Features

Jennifer Nichols – CRG 

Ensuring women have equal opportunities and equity 

Jennifer Nichols’ life has been filled with firsts. She was the first woman in her family to go to college, and today, she is the first woman of color in a senior leadership position at CRG, a Chicago and St. Louis-based North American real estate development and investment firm. 

Jennifer Nichols | Executive Vice President & General Counsel  | CRG 

Jennifer Nichols | Executive Vice President & General Counsel  | CRG

“The real estate and construction industries are overwhelmingly male and white,” Nichols says. “But since coming to CRG, I have felt embraced and knew immediately that my opinions would be welcomed and valued.” 

In her role, Nichols’ unique approach sets her apart. While many general counsels focus solely on assessing risks, she takes pride in being a lawyer and a businessperson. Her keen understanding of the bottom-line impact of her efforts allows her to prioritize her work and contribute directly to the success of CRG’s business.  

But for Nichols, her work isn’t all about the law and business.  

Traditionally, the positive embrace Nichols felt at CRG hasn’t been felt by women, especially women of color. In fact, women of color are the single most discriminated group, according to numerous studies conducted this century. And since becoming a lawyer in 2006, Nichols has been dedicated to helping reverse that trend.  

“There is still a long way to go, but the face of corporate America has changed the past few years,” Nichols says. “But there is still a stigma that women, especially women of color, aren’t qualified. And that needs to change.” 

The importance of DE&I 

While acknowledging that many things need to improve regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, Nichols has found solace with CRG, a company that has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to diversity. The organization’s Juneteenth Fund is important to Nichols—she sits on the advisory committee that helped raise nearly $325,000 in 2023 and has set an even higher goal for 2024. The fund aims to identify and empower organizations making a local impact on the lives of black people in the communities where employees of Clayco (the larger enterprise of which CRG is a part)  live and work. This endeavor also helps foster a corporate culture of “rising tide raises all boats,” Nichols believes is a central tenet that helped create a more inclusive and cohesive workplace at CRG. 

Jennifer Nichols | Executive Vice President & General Counsel  | CRG 

In addition to her work on the Juneteenth Fund, Nichols is an integral part of the steering committee for Clayco NOW, an internal Network of Women.  

“With Clayco NOW, we try to highlight women in the organization in positions of power or rising stars to give them more exposure and guidance,” she says.  

Nichols’ dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion stems from her experiences as a woman of color. She has personally experienced situations where people felt more comfortable making inappropriate comments in the presence of a white-presenting woman of color (like herself) rather than a Black individual. Experiences like that have given her a deep understanding of the struggles faced by marginalized groups. 

“And those experiences—and others—have fueled my passion for making things better for women in the workplace,” Nichols explains.  

Empowering women  

Within her team, Nichols actively promotes and champions women. She has recognized and addressed pay discrepancies, ensuring women are not undervalued or underpaid, and she believes in supporting women and ensuring they are not pitted against each other. She emphasizes the importance of women uplifting one another and fostering a supportive, drama-free work environment. 

“It is not just about equality, but also about equity,” Nichols says. “Women need to support each other, and we must be better at speaking up.” 

Jennifer Nichols | Executive Vice President & General Counsel  | CRG 

To Nichols, empowerment means creating opportunities for women and people of color without penalizing them for getting involved. She believes in recognizing the additional (and often invisible) work that individuals from underrepresented groups frequently undertake, and she ensures they are appropriately compensated for their efforts. Nichols says she also advocates for self-promotion and challenges the negative stereotypes placed on assertive women. 

Perseverance and determination are qualities that have propelled Nichols forward in her career. She never hesitated to take chances and is grateful for those who have supported and believed in her throughout her journey. Growing up in a big family with high expectations, Nichols’s parents instilled in her the belief that she could achieve anything she wanted. She has carried this mentality with her, continuously seeking new opportunities for growth and learning. 

“I have never felt more connected with an organization and team,” she says.  

Nichols’s commitment to continuing education never ends and is evident in her five degrees and belief that each week should end with newfound knowledge. She sees learning as essential to personal and professional growth, ensuring she never becomes stagnant or disengaged. 

“If at the end of the week, I haven’t learned something new, I feel like I missed something,” she says.  

It was always the law 

Nichols grew up in a large family in Detroit as the youngest daughter of parents who worked in a GM factory. She earned a degree in finance and Spanish from Michigan State University and a J.D. from the Boston College Law School. But she didn’t stop there. She also earned a Master of Science in Taxation from Grand Valley State University and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, focusing on management and organizations, real estate, and marketing. 

Jennifer Nichols | Executive Vice President & General Counsel  | CRG 

After learning her craft in private practice for five years, Nichols took her first in-house real estate role, spending six years as deputy general counsel for Banner Real Estate Group. She was vice president and general counsel for Harsch Investment Properties (now Schnitzer Properties) before joining CRG in December 2020. 

“I am okay with being the first woman of color in a leadership role so long as I am not the only one,” Nichols says. “CRG and Clayco have had a focus on diversity that long precedes my joining the company.” 

The CRG legal department includes five women and one man, and Nichols says the group is highly functional and works well together. A team text thread goes off all weekend with people sharing moments and thoughts outside of work—Nichols says it is a great way to stay connected and bonded.  

Nichols is humble regarding her achievements and admits that people like her rarely succeed without help. She credits her family and mentors who guided her along her journey. 

“The system wasn’t built for people like me. I have succeeded despite the system,” she says. “But I’ve learned lessons along the way that I can pass on, which makes all the challenges and struggles I encountered worth it.” 

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2024 Edition here.

Published on: March 12, 2024

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