Throughout March, NTCIC has been conducting and sharing interviews with the women in our organization leaving a lasting impact on historic preservation and sustainability. With 60% of the NTCIC staff members being women, including 80% of senior leaders, it has been an exciting opportunity to share their stories with our community.
Our final interview is with Merrill Hoopengardner, President of NTCIC and Chair of the Historic Tax Credit Coalition. Merrill joined NTCIC in 2016, bringing 19 years of experience in community development finance.
We spoke with Merrill on her personal and professional journey in the community development and tax credit industry.
Susan: So, let’s start off with a classic. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Merrill: Some typical kid stuff like a vet. By high school and even into college, I felt pulled in different directions. I had a great Chemistry teacher who inspired me to consider Environmental Science, so I took science and math even through my first year of college. But I was also a Latin nerd, and my Classics classes were cross-listed into several Religion classes once I got to college. I was able to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel the summer after my freshman year and came back with several additional credits under my belt and decided I liked the people side of the story more than the artifacts, so I took more Religion, Political Science, and Public Policy classes.
Susan: So, did these interests lead you toward community development finance?
Merrill: Yes, I became very interested in how to move from direct service work (like providing food or shelter) to how the overall system works to help (or not) when I was in college. Then, I was fortunate that I got a fellowship through a program called Public Allies when I graduated that let me do leadership training and work at Self-Help, a CDFI, right after I graduated.
Susan: So, Self-Help was your first job out of college?
Merrill: Yes! I actually applied for a job there and didn’t get it, but then came back in through the Public Allies fellowship program that had an AmeriCorps stipend as part of it. It was a good deal for the organizations because they’re not paying as much for a person, and then it gave me more of an entry-level role plus additional training with my cohort one day per week. A lot of organizations like ours don’t have true entry-level positions for people coming right out of college when you’re in a specialty field, so I think those kinds of fellowship programs help people get that first step in the door.
Susan: What was it about community development finance that caught your eye?
Merrill: The impact. While my 11-year-old thinks I have a “boring office job in the city,” I disagree. My work is rarely boring, and for that matter, it isn’t just “in the city” – it is national in scale (whether I’m in my office-office chair or home-office chair). By raising capital from institutional investors through different federal tax incentive programs, we are able to attract significant amounts of capital to communities that would otherwise never see capital markets dollars. We aren’t just intermediaries – we provide connective tissue.
Our investments generate renewable energy, renovate historic properties, and bring jobs and services to disinvested communities. We are doing the critical work of this generation, addressing climate change, providing equitable access to capital, and telling the full American story. It has both individual impacts on people and communities and systems impact on how dollars get directed in our economy.
Susan: So you went back to grad school to get your JD, with a continued focus on community development finance. Then what?
Merrill: Well, I took a bit of a detour for several years while I lived in Germany with my husband, who was serving in the US Army. I had a series of “army wife” jobs that included both paid and unpaid work supporting soldiers and their families. Those were the early internet days – no such thing as a “work remote” job for a US company. It was frustrating at times to feel like I was detouring from my career, but in retrospect, it was very formative. It gave me the chance to develop some key skills like public speaking, and I learned how to develop friends and community wherever I was. That was particularly helpful when my husband was deployed to the Balkans in 2000.
By the time I was able to return to the States, I was eager to go back to school and had thought about what kind of career I wanted after law school (which is not the norm for most law students who go straight through from undergrad). And it was there that I got my first experience with tax credits. I had a fantastic mentor, Andrew Foster, who had created this new community development clinic/program and exposed all of us through that to tax credits and other affordable housing-related tools. Through that, he helped me find some law firms that had specialty practices in them, which I didn’t know existed, which took me to Nixon Peabody, and eventually prompted us to move to DC.
Susan: How and why did you decide to get involved in your current role with NTCIC?
Merrill: I’ve known the work of NTCIC for my entire career in the tax credit field. I was fortunate to work on some NTCIC transactions when I practiced law, including the American Brewery project, where I represented the investor, not NTCIC. It was a very challenging transaction to structure from a tax credit perspective, but so impactful in the work, the physical need of the building to be rehabbed, the community need for the services provided within, and the continued impacts generated by Humanim, the building’s tenant.
I also followed my predecessor John-Leith Tetrault’s influential public policy work closely. He was and still is very well known for his work in forming and chairing the Historic Tax Credit Coalition.
But I was happily on the small business finance side of the industry when this position came open and it wasn’t really on my radar until a headhunter called me. I was enticed by the opportunity to bring several of my different skills and interests to bear under one roof.
Susan: Who do you see as other leading female role models in the industry?
