By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
Before London native Chukes Okoro traveled to the states for a job opportunity, he expected America to be full of opportunity.
In England, he felt that there was an unbreakable glass ceiling preventing him and other minorities from pursuing their ambitions, and as far as he knew, the only color that the U.S. cared about was green.
He quickly learned this was not the case but was determined to open doors for other minorities to follow.
When Okoro arrived in 1998, he worked as a computer programmer in Connecticut, but he quickly learned that the tech industry wasn’t for him. He moved to Maryland a year later and decided his next career would be in property development.
“I fell into real estate because when I was in England, I renovated my first house, and I kind of thought to myself, I’ll do the same,” said Okoro. “The process of renovating a house or property was kind of similar to the steps you take in building a computer program, and so I just used the project management skills that I learned in computer programming and transferred them to developing.”
He founded his Baltimore-based firm, Okoro Development, in 2003 and decided early on that he would only go after vacant properties because he was familiar with the city’s vibrant history and wanted to restore its beauty.
Okoro began with renovating row houses in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill. Then, in 2007, he moved into the westside of Downtown Baltimore and began responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) from the Baltimore Development Corporation, which works to inclusively grow the city’s economy by retaining, expanding and attracting businesses and promoting investment.
This allowed him to expand from developing strictly residential properties to including commercial properties.
Most recently, he renovated a derelict vacant commercial building on the 100th block of W. Lexington Street, turning it into six floors with 15 apartments on floors two through six. The project started in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and was completed in April.
“When you see a building that’s transformed it kind of just makes you happy to be living in that location or to be part of that city,” said Okoro. “It just gives a sense of pride, and it kind of gives a sense of hope that you’re in a place where better days are on their way.”
Access to funding is critical to developers’ success, including Okoro, particularly because it’s not possible to self-fund their projects. Fortunately, the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the state’s only Black-owned and -managed commercial bank, has supported Okoro for nearly eight years.
With the bank’s backing, Okoro has been able to consistently overcome the challenges that often come with construction without jeopardizing his projects.
Okoro intentionally chose to work with a minority-owned bank, and with each of his projects, he also ensures that he is generating opportunity for marginalized and underserved groups. Each project he’s completed on the Westside of Downtown has been with 100 percent minority participation.
He’s worked with Black female architects, Black engineers, minority trades people, and he praised his Black female electrician, who he regarded as a master of her trade. When developing commercial properties, Okoro also tries to give leases to minority businesses that are typically denied by other Downtown landlords.
Recently, Okoro even started National Development Partners, a company that coaches minority developers on starting and growing a business.
Throughout his nearly 20 years in business Okoro believes the secret to his success is always getting the job done. If he starts a project, he finishes it no matter what obstacles arise.
However, his success cannot just be attributed to his drive. His team of Black and minority professionals that support his vision and desire to revitalize Baltimore are what makes Okoro Development’s work so impactful. He’d be nowhere without them.
Because opportunity is seldom provided to minority groups, Okoro and his ecosystem of Black professionals have learned to join forces to create a better, more beautiful, Baltimore for Black residents.
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