Twenty years ago, with memories of the 1992 Rodney King riots still fresh in many people’s minds, the University of Southern California began a small, bold experiment to bring some diversity to the overwhelmingly white world of real estate.

The initiative started in earnest in 1993, when USC enrolled the first 27 students in the program, designed as a short but intense professional development course. Its goals? To attract and support more minorities in the real estate industry and to encourage investment in urban communities typically underserved by mainstream developers. 

As noble as the goals were, though, it took time for the program to find solid ground.

“I think there were a lot of skeptics at the time,” recalls Stan Ross, chairman of the board of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate and a major supporter of the specialty program, which has born his name since 2003. “But we had a lot of support from the redevelopment agencies.”

Today, Ross’s faith in the initiative has clearly spread. Nearly 700 students have completed the Ross Minority Program in Real Estate since its inception, and in April, the program marked its 20th anniversary with a celebratory fundraiser. The event, which was attended by more than 600 people, raised more than $1 million for the Ross program. “It just validated the level of interest of companies in recognizing diversity issues and including diversity in strategic planning and thinking,” says Ross, clearly gratified by the turnout.

His commitment to the program is more than financial; Ross, 77, teaches one class every session on structuring the deal. “They all want to know the same thing,” says the real estate legend. “’How do I do my first deal when I don’t have any money?’”

The two-week program, which costs $5,500, also introduces students to the complicated essentials of getting land entitled in California; pro formas, and more. In addition to the technical background, the Ross Program also provides access to the influential network of real estate investors, developers, and more associated with USC’s Lusk Center. 

“I never could have recreated [the Ross Program network] on my own,” says Vanessa Delgado, 35, who is a program alum. 

The young Latina certainly tried. As a young employee at a government agency, Delgado enjoyed her work but realized she might be better suited for the faster pace and lower level of bureaucracy of the private sector.  So the Los Angeles native contacted everyone she could think of, of any race or ethnicity, with little luck. “No one called me back,” says Delgado, who has her bachelor’s from Stanford and a master’s in public administration from USC.

She found a different world at the Ross Program, where she found herself inspired and supported by the faculty, speakers, and fellow students. Today, she’s director of development for Primestor Development, an L.A.-based retail developer that focuses on urban neighborhoods. 

Her job at Primestor has proved to be work that Delgado loves. “Every time we have a groundbreaking, I get a thrill,” she says, “because we’re bringing in 1,000 jobs to a place where nobody else thought it was possible.”

The program has also helped students break into the residential side. Zerik Scales had a bachelor’s in architecture from Hampton University in Virginia and a master’s in urban planning from USC, but even that didn’t make much difference when he graduated in 2008, just as the financial crisis slammed the U.S. economy. “It was the worst time to graduate,” recalls Scales, who is African-American. “I got a job and lost it, all in four months.”

That was then. Now Scales is the project manager for Reinhabit, a small Southern California real estate firm that buys existing homes, dramatically renovates them, and then resells them. “We don’t do typical rehabs,” says Scales, who started the company with an investor. 

He found that investor the old-fashioned way: plain old hard work. “I went to every single real estate conference in L.A. that was free,” says Scales, who credits the Ross program with giving him both the tools and the confidence to dive into the industry. “I’d always been interested in real estate,” he says. “It gave me the courage to actually do it.”