Merrill: There are so many! I feel fortunate to have been part of a cohort of female leaders who have stepped into leadership roles or started new businesses in the last decade. Gina Nisbeth, Laura Vowell, and Leigh Ann (Smith) Merchant have led tax credit teams at large banks, generating access to capital and racial equity strategies that influence their organizations and the larger field. We all eventually formed what has since become the Women in Tax Credits networking group.
Then in the preservation world, in particular, Cindy Hamilton, the President of Heritage Consulting, and Elizabeth Rosin, who has created and grown a fantastic preservation consulting organization, inspire me to no end. As does Joyce Barrett, the Executive Director of Heritage Ohio, who sets the platinum standard for preservation advocacy.
And Patrice Frey, my “sister CEO” at our nonprofit affiliate, the National Main Street Center, is definitely an inspiring leader in the industry right now.
Susan: Who’s the most influential woman in your life?
Merrill: My mom. She’s a leader, a visionary, and an educator. She’s passionate about the intersection of rural economic development and higher education. She got her doctoral degree in education when my brother and I were little and went on to be the founder and Executive Director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. She retired the year I took on this role at NTCIC, so I often think about continuing the legacy of impact that I’ve seen exemplified through her career, community engagement, and family life. She’s a constant source of inspiration and has helped me become the woman I am today.
Susan: What advice would you give other women entering the community development, finance, corporate industries, or other fields that are predominantly employed by men?
Merrill: I think many of us could both ask for help and offer help more than we do. And accept it, which is maybe even harder than asking for it. We all have our own things that we’re working on, but if we don’t speak up and say, “Well, what if we did it this way?” or, “Can you do this for me?” people aren’t necessarily going to notice. As leaders, we need to try harder to notice, and as individuals, we need to not view it as a sign of weakness.
Perhaps because of my personality and my approach to work, I often felt like I had to be more stoic and “take it” and figure things out for myself. I don’t think I’ve fully learned how to ask for help ahead of time, but I’ve recently had to take unplanned time away from work to care for a family member, and I’ve been reminded how many people will step up and lean in if I get out of the way!
Merrill on the importance of representation of women in leadership roles and the perspective of empathy.
Susan: In your experience, have you seen the number of women in our industry and the number of women in leadership roles within our industry increase?
Merrill: Anecdotally, I would say it feels like it. I feel like I’m seeing more evidence of women as leaders, partners at law firms and accounting firms, leading consulting organizations, and running teams or departments or companies. With organic growth in the industry, generational turnover, and new business lines that people have started, there have been more leadership opportunities open up, and a lot of them have been filled by women.
I also think there have generally been more visibility opportunities for women in the field. Conference organizers seem to be more and more intentional about casting a wide net, and we’re seeing a more diverse group of speakers.
Earlier in my career at Nixon, Herb Stevens, with whom I worked very closely, was very generous in helping his associates get visibility. He took me to client meetings and gave me his speaking spots at conferences, so I got speaking experience as a baby associate, which was incredibly valuable because it feeds on itself. Then, you’re recognized, and people will be like, “Oh, well, can you do this next thing?” I think women in our industry getting these visibility opportunities will open up even more doors for women in the field.
Susan: Finally, what hopes do you have for the future of women in this industry?
Merrill: I love seeing how many women have taken on leadership roles in our field in the last 5-10 years, and I look forward to seeing this continue. Within our own organization, the chair of our board is a woman. Eighty percent of our leadership team is women; all of our director-level positions are filled by women. Our “front line” originations and capital-raising work is done by women. Our finance team is led by a woman.
As you can see, what’s notable about NTCIC isn’t just the number of women we have in leadership but the type of roles they have. Everything from capital raising, to investments, to corporate strategy – a lot of the visible work that we do in all of our credit areas – is led by women, and there’s power in that. I think it’s still more common that women in leadership roles have operations roles that are internally focused, which is vital work, but less visible to others and not customer-facing. And that’s not true for us.
So I would hope that women, both inside our organization and elsewhere, see that there are a lot of different paths one can take, and to take them!
Also, I think I’m not alone in having been in work situations where I was the only woman in the room when decisions are made. Like Aaron Burr in Hamilton, we all want to be “in the room where it happens,” but unfortunately, even in the community development world, which is more diverse in terms of gender than conventional legal or finance work, there is more progress to be made. I hope this gives those of us who have found our way into the room a perspective that helps us be more sensitive to who’s not present and how decisions impact them.
Thinking of our own organization, I’m proud of how our organization reflects the leadership of women in the field. Still, as a person who values continuous improvement, I recognize this is a growth area for me in the next chapter of my leadership journey and for NTCIC as an organization.