Since his undergraduate days at Cornell, housing has been a major theme in Jeff Nelson’s career. As a college student, he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, building houses in the upstate New York communities near his campus, and in New Orleans after Katrina. “Housing is the lever you can apply to help people pursue the American dream,” Jeff says. “It gives people a stake in their communities, a source of savings for retirement, and an estate for their families.”
After graduation, in August 2007, Jeff went to work at Fannie Mae. “It was right at the top of the housing bubble,” he says. “For years, our mission had been to give all segments of society access to housing. Now we wondered, is home ownership a realistic goal for everyone? Are we helping people or setting them up to fail?” In his two-year rotation program, Jeff witnessed, and participated in, major policy shifts. When he joined the single-family project development group, he entered the eye of the storm. “I was in the division addressing the core problem – fixing the way mortgages originated in the first place.” With his colleagues, Jeff developed a third-party application verification platform to improve loan quality and “provide a more sustainable process for the entire housing market.”
Expanding options, perspectives
After two years with Fannie Mae, “the timing was right for the MBA,” says Jeff. “HBS has a top reputation. If I wanted to go farther, the HBS MBA would give me the skills I need, and access to professors and colleagues all over the world.” As a veteran of the housing bubble, Jeff has appreciated the wide variety of insights he’s found at Harvard. “There are so many interesting perspectives on the industries involved in the financial crisis. I’ve met people who worked at Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve, real estate developments in Florida. All their viewpoints are helpful.”
“In each section, you get ninety perspectives from people who have two to five years of real-world experience informing their opinions,” notes Jeff. “With them, you can shape your own opinions and draw upon others. They’re a guide to how you might approach different situations after you leave HBS.”
HBS activities have already opened opportunities for applying newly learned business practices. Through the Harbus Foundation, a student-run nonprofit, Jeff led a six-member venture philanthropy team that granted $10,000 to a local educational organization, Public Learning Media Labs. On the Rwanda IXP, an experience Jeff describes as one “that will knock the wind out of you,” he worked with Millennium Promise on two innovative projects. One funded a cassava processing plant for a farmer’s cooperative, the other involved implementing feed mix trials to help chicken farmers, with the assistance of micro-financing, apply the most cost-effective approaches to raising marketable poultry.
Looking at basic changes
As a continuation of his interests, Jeff will intern with the Housing Partnership Network in Boston over the summer. Looking ahead to graduation and beyond, Jeff says he is “interested in affordable housing and education. In the wake of the recent crisis, there’s a need for basic changes in how loans are made. I want to be involved in the development of sustainable housing solutions for the future.”