We’re launching a series of interviews with our Fulcrum Fellows, starting with Ja’Net Defell. Ja’Net is Lead Developer for the Michigan office of IFF, a community development financial institution (CDFI) and mission-driven lender, real estate consultant, and developer. In her fellowship, Ja’Net is focused on expanding the availability of facilities for early childhood education providers in Detroit, leveraging the tools she has as a facilities lender at IFF to make sure that children have access to safe and inspiring learning spaces that are key to their future development. Our interview with Ja’Net explored her background and early work at IFF as an intern, the complexity of the challenge she’s working on, and what she’s found most valuable about the Fulcrum Fellowship.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at IFF.
I’m Lead Developer for IFF’s Michigan office, but most people don’t know that I interned at IFF 20 years ago as a high school student. IFF is a community development financial institution (CDFI) and mission-driven lender, real estate consultant, and developer. When I was in high school, Trinita Logue, President, CEO, and Founder of IFF, needed part-time office support. She took a chance on hiring me as a high school student to be IFF’s part-time receptionist over the summer. It was my first job and exposed me to the world of community development. At the time I was interning, IFF was working on a major initiative to develop seven early childhood education (ECE) facilities in and around Chicago, similar to the work I’m leading now in Detroit.
I attended the University of Michigan Business School and worked at Arthur Andersen for the first part of my career, consulting for Fortune 500 companies on risk management related to their IT systems. Around this time, I bought my first home in Chicago, in a revitalized area that continued to struggle with crime and lack of social services. I decided to get involved in the community, specifically participating in LISC community planning meetings, organizing a block club, and attending other neighborhood meetings. I really started to enjoy planning and development of inner-city communities, so I decided to go back to school and get my master’s at University of Illinois in Chicago in their Urban Planning and Policy program.
After graduate school, I worked in the planning and development department at the Village of Oak Park, mostly to gain an understanding of how communities manage development and the pressure points that come with revitalizing neighborhoods and business districts. When I thought about where I should land next, I reached out to Trinita, who was still president of IFF at the time (2009). IFF had grown from a 5-person to 50+ person organization. After talking to Trinita, I knew IFF would be a good fit for someone with a corporate background who wants to work in a mission space. I came in as a real estate project manager working on projects in Chicago, and when IFF opened its Detroit office, I was excited to move. Detroit has really needed us from day one and the work hasn’t stopped.
What challenge have you chosen to focus on in your Fulcrum Fellowship?
Since IFF hit the ground in Detroit, we saw evidence of the need for better ECE facilities in Detroit. My challenge specifically focuses on making new facilities available for ECE providers by 2020. Many providers are currently locked into substandard leases with limited budgets for relocation and/or to renovate a facility. My goal is to develop an approach for connecting providers with renovation funding, properties, and landlord/developer partners. The newly renovated facilities will provide high-quality spaces for children by the next major ECE program funding cycle in 2020.
This effort is important because research shows that the physical environment impacts a child’s ability to learn and early years of learning are critical to the long-term success of the children. IFF is fortunate to be leading our ECE facilities work for providers in partnership with the recent launch of the citywide framework, Hope Starts Here, which focuses on putting children and families first in the City of Detroit. Safe and inspiring learning spaces is identified as a priority in the framework and IFF plans to leverage that momentum to gains support for providers.
What are you learning about what it’s going to take to move your challenge?
I’ve had two big takeaways. One is that’s it’s critical to manage and sequence a pipeline of projects. We have a short window of time to complete projects, so we must get coordination and sequencing right. Second, stakeholders in the process need to be considered and managed accordingly. Delivering new facilities is just one component of successfully transitioning ECE providers to new spaces. The financial model needs to work and providers need to have support systems in place. The Hope Starts Here initiative is intended to help in these areas and bring all the requirements together. As IFF is working on the physical space, we must work carefully with our partners and stakeholders to make sure all ends are covered. I often use the bus analogy: we must keep all the wheels on the bus. Facilities is just one wheel of the bus. I can’t look at just what it will take to develop and built the ECE facilities; I need to have a provider, I have to have a program attached, that program needs to be high quality, and it needs to have proper funding.
What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fulcrum Fellowship to you so far?
Before applying to be a Fulcrum Fellow, I explored many other types of leadership training. I’m at a crossroads in my career, moving from someone who manages a lot of details and processes to being a strategic leader. A lot of the other leadership development programs I investigated were very broad, but the Fulcrum Fellowship is in-depth, with one-on-one coaching tailored to you, and action-oriented. I really value that you get both a cohort experience and targeted coaching based on your leadership style and natural tendencies from tools like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 360 assessment, and Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQi). It’s been helpful in forcing me to take a step back, reflect on my leadership strengths and gaps, and figure out what else I need to be more effective. I also enjoy the opportunity to network with peers, not just regionally, but nationally.
What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
I’m really looking forward to our three remaining in-person sessions. I wish we had more than five! We’ve had two sessions so far and you can see relationships developing among the fellows and the work of individuals deepening. I’ve spent a lot of time with Marian on a strategy to meet my 100-day challenge, so I’m looking forward to where I’ll be in the next six months.
What is your media diet?
My book of the month is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. As an import to Detroit, I’m learning about Detroit’s deep history of racial divide. With the revitalization of the city, there is a sensitivity to managing economic growth without leaving majority black and minority communities behind. The history of the Great Migration helps to better understand how blacks migrated from the South and provides context to city’s like Detroit. This is a first of a series of books that I’m looking forward to reading to really understand and respect the culture and history of Detroit as I move forward with my work.