The UNC MBA Putting Community Building At The Heart Of His Career In Real Estate

John Nelson is using his UNC MBA to make real estate development a force for positive change

Community building is all about being a good listener, says UNC MBA John Nelson

John Nelson always knew that his career would revolve around community building, but for a long time, he wasn’t sure what exactly that would look like.

After studying public policy in college, he initially pursued roles in higher education consulting and corporate strategy before deciding to return to his interest in urban development.


He just needed to find a way to make it his permanent career—and after talking to friends and colleagues about the dilemma, he hit upon the answer: real estate development.

“It’s a career you can create for yourself, making spaces where people live their lives,” John explains. “It’s entrepreneurial, creative, impactful, and continually-changing work.”

It sounded ideal, but he’d need help managing the jump into a new career, and he chose the MBA at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School to do the job.

Gaining hard skills through “trial by fire”

The first reason John selected the MBA at UNC was the hard skills he knew he would acquire there.

The school offers a large real estate program with numerous electives, plus a real estate-specific capstone—difficult to find at other MBA programs.

What’s more, because the larger ecosystem around UNC is growing so rapidly, students are able to directly apply their learnings to what they see around them—both through school-run initiatives like case competitions and clinics, and extended internships with local developers.

“We get to speak to real practitioners, pursue our own real estate projects and get their feedback on them—it’s a real trial by fire,” John enthuses.

It is this close proximity to the local business community that really kick-started John’s community building on his MBA.

A good real estate developer will listen to the community

One of the most formative opportunities that John has had as an MBA has been his chance to work with the Development Finance Initiative (DFI), an organization that sits within the UNC School of Government and partners with local governments across North Carolina.

The DFI helps these governments source private investment for their development projects, many of which work to transform abandoned or neglected spaces into rallying points for underserved communities.

As a real estate development associate, John has seen first-hand what it takes to make these projects work, and it sounds, at first, disarmingly simple.

Primarily, he says, making smart real estate development decisions involves being a good listener and developing a keen sense for what changes would be of most effective benefit for the communities you’re trying to serve.

Honing this sense takes practice—and it’s not just in the classroom and the DFI that John has got it.

Applying business skills for a social good

As well as being an industrious real estate development student, John is an active student leader, and is particularly prominent in UNC’s LGBTQ community.

As president of the business school’s Pride Club, he has striven to engage both members of the immediate community and allies in building a more inclusive community—and it’s involved a lot of the same skills as his real estate development training.

“When the Pride Club first formed, it was a collection of LGBTQ students who used it to support themselves—it wasn’t really integrated with the larger Kenan-Flagler community,” John explains.

“The community wasn’t as visible as it should or could have been, and it was at a time when North Carolina was passing laws that created headwind for folks feeling included.”

To put it in real estate terms, John had a space that he knew was vital for marginalized communities; what he needed to do was open it up in such a way that the wider community could engage with and support it.

To cut a long story short, John succeeded in this goal.

The ability to manifest change

Through initiatives such as partnerships with UNC’s undergraduate programs, volunteering with setup and cleanup at the Durham Pride parade, and the annual UNC Kenan-Flagler Drag Ball, the Pride Club has been able to increase the visibility of LGBTQ students and bring about real change in their community.

In fact, John reports that LGBTQ representation on the UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA currently stands at over 5%: twice the average for full-time MBA programs as a whole.

As he looks toward his future and a real estate development role at JBG SMITH in Washington DC, he is in little doubt that the community building skills he learned on the UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA will come in handy.

“I’ll continue to take this idea of being able to listen to folks, hear what they need, and deliver those kinds of products in the form of physical spaces,” John promises.

Underpinning his success in this will be both the hard and soft skills in community building that he’s learned at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and the understanding his MBA has given him of how to put authentic change into action.

“It’s not just about the intention of driving positive change,” he emphasizes, “but the ability to manifest that change.”