Celebrating BHM: A Q&A with Malcolm Johnson - CEO, Langdon Park Capital
As part of Prosek’s CDB (Culture, Diversity & Belonging) Council’s Black History Month programming, we were joined on February 27th by Malcolm Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of Langdon Park Capital. In a virtual conversation with our very own Josette Thompson (Managing Director at Prosek), Malcolm discussed how his childhood and upbringing in Washington, D.C. helped him become the leader he is today. He also shared stories about his career journey and transition from being a pro football player with the NFL to working in finance; he explained ways in which his company, Langdon Park Capital, is helping Black and Latin communities succeed; and he even got personal about his experiences as a Black man and father living in America.
Keep reading for more on what Malcolm and Josey discussed during this candid and inspiring conversation.*
Josette Thompson: Tell us about growing up and your childhood—from your friendships, to what your education was like, to how it all helped create the “Malcolm” we’re seeing here today.
Malcolm Johnson: I was brought up in the 1980s. Back then, there was no social media. If you wanted to have fun with your friends, you went outside. Specifically, my friends and I loved going to the local recreation center, "Langdon Park," which had a public pool and a library. Plus, there was a skating rink two miles away.
To help my brother and me gain a better understanding of Black history and culture, our parents eventually enrolled us in an Afrocentric school. All of a sudden, instead of reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” every morning, we were singing the “Black National Anthem.” We learned that much of the mathematics “invented by” Greek and Roman scholars had actually been taught to them by Egyptian scholars who came before them—contrary to what many of us typically learn in school.
Learning about that part of history helped me understand who I am during my formative years. Being surrounded by strong and encouraging Black teachers and volunteer coaches, not to mention my friends’ parents, I witnessed how much everyone supported one another. That initial sense of community instilled me with a strong sense of responsibility and a dedication to giving back and teaching others.
Josey: You mentioned “Langdon Park,” which is not only the recreation center you went to growing up, but also the namesake of your company, Langdon Park Capital. It was there when you began playing basketball and football, and there where you met the incredible coaches that helped shape you into the person you are today. Can you tell us more about that?
Malcolm: Anyone who’s played organized sports can tell you how important youth coaches are during your formative years. For me, the coaches I worked with helped me learn the value of teamwork, discipline, sacrifice, and delayed gratification. To this day, I’m extremely grateful for those experiences.
Josey: We started with the formative years. Let’s skip ahead to college now. You went from living in Washington, D.C. to living in South Bend, Indiana as a student at the University of Notre Dame—where you also played football. How was that experience, and how did the lessons you learned in childhood impact that experience?
Malcolm: I loved it. But it was definitely challenging. To begin with, this was my first time living away from home and on my own. Not to mention, I went from living in one very homogeneous place to another. When I graduated from high school in D.C. in 1994, the city was about 85% Black; and my neighborhood was closer to 100%. Notre Dame was basically the opposite. Because I grew up taking the bus and subway to go to a Jesuit high school in D.C. that didn’t have many students who looked like me, the mostly white classroom experience wasn’t too much of an adjustment, however, it was another thing entirely to live and study somewhere that was predominantly white; and that experience forced me to step outside of my comfort zone.
To give you an example of what it was like, one time in the summer of 1996, we went to a place in remote Northern Indiana about an hour away from Notre Dame’s campus for preseason football training camp. One morning, our head coach made a point to tell us that our usual curfew of 10 p.m. was going to be 8:30 p.m. instead. When we asked why, he explained that there was a Ku Klux Klan rally happening in town that night. To say the least, I was surprised that Klan rallies were still happening in the 1990s.
Still, the best part of going to Notre Dame was getting the chance to step outside of my comfort zone and learn how to succeed in different environments. That, and my wife is also a Notre Dame grad!
Josey: Let’s hear more about football. Tell us about being in the NFL! We can start at the beginning: So, you get drafted…what is it like for you?
Malcolm: I loved playing football. But because of the nature of it, I always had a backup plan in mind for my career. I was in the NFL for four years, and I played for three teams, then I “retired” at 25. Looking back on it, leaving the game that soon wasn’t a great feeling and made me feel disappointed for not having accomplished all of the goals I’d set for myself as an athlete. However, leaving when I did – healthy and without any major injuries – was truly a blessing. Plus, I got to build a new career at an age when everyone is still trying to find themselves, so it didn’t feel like I was starting my next chapter too late in the game.
Josey: So, you made the transition into the financial services industry. From there, you got the idea for working in the affordable housing space. As a banker, what were you seeing at the bigger firms when it came to funding and investing in affordable housing? What spurred the idea?
Malcolm: I’m very grateful to have been a banker for all those years. While at JPMorgan, I worked with really smart people and the best clients, and I got a front row seat to seeing how the global economy works.
The idea for my company first came to me in 2016. Like many people, that particular U.S. election cycle had me thinking long and hard about where I would land on the side of history. After having a candid conversation with Jamie Dimon (CEO of JPMorgan), a leader who, in my opinion, has always been very thoughtful about the responsibility that institutions like his have to support the greater good, I transitioned into the world of workforce housing.
From there, I realized two things: 1) that institutional fund managers are going to have the most impact because they have access to capital; and 2) there’s always going to be a hurdle for smaller diverse managers to get to the institutional space, and it’s important to work with someone who understands local neighborhoods and can offer a diverse perspective on the markets they’re in, so that smarter investment decisions can be made. That was the “aha moment” for me.
