Published: Jan. 10, 2022

McGregor Square assessment a chance for career-changers to validate what excites them about real estate.

The three students on the winning team pose in a hotel lobby in business attire.

From left, Ezra McPhail, Amber Hughes and Michael Mendoza at the Colvin competition in Maryland.

In taking first place in a nationwide real estate case competition, three MBAs at the Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado Boulder realized a grad degree is much more than what you learn in class.

“One thing you’re told in the MBA program is that when you’re a graduate student, you make sure to use that to your advantage to get a foot in the door,” said Michael Mendoza, a second-year MBA student on the team. “And we definitely did that—and whether it was architects, brokers or executives, people took the time to share their insights with us.” 

That comfort relying on industry insiders was key for Mendoza and his teammates—Amber Hughes and Ezra McPhail—in securing first place in the prestigious Colvin Case Study Challenge, held at the University of Maryland.

The competition is unique in that it is a report and documentation of a completed—not proposed—real estate project. The Leeds team chose McGregor Square, adjacent to Denver’s Coors Field, for its entry; formerly a parking lot, McGregor Square is now a mixed-use complex of restaurants, residences, retail and a hotel. 

Doing their homework

Entries in the Colvin competition are judged blindly by real estate professionals on criteria such as project valuation, finance, urban design and sustainability, entitlement processes, and operational issues.

The team members researched the project intensely, combing through public records to find pricing for the units and other minutia, and checked their figures with players on the project and experts in their own networks to ensure they did their homework right. Hughes recalled a message she left with a broker on a Friday afternoon, “and he called me right back and talked with me for a half hour. It was one of those things where people were willing to help us, because this was a learning experience.” 

“We were able to interview the CEO and COO of McGregor Square, and better understand how it developed from a back-of-a-napkin plan to what you see today,” Mendoza said. 

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“That was the real value in this competition, the ability to validate what we've learned so far and apply it in a real-world scenario.”

Amber Hughes (MBA'22)

Each of the students is transitioning into the real estate industry—Hughes and McPhail from marketing roles; Mendoza, a veteran, is moving to a post-Marine Corps career—and said the competition was an invaluable way to apply their knowledge and new networks in a real-life setting.

“Something I think we all felt, in choosing to do our MBAs at CU, is that the CU Real Estate Center is well known in the industry,” Hughes said. “And everyone here really cares about placing students and supporting them in being successful.”

That extended to the competition, where Leeds faculty and staff provided guidance and feedback that the team said helped key their success. 

“Our advisors were amazing,” McPhail said. “When we sent our reports over, they gave us really good, constructive criticism that we were able to build off of and continue improving our project as we went along.” 

Teamwork works

The MBAs also said their team dynamic played a big role in their performance. The students divided up tasks, supported one another, maintained constant communication and trusted that key deadlines would be met. 

Katie Latier, associate director of CUREC, said the team’s success also came from the combination of backgrounds and skills the students brought to the table. 

“Each of these students have a quest for knowledge and strong drive to compete—especially during the tail end of the semester, when juggling final exams and other responsibilities,” Latier said. 

Optional challenges like Colvin are just one way CUREC supports students’ ambitions. The center offers specialized networking events, mentorship, skills development opportunities, timely panel discussions, and business treks to real estate companies domestic and international. 

Hughes said the experience reminded her of a lesson for an internship she completed with Palisade Partners, in which her manager offered to show her “the diagram of how development works.” Naturally, there isn’t one. 

“Development and real estate do not follow linear paths,” she said. “For instance, in this project, it was more like the architects took the lead, instead of the developers, based on their knowledge of the market and these types of projects. That was the real value in this competition, the ability to validate what we’ve learned so far and be able to apply it in a real-world scenario.”

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