Written by Doug Menges
For roughly thirty years, I had a number of different jobs in the corporate world. I was a manager at a big CPA firm, Vice President of Citibank, a Chief Claims Officer, worked at Farmers Insurance. I even managed big divisions for Fortune 500 companies. However, the story really begins thirty years ago…
I was a first year MBA student going to Harvard. There was a lot of pressure to join Wall Street or join investment banking and become a “titan of industry.” Despite this, I was always drawn to the nonprofit sector. I ended up getting involved with a minister at a local church that was providing homeless services in the Cambridge area. At the time, Cambridge was mostly a working class community with its fair share of homelessness, and much less affluent than the somewhat standard Boston suburb. By the second year of my MBA program, I was so interested in the concept of affordable housing that I requested and received permission from the school to do an independent study on the subject. I learned more about developing affordable housing and even planned to create a nonprofit around affordable housing. This ultimately led me to a job search in the field.
I was a second-year student with a young baby, and, instead of talking with Goldman Sachs, I was talking to very small affordable housing developers. It was the spring of 1989 and I was graduating in a few months. My job search was simply chaotic. I’d be in Houston one day, the next day I’d be in Detroit, and the following day I’d be in LA, followed by Atlanta, and then the Silicon Valley. I was still interested in affordable housing, but I was also talking to large banks. I got a chance to speak to Don Terner, one of the founding members of affordable housing and founder of Bridge Housing in the Bay area.
I don’t remember exactly what caused me to do this, but I had been reading a lot about Don Terner and Bridge Housing and the innovative things he was doing out in California, so I found his phone number and called him. He answered his own phone, and I explained that I was a second-year Harvard MBA student and would be out in Silicon Valley and was interested in speaking to him about a career in affordable housing. Unfortunately, right before I was set to meet him, Hewlett Packard, one of the companies that I was talking to in Silicon Valley, told me that they would need me longer than planned. I had to call Don Terner and cancel our meeting. I told Don that I would try to get back to him another day, but unfortunately that never happened. Several years later, in the early 1990s, Don Terner was asked to be a part of a U.S. group of ambassadors. While flying over Yugoslavia, his plane crashed, and he died. To this day, I still regret not following through.
Anyways, I ended up joining Citibank out of school. We moved to New York, and then to 8 other places through my corporate travels. Still, I had the itch to pursue affordable housing. In the late 1990s, Many Mansions was doing one of their Great Conejo Duck Races. After attending this event, I went on to attend a grand opening and, from there, I was invited to join the board of Many Mansions. Still busy traveling, I was on and off the board several times. After I retired a few years later, I called up Rick and told him that I was ready. He said I could either rejoin the board or take an entry level position in real estate development where I could learn affordable housing from the ground up. He warned me that it wasn’t glamorous and didn’t pay much, but I told him that was exactly what I was looking for 30 years ago, and exactly what I wanted to do now. I’ve had many jobs that pay substantially more, but none have been as thrilling as the job here at Many Mansions.
The most interesting project I’ve had the opportunity to work on has been the current new construction project in Fillmore. While this small city is rather hesitantly, if not a little reluctantly, coming into affordable housing, it has been a pleasure to describe the vision to them, work with the members of the community, and form the development team all while trying to make sure we come in under budget. I’ve been working on this for three years, and it will be three more years before it comes out of the ground and people move in. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it from the early days, and it’s really been one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done.
I go home every night and think to myself, “Wow, I learned something new today. I know what I’m doing today is going to help someone tomorrow.” I could never say all of those things in the same sentence about the work I did in insurance and banking. I wish I would have gotten here 30 years ago. There are so many careers out there where you either have the opportunity to enrich yourself or enrich others. Whatever you do, the work should be honorable.