nicely with his own values as a business owner, athlete, family man, and citizen of today’s Boston.
A native of Auburn, Maine, he grew up in a lower-middle class household, played multiple sports in high school, and went on to Stonehill College, where he briefly played varsity tennis. (His athletic passion these days is surfing, which he does year-round in often frigid New England waters.)
After working in various aspects of the real estate profession, Whalen and partner Fred Starikov co-founded City Realty in 2004. The firm has grown rapidly since then and currently owns about 800 residential units in and around the city, with hundreds more in the development stage.
Eight years ago, Whalen was doing a property walk-through when he noticed a conspicuous lack of books and computers in a building where many school-aged children lived. It was “a real eye-opener,” he remembers, and soon led to his launching CRG’s City Kids program.
“We wanted to help kids get the tools and experiences that make the learning path a little easier,” says Whalen. That need is even greater these days, he notes, when remote learning has become the unfortunate norm during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Engaging with The BASE made sense to Whalen on many levels. Once engaged, he went all-in.
“As a business leader, I know the value of team sports in teaching leadership lessons,” he says. “I know there is talent at The BASE because I know these kids have been raised in its team sports methodology. My job is just to give them guidance and a runway to excel.”
That runway has taken several forms. One was creating a summer landscaping crew that has employed a number of BASE students over the past few years.
Whalen also brought former BASE director of baseball operations Jimmy Caruso aboard in a senior management role.
CityRealty interns Cristian Lorenzo (left) and Justin Auguste (right) representing CR at The BASE's annual Dr. MLK College & Career Fair. Cristian is now a full-time realtor for CR, and Justin used his experience to help launch his career in marketing & communications.
Meanwhile, office internships and an in-house real estate course have been made available, often at no cost, to BASE youths. One alum, Mattapan native and former BASE Astros ballplayer Cristian Lorenzo, is now a licensed agent and “kicking butt,” Whalen reports.
In all, nearly three dozen student-athletes have been directly impacted by City Realty’s hiring practices. Dozens more have benefited from its donation of Chromebooks and other resources.
Lorenzo, says Lewis, is a prime example of a young Latino who, given the chance to prove himself in the classroom, on the ball field and on the job, achieves success through hard work and having a strong support system.
“He’s going to surpass the expectations others had for him, but we always knew he would,” says Lewis. He predicts Lorenzo will be hiring employees of his own before long, paying it forward as so many young BASE grads are doing.
As for recruiting other business leaders, Whalen says his priority is persuading them to offer internships in their own companies, beyond writing checks (although those are welcome, too).
“But,” he says, “you can’t just have these kids getting coffee, I tell them. These young people have the talent and need exposure to the business.”
Whalen notes that, while buzzwords like “diversity” and “equity” echo throughout corporate offices and boardrooms, many business leaders simply don’t know what to do.
“Personally, I feel you pick your spot and make a stand,” he says. “The BASE is developing city youth intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. And it’s doing that in ways that bring in the whole family, not just the kids.”
Adds Whalen, “I love that Robert doesn’t promote the image of them being ‘underserved.’ Or under-anything, really. He sees them as talent. And we do, too.”
Two complementary visions, one impactful partnership.