Nicole Forrest Founder White Forrest Real Estate & Professor University of San Diego, CA  / 
Blazing a Trail by Moonlight

story / Guest Story / February 14, 2016

For all the little girls who play with dollhouses, it’s shocking there aren’t more female developers. I was raised in Washington DC during the 1980’s – a time in which the city infrastructure still lay ravaged by race riots, suburban flight, crime and drugs. Although this blight was always in plain view, I was fortunate to be exposed to incredible travel, literature, and lore. Ideas, places, and education planted the seeds. Straddling the dissonant worlds of affluence and poverty, I dreamed of transforming our little neighborhoods and restoring its rich community fabric.

It wasn’t until I entered University that I realized this could be a profession. I spent a particularly memorable term at the University of Queensland where I studied architecture and fell in love with planning and design. I came back home invigorated and committed to making a mark on the built environment. I graduated with degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Business School. I studied political economy. I learned how countries partner with the private sector to unlock the intrinsic value of the most fundamental natural resource – land.

For ambitious women in this industry, work as a broker, designer or attorney is more ubiquitous – the path more evident. Becoming a developer requires comfort with uncertainty and risk. It’s like blazing a trail by moonlight. The molding of your own journey is exactly what I find so liberating. For those who have a vision, the field is wide open and the beautiful collision of math, art and society is breathtaking. There is just such an expansiveness and texture to my days.

As a developer, I am responsible for every aspect of the business from acquisitions to asset management. A project begins with sourcing new deals through brokers, relationships or competitions. I bring together an expert team in architecture, engineering and the law. We understand the market, establish a concept and work out the nuances of feet and inches. Most buildings require extensive zoning review which allows the community to effect the shape of their neighborhoods. Project finance is typically a combination of debt and equity. Construction and asset management are intense efforts in forecasting problems and putting out fires.

I have benefitted from amazing mentors who afforded me with an incredible level of decision-making early in my career.  I felt unprepared for the responsibility. Truly, I never feel entirely prepared. That’s the stretch. You have to seize opportunities when they come. Learn by doing. And build strong relationships. Surround yourself with people who will support you in the inevitable failures.

My confidence is strongest when I commit with my core. I believe we all have a life’s purpose. This work, as a developer, is deeply personal. I can feel it in my veins. I used to strive to be stoic. I wanted to be taken seriously. Now, I take a more holistic approach. Fact-driven action, yes. But also, a recognition that emotion is an important tool. Our experience of the environment is sensual, not only visual but touching every sense and triggering both personal and collective memory.

I have worked full-time, part-time and mommy-all-the-time to three young children. As a young, black, creative woman, I often felt unfulfilled. There seemed to be an incredible opportunity to embrace the creative, artistic, and social aspects of development to produce enduring and uplifting, sustainable spaces. I started White Forrest to embrace this holistic approach.

Through White Forrest, I can build housing with a commitment to the future. Long term viability is critical. I believe in craft. If a building is beautiful and beloved, it is more likely to be preserved and protected. To be adapted instead of abandoned. I hope to build environments that can change with the times.

A city’s skeleton is an essential. If a neighborhood has a strong infrastructure, there’s a glimmer of hope.  The physical memory makes you fight. There’s the desire to breathe another breath into the streets and halls.  I think of Detroit and Havana. These will be transformations to behold. For this reason, I am a committed urbanist. I worry about regional planning in my current Southern California home and the lack of investment in capital projects on a national level.

On a practical level, White Forrest pursues opportunities for urban intervention. I am always interested in taking on the ugly. I want to instill order through the chaos. I like to work on forgotten space. Much of my work has also focused on large-scale collaborative redevelopment with cultural, religious and civic institutions.

There is a voice, a positive and effervescent zeitgeist, in our world today that needs to manifest in our built environment. In the media, the concept of authenticity feels stale. There is outrageous cultural appropriation. No doubt I see beyond these maligned gestures, a positive urban appropriation that is inspiring.

I have just begun teaching at the University of San Diego. This is a way to stay connected with emerging generations and to hopefully encourage more students to think hard and deep about the built environment. I am naturally a dreamer. Academic work seems a good fit for me. I think it’s important to have a dedicated space to be thoughtful in order to be as productive as possible in my day-to-day work.

Dream.  Do.  Repeat.  


It has been a confluence of thoughts across the Pacific. Our first collaboration with a woman working in the built environment, in another hemisphere. A Skype session let us chat face-to-face (somewhat successfully for these techno nubes). Luckily in this case, Nicole found us. In that awesome way that blogs and links can sometimes lead you onto exciting horizons. We quickly decided to collaborate on a piece where Nicole shared her amazing story. Nicole is vivacious and charismatic. She has this beautiful spirit that shines through her writing as she talks about her dreams, her work as a considered urbanist and her enthusiasm for change. If only there weren’t oceans dividing us! She left us with a little something she has always lived by; ‘cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice’. Those students at the University of San Diego are very lucky. Thanks for kicking off our year with a bang Nicole!

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