When this was happening in 2020, a lot of institutional investors started wondering what their role should be in creating a different type of world, and asking themselves, “How can we do something that’s scalable, sustainable and makes the change we say we want?” So, finding partners wasn’t our biggest challenge, especially since our team offers a much more differentiated outlook than others in our field, and we have a first-hand perspective that enables our investors to make smart, informed decisions about how to support the people who live at the properties we own.
Josey: Can you tell us more about how Langdon Park Capital operates? What’s the impetus behind the investments and decisions that you make?
In terms of what those properties are, we very intentionally selected markets around the country that are high growth, with diverse economies and large populations, in D.C., Southern California and Northern California. When looking to buy multi-family properties, we’re less inclined to factor the bells and whistles into our decision (e.g., stainless steel appliances, luxury fitness centers, etc.), and more interested in making sure that the property is clean, safe, and has spaces that cultivate a community feel. We also think about the services that we can provide onsite as amenities that our communities really care about and need, such as after-school care for children.
In terms of who lives in our properties, they’re designed to house working class individuals who may not be able to afford the really high-priced rent that we see across the cities in which we operate. More than that, they’re each designed to cater to the needs of the people who live there, and to offer special services that help them thrive—in addition to affordable housing prices. To me, that is the real differentiator.
Josey: Let’s talk about diversity in real estate. In short, it’s lacking. What do you think needs to happen for people to really pay attention and diversify the industry more broadly?
Malcolm: This is going to sound a little off the wall, but hear me out: the current economic twists and turns that we’re experiencing are actually creating more opportunity for different viewpoints. For example, there are now office spaces with occupancy at 60% of what they were three years ago. This has helped drive a shift in property owners’ perspective on what to do with their buildings—and has opened them up to the possibility of having mixed used spaces for housing, lifestyle retail, or other purposes.
I would even say that part of why our company really came to be is because of the social upheaval that’s happened over the past few years, along with the global pandemic. Together, those have changed the economy in a way that we’ve never seen before. Ultimately, big moments like those are what’s going to change our industry. Times of market twists and turns necessitate a different way of thinking and a different way of creating solutions.
Josey: We talked about how you grew up in a homogenous Black neighborhood, then you went to Notre Dame and lived in a homogenous (predominantly) white town. Now, as you’re raising your own children, how does race factor into the choices you’re making for them—from the neighborhood they live in, to their activities and social life?
Malcolm: My wife (who’s Filipina) and I put a lot of thought into where we wanted to raise our children. Since we wanted to live in a place where our kids could experience both parts of their culture, we chose to put down roots in Los Angeles. In addition to being intentional about where we wanted to live, we’ve been equally conscious of the sorts of activities that we expose our children to, as well as the places we travel to with them.
We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve been able to send our children to excellent schools, sign them up for different extracurricular activities and help them gain a diverse worldview by taking them on unique vacations. Still, it hasn’t been easy, and we always try to make sure that our kids are aware of their privilege.
Similar to what I experienced growing up, my children’s world has been shaped a lot by where they go to school, and especially by their extracurriculars. Both of my children play sports, and they’ve been able to build a sense of community through their shared athletic experience. Much like it was for me, they’ve found that the bond that they get through being athletes goes so much deeper than just playing the game—they’ve built strong and meaningful connections with their teammates, coaches, and others as a result.
Josey: The past few years have been especially difficult for Black Americans. How have they felt for you and your children, and how have you been processing everything? Also, what are you saying to your kids about how they can stay safe in today’s world?
Malcolm: 1994 represented the most violent time in the history of Washington, D.C. up to that point. I was living in the nation’s murder capital. My neighborhood became very dangerous, and I had multiple close friends who were victims of gun violence. We were all very aware of the dangers of living in D.C. at that time for people who looked like me. We knew violence was all around us, and we’d hear stories. But still, I never witnessed a single murder while living there.
My oldest son, on the other hand, has witnessed more Black murder than I ever did. In fact, everyone on this call has probably seen the footage of George Floyd and Philando Castile getting murdered.
The reality is that it’s impossible for me to shield my children from what we’re seeing right now. Because of that awareness, we’ve never felt the need to have a talk about, “this is what you have to do to be safe.” Plus, they’ve witnessed, countless times, how I’ve behaved during a traffic stop. They’ve seen me roll down the windows, turn down the music, keep my seatbelt buckled and my hands on the wheel, etc. They know exactly what that means. Instead of having “the talk,” we speak more about what their responsibility is to change the narrative around being Black in America.
At the end of the day, all that my wife and I can do is fill our children up with love, and tell them every day how valuable their lives are.
On a broader scale, we should all be asking ourselves how much longer we, as a society, are willing to accept that this continues to happen. Equally important, we need to be asking ourselves and one another: why is it that the brutalization of Black lives is so accessible?
Josey: Shifting gears a bit, what is some career advice you’d like to give to everyone on the call today?
Malcolm: It comes down to creating a Venn diagram (either a literal or mental one) with three components: 1) what it is you like to do, 2) what it is you’re good at, and 3) what allows you to live the life you want to live. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to be very intentional about your next steps for achieving it.
Another piece of career advice from my own experience: don’t be afraid to learn by trying. Figuring out what you don’t like is just as important as determining what you enjoy. Also, I can’t overstate the benefit of having great partners, people you enjoy working with.
Lastly, there are only 24 hours in a day, so make it your goal to be doing something every day that you’re passionate about.
Josey & Malcolm: Finally, I wanted to ask you some rapid-fire questions. Can you tell us about your favorite…
*Note: This Q&A is a consolidated version of the conversation that has been edited for clarity and flow.