Mapping the Course of Genger Charles

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“Things that happened in your life where meant to happen, to make you who you are. We all have our purpose and destiny in this life. And although some things may seem like mistakes or accidents, soon you will realize that they had to happen so that you can be where you need to be.” – Dr. Anil Kumar Sinha

Those words could have been spoken by our featured professional mortgage woman for March, Ms. Genger Charles. She is inspired and grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded her, and she has confidence she can to contribute to others.

Since November 2014, Genger Charles has served as the General Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Housing and Deputy Commissioner for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In this role, she oversees the operations of the FHA and advises on policy and regulatory development, portfolio management, legislative affairs, and communications in the areas of Housing Counseling and Single Family, Multifamily, and Healthcare mortgage insurance and finance.

At FHA, she has led multiple high-priority initiatives impacting primary and secondary mortgage markets, FHA insurance funds, and affordable housing, including FHA’s Blueprint for Access, the sale of mortgage notes through the Distressed Asset Stabilization Program (DASP) and the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Genger has also served as a key decision maker in the establishment of FHA mortgage insurance premiums, enforcement policies and organizational change management through the Multifamily for Tomorrow Transformation Initiative, and institutionalizing the FHA Office of Risk Management.

She is a frequent media contributor, speaker, and guest lecturer, and earned a Bachelor of Science in Policy Analysis and Management from Cornell University and is a graduate of The George Washington University Law School. During law school, she worked as a law clerk for the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and at the government affairs and public relations firm Dutko Grayling (formerly Dutko Worldwide).

For the extraordinary opportunities she has encountered in a relatively short time, Genger started her journey in rather non-extraordinary beginnings, much like many professional women.

She is originally from Middletown, New York, in the Hudson Valley region of the state about 60 miles from Manhattan. Then, it was a more rural community and the population is still around 30,000 citizens, but, today it looks more like a suburb of New York City. Her parents immigrated from Haiti, having made that journey for many of the same reasons most immigrants do – opportunities. Genger embraced their work ethic and learned many valuable lessons in the family environment.

“My parents exemplified and instilled in me a culture of hard work to achieve your goals. That influenced me to study hard. I have seven siblings, and I’m second to last. I’ve had the experience, though, of being an only child because my next older and younger siblings are eight and seven years apart from me, respectively. Depending on the year and circumstances of our family, I was sometimes the ‘only child’; sometimes the older sibling and sometimes the younger sibling.  Overall this taught me responsibility and independence. I learned to rely on myself, and I learned how to help others.”

What led her to pursue law as a profession? From childhood, Genger developed an interest in law and public policy. In the family’s household, her parents emphasized civics and current events, and many programs they watched focused on news and politics. She recalls her parents’ efforts to earn citizenship and the right to vote, which was always portrayed by them as significant. “I believe it was in 1988 [G.H.W. Bush v. M. Dukakis presidential election], and I would have been six or seven years old,” she recalls. “My father could vote then, but, my mother was not yet able to vote. My school was closed on election day because it was a polling place, and, I remember talking to my Dad about going to vote and who I thought he should vote for. I was paying attention early on to what was going on in my environment and the impact the government could have to influence and change peoples’ lives.”

MWM: What advice can you give to young women today that may have made your career path a little bit easier if you had learned it earlier?

GC: Have patience with yourself, your colleagues, and your peers. I’ve learned that being patient is part of being cautious and smart about what you are doing. I believe some of the greatest frustrations I’ve faced personally and professionally would have been lessened if I had been a little more patient.  While I have had wonderful opportunities and experiences over a relatively short professional timeline, the things I would do differently are those where I was not as patient as I might have been to achieve a particular outcome. I do believe that, if I had employed more patience, I probably would have landed in the same place in terms of my career path or a particular policy objective, but, I may have been able to do so with a little less anxiety and stress. I am on the cusp of the Millennial generation, which has been described as the impatient generation. Younger Millennials can benefit by knowing that being patient can lead to much less frustration and much less stress while still achieving ambitious objectives.

MWM: Was there a defining moment, that “ah-ha” moment, in your life that shaped who you are and where you want to go professionally?

GC: That 1988 presidential election and the connection I made to it through my Dad has been a guidepost for me from grade school to college, and through law school and beyond, and it has served as a level-set for me as to why I took this path in the first place. But, after law school, I started at HUD in the Office of General Counsel even before I knew the results of the bar examination. Pending the outcome of the bar exam, I couldn’t be sure what my longevity would be there, but I was excited to have the opportunity to learn. A couple of years in, I was at my parents’ home over a holiday break talking about the work I was doing, and they said, “We bought this house using an FHA loan.” I was stunned. Who knew? Much earlier during my school days, my parents had helped me make the connection between education and opportunity. Later, I made the further connection that education and opportunity were functions of your housing situation, and that where you lived could have an impact on the quality of your education. Of course, by the time they told me about it, my parents had moved well beyond FHA financing, but, that was the full-circle, defining moment that confirmed I had landed where I was supposed to be. In that situation, I felt FHA had contributed significantly to me and my family, and I had an opportunity to then help contribute to others.

