THE BUILDING WHISPERER
by Jesse Tuel
Morgan Blackwood Patel
On each afternoon’s commute, Morgan Blackwood Patel critiqued the progress on a barbecue restaurant under construction along the Midlothian Turnpike in the Richmond area.
Mind you, she was riding home from daycare, because she was a toddler.
Her early curiosity has served her well. Blackwood Patel, a 2003 industrial systems and engineering (ISE) graduate, is now regarded as one of the most prominent women in commercial real estate in the mid-Atlantic, according to Spencer Stouffer, vice chairman at the Cushman & Wakefield brokerage firm.
From 2015 to 2018, as a vice president for The Meridian Group, a private equity firm and one of the region’s premier developers, Blackwood Patel helped to shape The Boro District, a mixed-use development in Tysons Corner, Virginia, that blends residential, office, retail, dining, and entertainment spaces across about a dozen new and repositioned properties and 25 acres.
Real estate is a traditionally siloed industry—a property is routed from the acquisitions team to the designers and architects to the developers to the brokers to the landlords and property managers—but Blackwood Patel thinks less about a single asset and more about managing the brand of an entire development. That thinking is evident across The Boro District, where she focused on offering a unified experience for tenants, making eight repositioned office buildings feel right at home amid the new assets.
- 2003: Bachelor’s in industrial and systems engineering, minors in business and French
- 2003-07: Supply chain and strategy consulting, Accenture, New York City
- 2007-09: MBA program at Harvard
- 2009-11: Director of marketing for a business focused on energy use in buildings, Redlands, California
- 2011-14: Development executive, Clark Energy Group, working on large energy-efficiency projects, Arlington, Virginia
- 2015-18: Vice president, Meridian real estate private equity, Bethesda, Maryland
- 2018: Launched Greystreak, a real estate consulting business, McLean, Virginia
“It’s as well-branded and connected a development as I’ve ever seen in Northern Virginia,” said Stouffer, who placed tenants for Meridian. “Morgan’s vision to give it a sense of place was remarkable. The result is the most prominent and successful mixed-use development in Northern Virginia in a decade. It has changed the market.”
Gary Block, chief investment officer and partner at Meridian, said the firm’s investment philosophy is to provide an unparalleled experience to tenants. “Morgan helped us synthesize and execute on that thesis,” said Block, adding that she was the first to express the idea that tenants would actually seek out a Meridian building just like a traveler might look for a Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Blackwood Patel likes to absorb the vibe of a building and imagine its next life. “I feel like the building whisperer,” she said with a laugh. Planning a development, she ponders the human factors, such as whether a parking garage seems sunny or dreary or how people will interact with a green wall full of plants. In a tight labor market, where employees want to brag about their office digs on Instagram, innovation matters to employers. As Blackwood Patel tells investors, “I’m an engineer, but I talk about feelings all day.”
In the evening hours, Willis P. Blackwood ’72 would often spread out blueprints on the sunroom floor at home, red pen in hand, to evaluate the progress of his development company’s shopping-center projects. And his daughter Morgan, after some explanation, began to understand the drawings. “She got into the business, tangentially, pretty early,” Blackwood said. “She had an affinity for it at an early age.”
Drawn to drafting classes and architecture in high school, Blackwood Patel found industrial and systems engineering to be a perfect fit. In her first year at Virginia Tech, she earned top marks in a course in which students disassembled and assembled objects, such as lawnmowers and disposable cameras. And there was no question she would become a Hokie. Her father and mother, Mary Nolen Blackwood ’73, met on a blind date on Halloween as undergraduates, and nearly 30 in her extended family are alumni.
In the real estate and private equity fields, Blackwood Patel often finds that she’s the only woman in a meeting. She counters with confidence and authenticity, embracing as opposed to suppressing her differences.
With her stature in the industry, Blackwood Patel “has really done a wonderful job mentoring and embracing younger women in our industry, and she has been a champion for all of her peers,” Stouffer said. “She treats everyone equally, whether they’re in their first year or they’ve been doing it 30 years.”
In 2018, Blackwood Patel finished a five-year term on the advisory board for the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, including one year as chair. When she joined the board, “I didn’t know what a force she was,” said Don Taylor, former ISE department head and now Virginia Tech’s vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness and Charles O. Gordon Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “She quickly proved that we made a great decision.”
At her first board meeting, Blackwood Patel displayed a willingness to take charge and give of her time. “Within about 10 minutes, you can figure out that Morgan is a leader,” Taylor said. “She has a very strong servant-leader orientation.”
As advisory board chair, Blackwood Patel championed the growth of ISE’s Excellence Fund, an endowed fund that generates earnings to support student activities, such as sending a student to a conference, bringing a speaker to campus, or helping students conduct research. Gifts to the fund come in all sizes. “As Morgan described it once, we call it ‘the-nickels-and-dimes-that-add-up fund,’” said Eileen Van Aken, ISE department head and professor.
“When everybody gives $25, it really adds up,” Blackwood Patel said. “You have a direct impact on people. It’s not some nebulous thing.”
Blackwood Patel, who served for years on the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Council and the Alumni Association Board of Directors, is now one of three chairs for Virginia Tech’s upcoming capital campaign, alongside Lynne Doughtie ’85 and Horacio Valeiras ’80. Her decision to step into the role makes sense in the context of her favorite undergraduate memory: standing up on many Fridays in Professor Brian Kleiner’s senior design class and inviting 100 classmates to her house for a BBQ.
The campaign will emphasize not only philanthropy but also engagement. Philanthropy drives Virginia Tech’s excellence, because state funds and tuition can’t finance the full costs of empowering students and faculty to solve world-scale problems. And engagement means building and strengthening Hokie bonds—reconnecting with classmates, alumni mentoring students, and much, much more.
“There’s never a time when you can’t help someone,” said Blackwood Patel. “It is looking internally and asking, ‘How can I make a difference?’ My company could host an intern. I can take phone calls from students. I can welcome a new graduate into the area and broaden his network by introducing him to people.”
Van Aken marveled at Blackwood Patel’s willingness to connect with students. “She’s serious about it. She makes the time. Hokies aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and not just sit on the sidelines—and Morgan is out on the field.”
Blackwood Patel and her husband, Manish Patel, are now even more motivated to help. They recently welcomed their first child, son Jules, via a gestational carrier. Overwhelmed that another person would give them such a gift, the Patels felt a renewed sense of the goodness of humanity.
In mid-2018, Blackwood Patel began transitioning away from Meridian. She launched a consulting business—at the same age, incidentally, as her father when he launched his business—called Greystreak to help clients develop and execute on new visions for old assets. She is also collaborating with another Hokie to develop document-management software for real estate assets.
“I knew what I wanted to do when I was 4 years old,” Blackwood Patel said. “I took a sort of winding path to get here.”
At the time of an interview at her home in March, Blackwood Patel was easing back into a work routine, meeting with colleagues and friends at restaurants and coffee shops—and, naturally, she took along 3-month-old Jules, who was probably taking mental notes.