This month we are featuring two fantastic women who have dedicated many years to Women in Housing and Finance of PA. Chris Paul and Laura Northup were among the original founding members of WHF-PA. We are so grateful to them and the other founding members for starting this organization. We interviewed Chris and Laura about their journey and lessons learned along the way. (Please note this interview was conducted earlier in 2020.)
Q: Tell us about yourself. (Your background and what led you to your current role)
Chris: I started out in homeless services. In high school, I was involved in outreach on the streets. After college, I worked in a homeless shelter for men. Before and during law school I worked at a mental health drop-in center. Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia was my first legal job. So I came to the industry via homeless services. I entered the affordable housing and community development world through Regional Housing Services. I worked as in-house counsel at a couple of CDCs then transitioned into the development role at those organizations. I am in my sixth year here at Diamond and Associates. In homeless services, I worked a lot on fighting for inadequate individual benefits and found I wanted to do something more macro. Making housing units available seemed to be the direction to go. But, homelessness is at the root of why I care about housing.
Laura: After college, I was a stay at home mom for 16 years. While home taking care of my children, I became “a professional volunteer.” I organized programs and served on multiple boards for my children’s school, my church, the local soccer club, the Red Cross, the public library and established a support group for mothers at the YWCA. As the church’s treasurer, I was able to use my financial background with fundraising and social work programs that assisted low income families to gain access to food benefits and clothing. I have always been passionate about community involvement and my volunteer work helped feed that passion.
With my two eldest children in high school, I began working at the Adams County Housing Authority, located in Gettysburg, in the accounting department. In less than a year, I went from PT accounts assistant, to FT running the finance department then becoming Administrator of Operations; a position which I held for nine years. Surprisingly enough, the Housing Authority and its non-profit development arm were clients of Mullin & Lonergan Associates (M&L). Throughout the years I developed a great working relationship with Mike Kearney at M&L and he offered me a position in 2010. At M&L, I specialize in tax credit deals and gap financing sources. I made partner in January 2018.
Q: Chris, what were you hoping to do with your Law Degree?
Chris: I went to law school while in graduate school for sociology. I hoped law school would help me understand policy better. I wasn’t intending to practice law long term. However, I wear my lawyer hat a lot more than my sociology hat now. I wanted to be at the intersection of both. I’m more in practice than theory these days. Policy work is not a huge part of my daily work life.
Q: You are both founding members of WHF-PA and are stepping down from the Executive Committee this year. How has your involvement in the organization helped shaped your career?
Chris: WHF-PA has broadened my connections to people and created a safe space for me. The organization has broadened my world and made it feel so much bigger and better. WHF-PA members are my people. WHF-PA created my friendship with Laura. I didn’t know Laura before WHF-PA. I’m not sure I would have met her if it wasn’t for WHF-PA. We may have just ended up as competitors. She’s been a tremendous gift. She’s someone I hold super dear and a very close friend. She is often the person I go to when I have a difficult question or need help.
Laura: Creating WHF- PA with the other women in the organization gave me a sense of community and confidence that I was missing when I was alone in the industry. I hope we created a safe space for women to recognize one another and to be around like-minded people. It gave me, and I hope the other ladies, the support and encouragement we all need at times. I now have a network of women; I can pick up the phone and call if I run across an issue or want to brainstorm a topic. We created an atmosphere of community and comradery. We never felt like we were in competition with one another. A perfect example is Chris Paul, on paper we are competitors, but in reality, we have become close friends and confidantes. WHF-PA members value each other for who we are and have mutual respect. We want to always help each other succeed. I have carried that through my career and I hope the theme continues with the organization in the years to come.
Q: You both advanced rather quickly in your current organizations. What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?
Chris: I started working at Diamond in 2014. During my first five years at Diamond, I was able to build on my prior experience and I eventually took on significant supervisory responsibilities. But after five years, I was unsure of how I wanted to grow next in my career so I started to work with a career coach. The coach helped me define my goals. During that process, I realized that I wanted to stay at Diamond, but in an enhanced role. I had a serious conversation with Roy where I communicated my goals and desire for a larger role in the organization. My new role in many ways is a formal recognition of leadership responsibilities that I already had. I was fortunate that I worked for someone who was supportive of this process and open to having this conversation.
