Our next Fulcrum Fellows interview is with Damon Burns. Damon is the Executive Director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans, a housing and economic development finance agency that has financed more than $600 million of affordable housing and economic development projects in New Orleans. His fellowship experience has centered on the creation of a hub for research and production of homebuilding technologies suitable for the particular needs of the New Orleans housing market. In the interview, Damon shares how his varied experiences in the finance field have shaped his approach to public service and how the fellowship is helping him overcome some of his work’s biggest challenges.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at the Finance Authority of New Orleans.
I was raised in New Orleans and went to Houston to study marketing at Texas Southern University. After business school I started out in commercial banking, then transitioned briefly into economic development with the State of Louisiana.
I quickly discovered that, at that time, working for the State was not for me, so I went back into banking—this time into public finance at Raymond James. One of my first encounters with the Finance Authority of New Orleans was back in 2007. I had become really interested in municipal finance, which allowed me to engage with the City, airports, housing agencies, and water districts on finance projects—including projects with the Finance Authority. Eventually, I started my own company focused on public finance and technology. This allowed me to be more creative and to see the industry from a different perspective. Three years into this entrepreneurial endeavor, the Executive Director of the Finance Authority decided to retire, and I was selected to be the next one as a result of the unique approach I brought to the position. When I was introduced to the Finance Authority 11 years ago, I didn’t think I would be running the organization one day. Everything truly came full circle.
What made you want to go back to working for a public finance organization?
I was developing expertise in this space. I had taken a variety of roles in banking and financial technology, and the one experience I did not have was inside a public agency. The most significant draw was that this is a public service job, and the nature of that work is important to me. Our community needs are urgent. The right solutions will require cooperation among the public and private sectors. What I appreciate most about the position is that I get to use my private sector experience, but from a public-sector point of view.
What challenge have you chosen to focus on in your Fulcrum Fellowship?
It’s evolved over time. The challenge I’m working on is creating a Housing Center of Excellence (a placeholder name) which will be a hub for research and production of homebuilding technologies for the unique New Orleans market. We have specific housing needs and our supply has been low. We don’t have a lot of development at the moment, and there’s an issue with matching affordability and climate challenges. We are trying to address this issue with technology and have received good feedback so far. There are other steps in the process, but that’s the long-term goal: to change the way homes are built for the future. We also want to work with the private sector to set higher standards for what homebuilding can look like in New Orleans.
What are you learning about what it’s going to take to move your challenge?
I think the greatest lessons learned are that these things take a long time to happen and there are a lot of adaptive challenges to face. Specifically, getting community to buy-in is something that I underestimated; if you have good ideas, there are still reasons why people in the community wouldn’t want you to do them. Conversations within the Fellowship have allowed me to receive feedback on my ideas and their execution. The Fellowship has also encouraged me to focus and reflect on my individual development. I’m learning that practicing accountability and understanding my own characteristics as a leader impacts my organization and the people I work with.
When thinking about community buy-in, what tactics or tools are you exploring to do that?
Mapping out who is involved and what they’re bringing to the table has been an important exercise. What I didn’t have when I started was a detailed outline of who is involved and how they would react to and align with my project. We have done a number of exercises where we map out action and alignment into high and low categories–I have to focus on evaluating my potential partners in various sectors, and bringing their actions and goals into alignment with my challenge. It’s about managing the idea through other organizations, which might seem counterintuitive. We come up with a lot of great ideas at the Finance Authority, but they won’t make sense unless we get buy-in from others.
What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fulcrum Fellowship to you so far?
The other fellows in the program – meeting them, learning about their challenges, and getting to know them as people. I had a chance to spend two days with fellows who were visiting New Orleans; [we’ve built] relationships in which we not only support each other professionally, but also enjoy one another outside of the program. Everyone in this group of fellows carries their own weight and that’s important if you are trying to build something that has longevity.
What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
I am most excited to move beyond my project’s research and development phase, to figure out ways to prove out the concept a little bit at a time. For our house of the future, we have to consider: how much will it cost, what does it need to look like, and how can we build it? We have certain issues that we have to account for at the Finance Authority— namely, the public purpose aspect of the projects we finance. We currently own property that we will use to pilot and figure out what needs to be built. The solution might be simpler, but we don’t know that yet. The pilot will help us figure it out.
What is your media diet? (One thing you read/listened to/watched recently, or what you do regularly)
I listen to Bloomberg and NPR. I read a lot throughout the day and am well-rounded in terms of subject matter: financial news, technology news, history, some science. All of these things are important from a professional standpoint, even if they might not seem related. I recently read a book about space and cosmic formation, and it actually taught me a lot about finance – so I try to keep an open mind and read about different subject matters.