Corinne O’Connell is used to fielding tough questions.
One came earlier this month, during the Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia CEO’s visit to her all-girls alma mater, Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School, to mark International Women’s Day.
The room was full of young women, where she was once one of them, in uniform, a blink of an eye as she recounted more than 20 years in nonprofits.
What one girl wanted to know was simple: “‘Do you get paid in the nonprofit sector?’”
“It gave me pause,” O’Connell laughed recounting the question. But what it really did was give her an opening to talk with the girls about advocating for others, fair compensation and the process of assembling top talent in the industry.
For what it’s worth, O’Connell is getting paid. But she’s far from just punching the clock. Last year, she was named by the Philadelphia Business Journal as part of the city’s Most Admired CEO Award honorees.
When she started at Habitat in 2009 as the director of development, the organization had seven employees and around a million dollar budget. She was elevated to CEO in 2017. Today, the organization has 50 people on staff, operating with an $8.5 million budget.
The organization in Philadelphia has built 221 new homes and completed more than 550 home repairs.
Oxford Green, their most recent large-scale project in progress broke ground last May and will bring 20 owner-occupied, affordable homes to the city’s Sharswood section, working with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Dale Corporation, a local construction company.
“Sharswood is an example of what’s happening citywide, of a neighborhood that has had decades of disinvestment,” O’Connell said, going on to note its promise of being transit accessible to Center City. “So, to be building and creating equity with first time homebuyers in a neighborhood on the upswing is really, really important.”
The homes will be built in an energy efficient fashion and include three bedrooms, one and half baths and a 30 year mortgage managed by Habitat.
The work is paired with the organization’s robust home repair program, which is just “scratching the surface” of the city’s aging housing stock.
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“I like to say a rising tide lifts all boats only if you’ve got a boat,” she said about the 136,000 homes in the city requiring critical repairs.
The program has built trust with residents, created more accessible homes for seniors and protected their greatest asset — their home.
Juggling all of that alongside O’Connell is Habitat’s staff, with a leadership team that is majority women-led in the male-dominated construction industry.
“We joke as a culture here, we only see the double black diamonds,” O’Connell said. “Give us the hardest, make it harder and then we’re going to figure it out.”
“Keep learning, build those relationships, hang on to those mentors [and] stay curious,” O’Connell said to the girls at Gwynedd Mercy. She often reminds herself of those lessons as well.
A nonprofit leader she said she emulates is Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder and executive director of Project HOME, who was Rep. Dwight Evans’ guest at the recent State of the Union.
“Like most leaders, I’m figuring it out like everybody else, as I go,” O’Connell said humbly. “And I think it’s really important for me as best, as honestly, and authentically, and vulnerably [as possible] to say that to people.”
“I don’t have to have all the answers,” she said. “I need to have people who I can call to help me figure out the answers, give myself the permission to make mistakes and own it.”-30-
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