MWM: You’ve been in government roles and with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), an industry trade association as an Associate Director of Public Policy. How would you say those roles and your experience on ‘different sides of the desk’ have shaped your perspective?

GC: I think it’s critical to get a broader viewpoint. Although my work at the MBA was relatively brief, I have benefitted from it significantly to execute the responsibilities I’ve had since. Coming right out of law school and working for the FHA , I’m a product of what I call ‘on-the-job learning’ – whether it was learning about the FHA programs and the National Housing Act, or operationalizing them through the policy development process and advocating for them on Capitol Hill. The understanding I gained working with the leaders of the MBA, partners of the MBA, lenders, servicers, and others throughout the industry, and the hands-on with individuals taking advantage of mortgage products and services have been critical to my ability help develop and implement clear, practical. Understanding better how private sector lenders, servicers, appraisers, and others interpret what is going on on the government side has helped me advance shared objectives, and better frame what we do. Without the experience I gained at the MBA, I would not have the perspective to evaluate our role in the industry in the same way.

MWM: Education and role opportunities are important factors to success, as are mentor relationships. You mentioned your brother who was mentor early in your life. Have you had other mentors, and, if so, how have those relationships contributed to your journey?

GC: I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors, or what are sometimes called champions or sponsors. They have come in different forms and have represented a cross-section of men and women Some mentors help guide your career path.  I have benefitted from mentors who recognized my work ethic, my strategic sense, and that I could quickly grasp issues and find solutions. What they all have in common is how gracious and kind they have been. I have benefitted from their generosity and their willingness to acknowledge my ability to be a ‘value add,’ and to help me maximize those qualities. In turn, I take very seriously the opportunity to act in the role of a mentor to others, to be a source of advice, to talk to people about their career paths and share my views in a way that I hope can be helpful. If people had not done that for me, I would be where I am today.

MWM: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?

GC: I’d put this in two buckets. I cannot discount the influence that my parents have had on me – encouraging me to persevere through college and law school, instilling in me the value of public service and awareness of current events – that has been a guidepost for me and has been hugely significant in the path that I have taken. In terms of the work that I do today, former FHA Commissioner Carol Galante has been hugely influential. She remains a strong source of support and a woman who I can look to as an example of leadership. Although she most likely experienced many challenges long before I knew her, being side-by-side with her and observing the challenges she faced as a woman leading this organization, I learned a great deal. Also, because I had worked in and around FHA, I could compare her experience to others who have served in that role.  I saw that she faced some unique challenges as a woman at that level. At times, she must have been very frustrated with the adversity, but, she handled it skillfully. She was effective despite the trials. She helped underscore for me something I had tried to convince myself of: the work that you do and how you carry yourself, speaks for itself—apart from the critics or supporters. Patience, thoughtfulness, determination, hard work, your ability to get things done, and how you view yourself will speak for itself. She has helped me embrace the challenges despite who you are or where you come from.

MWM: Have you ever had to deal with adversity as a woman or a woman of color, and if so, how did you handle that?

GC: I’ve certainly experienced adversity.  There were probably times I was excluded from an opportunity, but just did not know it. Now that I have become more cognizant of these kinds of situations, I have been more sensitive to them. I recognize that, for the most part, I am not typical in my current role. I’m younger than many who have had this position, and I am a woman and a minority, which have not been typical in this field of work. These are three areas the mortgage industry has been shown to be lacking in, and I am in all three categories. Despite my position and responsibilities as the leader of the organization, I have experienced, even recently, a professional setting where I was ‘looked past,’ that is, I could sense my presence and contributions were discounted. I can be easy to discount certain people and their contributions.

Awareness is critical. I’ve seen that the Mortgage WOMEN Magazine targets mortgage industry diversity issues, like the feature on Teresa Bryce Bazemore [January/February 2016]. She is leading the effort on diversity in the industry alongside the MBA and others. This treatment happened to me just a few weeks ago, it has happened in the past, and I’m certain it will happen again. I used to allow it to bother me greatly; it is offensive and hurtful. Eventually, through my interactions with Carol and others like her, I learned to put in perspective that people do have preconceived notions, which are not going to change overnight, and that what I do, how I carry myself, and how I execute my responsibilities will speak for themselves. My focus is to maintain my own compass and identify opportunities to be influential, and no one will be able to take that away from me. But this also means I have an obligation to not perpetuate the cycle.

