“Be the one that makes change. Be the person that rises to the occasion and proves your value through hard work, dedication, and data-driven decisions. Learn as much as you can, even if it is not within the scope of your job responsibilities. You cannot lead until you have learned.”
This is the advice that Natalie Verrette, President and COO of Champions Funding, gives to future generations of women who are considering starting or are early in their careers in the private lending industry. Not only is this advice given, but it’s also what Verrette has experienced firsthand and lives by.
Champions Funding is a Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI. In other words, it’s a private-sector financial institution that offers alternative, non-traditional access to mortgage financing through unique loan programs. As a CDFI, Champions serves mainly diverse creditworthy members from underserved communities that may have been historically affected negatively in the past from redlining. According to Investopedia, “CDFIs often have a focus on social responsibility and inclusion, rather than a pure profit motive and may receive support from the federal government’s CDFI Fund.”
Where it All Began
Before Verrette became President and Chief Operations Officer of Champions, she started in the industry at the age of 17 as a junior receptionist in a real estate firm. Her dad was a loan officer and a real estate broker, so Verrette grew up in the industry and observed, through both hard work and networking, how rewarding a career in real estate and mortgage lending could be. When she turned 18, she officially became a receptionist (because 17 was too young), and then in a few weeks, a processor. She learned everything in the operations department, from underwriting all the way through to post-close loan delivery, working while also going to school to receive her college education. Verrette managed operation fulfillment through 2009, when she switched gears into sales for about 10 years. From sales, she increased her networking contacts and rose further upward in her career trajectory with executive-level positions at various lending firms, going from SVP, to EVP, to her current role.
The Next Chapter
After 10 years of working together, Verrette’s colleague Evan M. Stone, CEO of Champions, approached her in September 2021 with the irresistible offer — to lead this newly minted CDFI.
“As I learned more about it, essentially the core mission is to serve the underserved. For example, we specialize in buyers who can’t retain housing through the traditional funding methods,” recalls Verrette. “It was intriguing, and it is the first time in my mortgage career to give back in a meaningful way through my work.”
In February 2022, shortly after establishing itself as a CDFI, Champions’ first loan was funded.
The Daily Grind
For Verrette, a typical workday starts with getting her two children up and ready for school. Afterward, she assesses how the organization is doing and conducts pipeline management by checking in with other team leads, finding more liquidity, and building stronger relationships with warehouse lines and investors. As a self-described servant leader, Verrette remains humble enough to open her mind to others while in leadership. “None of us are infallible. When you see people outgrow your depth of knowledge, that’s very rewarding.”
As for having any mentors in her career, Verrette shares candidly this observation: “My mentors were bad leaders. I have seen how [bad] leadership can negatively impact people’s lives, so I do the opposite. My true mentors have been people that I’ve learned from, and that could mean learning from others’ mistakes and effectively doing my best to not repeat them.”
“Call it reverse mentoring,” she continued. “I remain fortunate enough to be part of a collective group by being in that trust circle and seeing what behaviors drove them.”
Overcoming Adversity in the Workplace
As a woman, Verrette says she experienced some adversity in this traditionally male-dominated industry, but she believes that both genders have.
“Males also feel that way. Most underwriters were female 10 years ago. Both sides can each have a fair argument about this. As I rose to management and executive levels, predecessors were male. Who mainly sat at the table? Males. As a feminist, I think that men and women need each other to exist. The way I see the mortgage industry is that there is always the desire and drive to evolve from being a boys’ club.
“The mortgage industry is where women can really excel. How many single moms and women have been able to come into the industry and make a very good living for themselves? Have I experienced sexist remarks? Have I been looked over for a male to take a position? Sure. But for me, I just need to understand and gauge the room. It is better to understand the data and analytics. Be armed with data. Be the better person rather than just a stronger woman. The reality is being more intuitive and to understand who’s the better person for the seat. Ask if credentials are based on an active skill set in the mortgage industry, and if they align with the core values of your company instead of allowing victimhood. However, I do understand that some women may have dealt with very different scenarios.”
Accountability and Loving What You Do
When asked who keeps her in check and accountable as a leader, Verrette credits CEO Evan Michael Stone, who is “a sounding board, keeping me grounded.” She also consults with her executive team.
“We hold transparent dialog with one another. Without honest and constructive criticism, one cannot grow, and we even use a safe word — ‘pepperoni’ — if the conversation gets too real.
“I also have friends in the organization that can check me honestly. Then there is my husband, of course; he is my rock, and is unequivocally honest with me. Basically, your people, your team, are your gut check. If you hear laughter, you are doing something right.”
Lastly, Verrette builds on her advice of being the change you want to see. “Figure out what you’re doing. If you love it, learn as much as you can. Also, speak up. Verbalize it. Do it through the appropriate channels.
“If we don’t speak up, how will change evolve? If you can’t go to bed at peace with your day, you need to be that change. As long as you’re inspired, be the change — be the person that makes that difference.”