Laura: The key is building and maintaining relationships with other people in the industry (women and men). It’s so important. This industry is so niche that knowing who you can call sometimes makes a difference when you are trying to get a deal done. It’s also important to respect people and be honest. You can’t be afraid to be brave and explore ideas that may be outside your comfort zone. It’s not enough to get a seat at the table, you must sit down. Meaning, once you are there take advantage of it and recognize what you bring to the table and don’t forget the women coming up behind you that might need support. You also can’t discount education. You must keep yourself updated on the industry and stay informed.
Q: What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Chris: I’m continuing to learn but the most impactful leadership trait I have seen is the ability for a leader to identify an issue worth championing, then convince people to fight along with you. You must find the confidence in yourself to believe in the issue, organization or project, even if you fail. We all should build the confidence in our strengths and abilities and accept the fact that not we will not win every battle. In a smaller scale way, project managing a team to closing requires you to guide everyone on a path that doesn’t always feel certain. You have to convince yourself of the path and then convince others on the march to the closing table. As an organizational leader, I want to try to bring out the best in people. Instead of saying ‘what are people not doing’ say ‘what can I do to make an environment that brings out the best so that they can succeed’?
Laura: Respect other people’s contributions that work with you and support you. That is important to any leadership position. Also, trust your instincts and stay true to yourself and be consistent. People will respect you for it.
Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
Chris: Patriarchy. People who have not been holding all the power have to over compensate and overperform. Women and people of color have to develop a super ability to succeed. As has been said, they have to do everything that Fred Astaire does but backwards in heels. We are not necessarily set up to be better leaders, but we often have to balance so much that we develop pretty strong leadership skills. And yet, there is a societal narrative that women can’t lead. Often as women, we go into the workplace and our default position is that “we can’t do this or that” or we aren’t experts. And yet, those holding themselves out as experts may have fewer skills or less experience. Somehow, we need to get better at valuing ourselves and expressing that value to others. Society may be continuing to make us believe that we cannot lead, but we can lean on our fellow women to help us realize that we can and should be leading.
Q: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Chris: They are confronting more societal catastrophes than our generation. Climate change and automation are changing the landscape for a younger generation and now Covid 19 has upended much of life as we know it. We seem to keep fighting the same fight such as the fight for reproductive rights. That doesn’t help build a sense that you are a leader if you cannot have sovereignty over your own body. Unfortunately, I think younger generations will continue to have the same or similarly difficult challenges that women in our generation have, but compounded by other tectonic shifts. I hope I am wrong.
Q: Do you think our generation is making strides in women leadership? Are we making improvement, and can we sustain it?
Chris: I feel like so much of progress is two steps forward and three steps back. I think we are doing lots of good work. We are advancing the conversation about class, race, gender, sexuality. There is more sophistication in the conversations that are had today than in my twenties. However, I think money and power continue to push back and retrench. We did a great job at getting women elected. That is huge and exciting. But we still have men and women putting bills forward that compromise women’s rights of self-determination. I think we have money and power coming out against women leaders, as we saw with Elizabeth Warren. When I was in my 20s, the prevailing wisdom was that you didn’t want a female boss. I don’t think that sentiment would be so easily expressed now. So that represents progress. But power does tend to yield slightly, allow some reform, and then retrench- hence the three steps back…
Q; How did mentors influence your life?
Chris: Years ago, Dina Schlossberg sent me a job description. I read it and it was something completely different than what I had been thinking about as a next career move, but I thought if she thinks I’m capable of this and that this is a good idea, then I should apply. If my mentor is saying this is worth exploring, then I should at least explore it. More typically than sending job descriptions, she has served as a sounding board for me as I consider next steps along my career path. Having a sounding board and having the ability to talk something through with someone is such a gift. That has been the greatest ongoing value of my mentor relationship. You can talk through a decision to see if it makes sense or doesn’t and talk about pathways and difficult situations. Mentors provide a tremendous gift. I have tried to pay it forward by mentoring others along the way and provide my thoughts and an ear to listen. It’s just so helpful. No one has “THE” answer, but they can help you get to your answer. It’s often difficult to get there on your own and in a vacuum. And they have more confidence in you to help you get there. We are often not set up with those confidence tools as women and mentors are great to help us build that confidence.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Chris: The more information we can share, the more empowered we can all be. Knowledge is power. We are better for that knowledge and often we can all succeed with that knowledge and power. I feel like we are building a power base with WHF-PA. We are creating our network and information sharing portal. It feels great. In our world, when we share information, we can all succeed.