African American CEO aims to revolutionize real estate investing

Ryan Williams is on a mission to revolutionize the stodgy real estate industry.

Williams, the 31-year-old CEO and co-founder of fintech startup Cadre, has won the backing of high-profile investors like Mark Cuban, George Soros, Peter Thiel and Jared Kushner. He’s been on the cover of Forbes and built Cadre into a company worth nearly $1 billion.

But as an African American executive trying to disrupt real estate, Williams has also faced his fair share of skepticism.

“Real estate is a Jurassic industry. It’s antiquated,” Williams told CNN Business from the sidelines of the SALT Conference in Las Vegas earlier this month.

The Cadre CEO said he’s aware of the fact that he looks different from many of his peers, noting that both the tech and real estate industries suffer from an “outsized lack of diversity.”

Williams, who grew up in a working-class household in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, views his background as an opportunity to reset preconceived notions.

“At the end of the day, it’s about results and what you’re able to deliver,” Williams said, “not about the color of your skin, not your sexual orientation, not your socioeconomic background.”

Using tech to disrupt real estate

According to Cadre, Williams worked his way through Harvard University and launched his first real estate company during his senior year there. After stints at Goldman Sachs and Blackstone, Williams started Cadre in 2014 as a digitized real estate investment platform. Cadre’s mission is to level the playing field in an industry that is often tilted toward the biggest players.

Individuals, groups and institutions willing to invest at least $50,000 can comb through vetted real estate projects listed on Cadre’s online marketplace.

“It’s taking what’s been an offline industry and making it online and transparent,” Williams said.

Using machine learning and statistics, Cadre says it has built a technology program that provides analytics for real estate investors.

“We’re leveraging information and insight to allow people to make better investing decisions,” Williams said.

Cadre says it typically pursues deals requiring an equity investment of at least $50 million and structures the transactions as limited partnerships. The firm evaluates more than 500 real estate opportunities each year, but says it only approves about 2% of those investments.

Williams said that Cadre’s use of technology to “transform” real estate was initially met by apprehension from many in the industry.

“You’re going to get pushback and people who don’t believe in this idea or concept,” Williams said. “That’s how all great innovation begins.”

He credited a network of mentors with helping to turn Cadre into a success. Among others, Williams pointed to Michael Fascitelli, the former CEO of real estate firm Vornado Realty, who now leads Cadre’s investment committee.

“I’ve bypassed a lot of mistakes I would have otherwise made because of the people around me,” Williams said. “They’re really propelled me.”

Cadre lists a number of major firms as investors, including Goldman Sachs, SL Green Realty and venture-capital leaders such as Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund and General Catalyst.

Kushner connections

But Cadre’s connections to Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, have caused controversy.

Kushner was an early Cadre investor. He owns a stake in the firm worth up to $50 million, according to Kushner’s 2018 federal financial disclosure form.

Kushner’s wife, White House adviser Ivanka Trump, was involved in the creation of a new program that gives tax breaks for investors in “opportunity zones.” Cadre has launched a fund focused specifically on investing in these economically distressed communities. Those connections led a watchdog group in January to accuse Trump of a financial conflict of interest — a charge that Ivanka Trump’s attorney called “meritless.” Kushner’s financial assets are tied to Ivanka Trump’s.

“Jared was one of the key people early on. And his contributions were critical,” Williams said.

Thrive Capital, a venture firm founded by Jared’s brother Josh Kushner, was another early backer.

However, Williams stressed that Jared Kushner has “no involvement” and has sold off a “substantial portion” of his equity investment in Cadre.

And Williams insisted that the Kushner controversy “doesn’t bother us” and said his team is focused on building a great platform.

“It’s hard enough to build a business in an industry like real estate without any of the other sort of noise,” he said.

Will Cadre go public?

The Cadre platform faces intense competition from other options for investors who are looking for alternative ways to bet on real estate.

The most popular way, besides actually buying property, is real estate investment trusts, or REITs. These publicly traded companies own properties and pay out generous dividends.

There’s also CrowdStreet, a rival online commercial real estate investment marketplace that was also founded in 2014. And CrowdStreet’s minimum investment size of $25,000 on some funds is half Cadre’s.

So what’s next for Cadre?

It’s possible Cadre could eventually team up with a more established real estate firm or even a tech company.

Cadre could also be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Uber, Lyft and Pinterest, which have raised billions of dollars this year by going public.

Williams didn’t want to speculate about a potential Cadre IPO, though he noted the parade of companies going that route lately.

“We think our opportunity in some ways is bigger than the vast majority of those companies,” he said.