February 1st, 2018
HDF is always open to innovation and changes. In recent years, we have undergone through a massive change in our internal technological structure to make our work smoother and more efficient. Elyse Pitts, the Director of Innovation, was a person behind the process! Today, we sit with her to talk about her experience working for HDF and about what has changed in the organization.
What’s your typical day like at HDF?
We support other lines of business. For example, we have meetings with the counseling department every two weeks to troubleshoot and make the system better and more efficient. We also have some longstanding projects going on. For example, I have been working on analyzing data on Salesforce after we have been on Salesforce for 2 years.
Could you talk more about the Salesforce counselor meetings?
The Salesforce counselor meeting has evolved over the years. HDF is part of the pilot program of NeighborWorks using Salesforce, which has transformed how we do our work. In the beginning, there were lots of bugs in the system, so we needed to figure out how to launch the system while maintaining our best practices. A lot of our work is figuring out the best way to have the process work seamlessly within the organization.
Now that we’re launched, we focus on how Salesforce can help employees do their jobs better. What additional reporting functions, analyses, and tools can we build in Salesforce? An example is that counselors used to do income verification in Excel, and now we are working together to bring income verification to Salesforce. We do the same thing with other departments.
How did you come to work at HDF?
I started at HDF in June 2003, that is almost 15 years ago. My undergraduate degree is in Finance. I used to work in commercial finance in NYC for a number of years, then I decided that I wanted to do more in community-based development. I went back to school in 2001 and got my Master’s degree in Urban Planning with a focus on community development and affordable housing. HDF was my first job after getting my graduate degree.
I grew up in affordable housing. When I was young, I was in the low-income part of a market rate complex that received low-income housing tax credits. I always knew the importance stable housing had on my life.
The commercial finance job that I had previous to my decision to get my Master’s was to build standard, high-end rental complexes in sprawling locations. I was traveling to these places in the middle of nowhere – like 50 miles from the city – to see that they were building standard high-end luxury rentals. And I just thought that it was not what I wanted to keep doing. I want to focus more on urban locations and to focus on development that would keep housing affordable for people. So that’s when I started to researching what would be the best degree to merge all of that together. It was Urban Planning for me, with community development and affordable housing as my focus.
How was your transition like from the corporate world to nonprofits?
The company that I worked for before going back to the graduate school had over 50,000 employees. I worked in a big office building in downtown Manhattan – the entire building was occupied by this company. The company was massive and global. Conversely, when I started at HDF, there were only 5 people. I was the sixth.
I didn’t think that leaving a big company for HDF was a risk, because I knew that HDF has been in existence for 14 years at that point. But the funny story was that I actually went to interview for a job at a different nonprofit doing development work. I sat down with their CEO and told him about my background, and he said: “You’re wonderful, but you’ll be a better fit at the Housing Development Fund. I’m going to call up Joan Carty and send your resume to her.” He held HDF in a very high regard, so that’s how I got connected with HDF. If he hadn’t made that connection, I wouldn’t have even heard of the job.
HDF at the time hadn’t geared up on the residential lending side as much as the multifamily housing development, and we primarily served only in Stamford, Norwalk, and Greenwich. HDF never had a seasoned lending person working for the company, but Joan had a vision about what she thought she needed in place staff-wise in order to get to the next level with HDF. I was impressed that Joan had a bigger idea for what HDF could become, so I accepted the position as the Director of Lending.
How was the Director of Lending role different from the Director of Innovation role that you have now?
Lending is what I’ve always done- that’s what I was trained to do. It was an easy transition for me. I could bring a lot of experience about the structures of deals and loan products to HDF. I was able to use a lot of my already gathered expertise. The only interesting part was that I was used to doing huge plain 200-unit commercial lending for apartment buildings, industrial complexes, or office buildings with seasoned developers. But HDF’s multifamily lending was usually 15 to 20 units, and they were tough deals. They required lots of approvals from the city, the state, or various external funders. It was made more difficult if the borrower was inexperienced. The properties were also likely to have higher maintenance costs because they tended to be older.
I left HDF in Spring 2008 because I was put on bedrest at 19 weeks from carrying twins—I could no longer work at that point. But I kept in touch with HDF while I was away. When my twins turned 4 in 2012, I came back to work for HDF part time. The timing also corresponded with HDF’s potential involvement in NeighborWorks America’s new innovation pilot program. We just started a new department at that point, and we knew that we needed to manage our data differently. And because I had been a part of HDF for so long and really knew how HDF’s processes worked, Joan asked if I would be able to join the team and focus on the new initiative. I thought I would be a good fit so I took the position.
We hadn’t launched Salesforce or anything at that point, but I was in charge of honing our process, including rethinking our organizational and technology structure as well as how we could make things better, how we were dealing with customers, and how we could make our customer experience better. It was a way to prep our company culturally to help us launch the NeighborWorks America’s pilot program successfully. Before, we used to have something we called the ‘server in the closet’ with a back-up tape! We transitioned to a cloud-based server in 2014, which was part of the innovation pilot program.
I did a lot things internally to get us prepared to connect all our offices appropriately. Now our three offices are connected through one telephone line. We also changed our accounting and lending systems to be cloud-based. We chose Salesforce partly because it was NeighborWorks’ idea, but we were going to adopt Salesforce anyway even we were not a part of the NeighborWorks’ pilot program. Joan saw a demo of Salesforce at a nonprofit in Darien and thought that we had to get it too.
Could you share about a rewarding experience since you started working for HDF?
Launching SmartMove was kind of a big deal. I remember going to banks and begging them to invest in our SmartMove loan fund. At first, only a few banks saw SmartMove as an amazing opportunity. I was initially really worried about its success. But, in our first year, our loan production increased by 15%, and then by 25% the next year. Within the first year, many more banks decided to join our SmartMove loan fund, which was so rewarding to see. It was partly luck, partly the structure we had in place, and partly our incredibly good team. We realized that we could double or even triple our closings a month, and for us that was like you told me that I could have gone to the moon. Suddenly we had SmartMove.
We came up with an amazing product. We had an amazing team. We could go places with this. We could go from our little corner in Fairfield county to statewide CT. We could go to places where there’s little bank investment, or go to areas and markets that have been largely ignored. If we can make that kind of impact in other places as well, who knew what we could become? For me that was very rewarding.
Thanks Elyse for sharing your experience working at HDF. HDF has evolved to serve our customers better over the years, and will continue to do so!