Donielle Watkins says networking
and D&I involvement led to her success
As a Business Administration major at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) Donielle Watkins never expected to end up in the commercial real estate industry. After landing her first job in a fast-paced rotational program at another commercial real estate firm, she realized she had found her calling.
“After having the opportunity to get experience in different service lines within commercial real estate, I fell in love with project management. I like being able to see the final product and know the process, steps and even struggles we went through to get to that point.”
She then landed a role as a Project Manager on our Project and Development Services (PDS) team in Chicago in 2008 that lasted a little over a year before organizational changes led her to leave for another opportunity. A little over five years later, Donielle made her way back to JLL as a Senior Project Manager, quickly rising up the ranks to her current position as Senior Vice President of Projects. Now, six years later, she’s happy to have found a long-term career with JLL.
When she’s not managing her project team, Donielle serves as Executive Sponsor of our Chicago Empower Black Professionals Network chapter.
She sat down with us to discuss her education at one of the top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the country, the future of commercial real estate for Black professionals and adding new stamps to her ever-growing passport.
What do you do at JLL?
I am a Senior Vice President of Projects on our Project and Development Services team. I am also the Midwest Regional Lead overseeing a team of project managers that lead construction activities for a large national bank.
Where did you go to college/university?
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University – a public, historically Black university listed number one public HBCU in the nation!
What influenced your college choice?
FAMU being ranked the number one school of the year highly influenced my decision to want to attend. Being only four hours away from my then home of Atlanta gave me the experience of being away but still close enough to get home quickly, which also ranked high in my selection criteria. But what sealed the deal is receiving a Presidential Scholarship that not only covered my undergraduate degree, but also my graduate degree, room and board, expenses, and even provided a monthly stipend. Being able to walk away with an MBA and having ZERO debt is literally priceless.
After college, what made you decide to move from Florida to Chicago?
I was born in Chicago and lived there to the age of 10. Most of my extended family still resided in Chicago and I wanted to experience the city that I spent countless summers in as a child as an adult. Being in a big city that provided a lot of culture and activities but also allowed access to family and friends made Chicago number one on my list.
How did you make your way to JLL?
I was first introduced to commercial real estate when another commercial real estate company participated in an information session at my university. They not only exposed me to a career path I had no idea about prior, they also offered me an opportunity of an internship which literally open the door for me.
After a successful internship, I was offered a full-time position that included a rotation through four different service lines for my first year, project management being one of those rotations. Now knowing what I wanted to do, I remained patient and waited for the right role. JLL posted a role that I applied for and after a couple interviews I was given my first role as a project manager. I still remember who interviewed me (they are still with JLL) and I even still remember some of my interview questions!
What do you love about project management?
I love project management because it allows me to see a project from start to finish. I like being able to see the final product and know the process, steps and even struggles we went through to get to that point. Characteristics needed to be successful in project management also work well with my strengths: being organized, communicating well, and being good at telling people what to do!
You’re a JLL “boomerang” meaning you left the company and came back. Tell us about that.
After being on an in-house team for another company for almost six years, I started to realize that there were very few opportunities for growth. I was still just a project manager and my ambition to be a people manager was limited. Knowing the vast number of opportunities that exist at JLL, I decided it was time for a change and that I wanted to get back here. I didn’t look at any other companies and was lucky enough to find a role at JLL in the banking industry that would eventually lead to being promoted to a Senior Project Manager, giving me the trajectory to meet my goal of being a people manager. I am proud to say that I became that people manager about a year after returning to JLL.
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What do you enjoy most about working at JLL?
The people – team atmosphere, inclusivity of leadership and culture. JLL is so intentional about creating environments and opportunities to help develop their talent. The Business Resource Groups (BRG) are just one example of this. From day one, I was not only involved but became a co-chair of the Empower Black Professionals Network (BPN), then board member of the Chicago Women’s Business Network (WBN) that turned into co-chairing that BRG and currently being an executive sponsor of the Chicago Black Professionals Network. My connections, mentors, and even educational opportunities have all come as a result of my participation in these groups.
Another example of this is specifically within PDS. I was given an opportunity that I consider to be career altering, the PDS Emerging Leaders Program (ELP). This program gave me exposure to senior leaders, connected me to peers around the country and helped develop my networking and presentation skills. My ELP experience has resulted in new role opportunities and really put my career on a different trajectory.
What does JLL’s Empower Black Professionals Network (BPN) mean to you and how are you empowered?
I often confuse it in my head as the Black power network – it empowers Black professionals to be successful. Being part of the BPN empowers me to take control of my career, to seek knowledge and opportunities, and to seek support.
My favorite thing to do outside of work is…
Travel! I had a goal to make it to 40 countries before 40 but COVID has interrupted that goal.
If I could meet one person, it would be…
Michelle Obama. She epitomizes intelligence, class and authenticity to me. She balances being a mother, wife and mom and seems to be a fun person to hang with.
What does an inclusive culture look like?
Not just inviting diverse candidates to the dance, but also inviting them to dance once they get there.
What would you like the future of commercial real estate to look like for Black professionals?
I would love to walk into a room, conference, or join a call and not be the only one. I would love to be able to be in environments where Black professionals are employed and appreciated and in number as much as our white counterparts.
What advice do you have for Black professionals in the commercial real estate industry?
As a mentor now, I encourage other JLL Black professionals to really network and use the Business Resource Groups to do so. Success in this industry, and specifically at JLL, is heavily dependent upon having a strong network. Performing at a high level is a prerequisite of course, but if no one knows who you are or the great things you are doing, its hard for that to impact your career and open up other opportunities.