MWM: What does work-life balance look like for you, and what are your passionate interests outside of working hours?

GC: A few years ago, a colleague recognized that I was spending way too many hours and days of the week working. Because of his encouragement, I took a vacation, and I have really enjoyed travelling – Mexico, Turkey, Costa Rica, and others.  In my mind, I had painted a picture of myself as the center of all things productive, and, felt that, if this particular screw was missing from the apparatus, the apparatus might not work as well. I eventually learned that being a good employee and being a good manager meant that things work well even when you are gone. I finally realized that everything had to continue to work well without me, and, if it didn’t work, it was a sign that we needed to change things. I’ve become more sensitive to engaging others in the organization. There may be circumstances where I do need to be involved when I am away, but, I want to limit those to the extraordinary. I used to carry multiple electronic devices everywhere with me, 24-7, but now I exercise connectivity more judiciously. Similarly, I try to not burden people in my organization by taking up weekend, vacation, or holiday time for routine work matters.

I’ve also incorporated better exercise habits.  In 2013 I ran a marathon and have run several half-marathons since. It offered me time to to clear my head, observe the world around me. I have a passion for really campy television shows for when I really want to disconnect. People sometimes ask me if Washington, D.C. is like “Scandal”; it’s not, but, I really enjoy watching it!

MWM: What are the three things you think about if you awaken at 3 a.m.?

GC: I like this question! The first thing I think about is what is on my schedule for tomorrow, what are the tasks that have to be accomplished that day. Independently of that, I think about whether I will get up to workout which I prefer to do   in the morning because that makes my day so much better. Sometimes, I think about “What’s next?” career wise.

MWM: What is the one thing that no one would ever guess about you?

GC: I did disclose my guilty pleasure around television, but, I think people do know that. What they may not know is that I am a life-long entrepreneur!  When I was younger I was a jewelry designer! I used to make and sell bracelets. I had an array of styles of those bracelets, like you make at camp. I eventually transitioned to beadwork, both necklaces and earrings. I did that off and on throughout my childhood, beginning in late elementary school through high school. It coincided with my interest in all things fashion.

Now I monitor New York Fashion Week every year, and generally like to be ahead of the curve on fashion trends. I have even served on many occasions as a ‘personal shopper’ for friends and colleagues! I offer my advice, about how to look professional and show individuality and personality in attire. It’s easy in government work to fall into the ‘black suit’ hole. While some clothing needs to conservative, I rely heavily on accessories, including nail polish, to exhibit my individuality I try to push my limits on fashion, while maintaining a professional and age-appropriate appearance.

MWM: Where to now? What’s next? What types of future roles interest you or a dream job you would find enjoyable?

GC: At one Politico “Women Rule” event I was attending with other women in high-visibility positions, such as the National Security Council, Capitol Hill staffers and business entrepreneurs, the discussion centered around the different dynamics of women and men in the workplace, and, specifically, about how men tend to target and lift each other up to higher positions, and women many times undersell the types of positions or responsibilities to which they aspire – for instance, seeking a deputy role, rather than a chief. For the longest time, I wanted to be “Josh Lyman” [character who portrays the White House Deputy Chief of Staff]on the television program, West Wing. At this “Women Rule” event, I shared with the table that, as my career progressed, I began thinking about being the HUD Secretary, but, I quelled that aspiration, thinking it was a little crazy. The entire table of participants chastised me for not saying, “I want to be HUD Secretary,” because there is no good reason to limit yourself when you have the choice to do any number of things.  What I do want to do is lead. I want to set out and execute a strategic vision for an organization that is striving toward an outcome that I can embrace. That scenario could be in the government, private sector, or nonprofit space. We live in a constantly evolving environment. We don’t have a lot of time to set out strategic visions and goals for achieving objectives in the long term. That is where I feel I excel, and I would like to have the opportunity to set out a broad, sweeping vision for that takes into account the complications of federal, state and local policy to achieve larger objectives. And to do so in a way that delivers constructively –  whether it’s to shareholders in a privately-held institution, or employees who have the opportunity to benefit from the returns of the institution. That’s where I see myself.

MWM: Closing thoughts?

GC: While my tenure here will come to an end in the coming weeks [Genger’s temporarily leading the FHA and the Office of Housing during the transition between Presidential administrations], what I have gained by being here is invaluable. What strikes me the most is the strength of the employee base and their dedication to what we try to achieve here. I see myself as a steward of that work and whose sole purpose is to effectuate that to happen. The value of that proposition is my greatest take-away.

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