My Career Path: Interview with Lopa Kolluri, SVP Commercial Real Estate, M&T Bank

This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Lopa Kolluri, SVP Commercial Real Estate at M&T Bank, about her career path and the decisions that have contributed to her success. Here at Stage 4 Solutions, we are committed to supporting professionals’ career growth, and we believe that one way to enable success is by learning from leaders.

Lopa Kolluri is an accomplished senior-level executive with over 25 years of experience in affordable housing, community, and economic development. She currently holds the position of Senior Vice President at M&T Bank. Notably, she previously served as the head of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), overseeing an impressive $1.2 trillion in insured mortgages and leading a team of 2,800 employees.

Throughout her extensive career, Lopa has occupied executive-level positions in both the public and private sectors, operating as both a practitioner and policymaker at the national, state, and local levels. Her expertise spans all aspects of public and multifamily housing, making her a distinguished figure in the field. Lopa’s early career involved work with the Fannie Mae Foundation, where she focused on various homeownership issues, including anti-predatory lending, housing counseling, and homebuyer education.

Feel free to connect with Lopa: LinkedIn

Can you tell us about your upbringing? Who were your role models?

Lopa: I was born in Bristol, England to Indian parents who immigrated to the United States in 1975. I grew up in a small town, called Elyria located about 30 miles outside of Cleveland, Ohio. My father was an orthopedic surgeon, and my mother worked in the home raising three girls. My two younger sisters live on the East Coast, just like I do. As I think back, we weren’t unlike the typical first-generation Indian American family. My parents were focused on preserving their Indian heritage and valued education, family, and travel. They both grew up in Africa,  immigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1960s where they lived for many years, and then moved to the United States. They instilled in my sisters and me the importance of having a global perspective, a gift they gave to us in the form of education and travel at a very early age. That perspective has shaped who I am today.

My father has been my main role model. He not only valued family, education, and preserving Indian culture and heritage, but also ensured that our family assimilated to the American way of life. What made him unique among other parents in our close-knit Indian American community in Cleveland in the late 1970s and 1980s is that he was worldly, progressive, and open-minded — truly ahead of his time. He encouraged my sisters and me to pursue a liberal arts education in college which was pretty much unheard of at the time, especially in the Indian community, where other parents were much more linear and narrower in their thinking. For them, it was all about what your income potential looked like. Our friends’ parents were focused on their kids pursuing medicine, engineering, pharmacy, or finance. My dad, a doctor himself, prioritized global learning and travel, pushing us into the liberal arts – a field that would allow us to build our analytical, writing, and communication abilities, skillsets that he wished he had learned as part of his education. He believed that you could always acquire a technical skill, but the foundation for success in life and your profession came from the study of the liberal arts. My dad loved his work and he was a great surgeon, but he also wanted to prioritize his family which meant not necessarily aggressively growing his career or fulfilling the monetary potential of being an orthopedic surgeon. Furthermore, the community and his patients in our small town were really important to him. He treated patients who were on Medicaid, student athletes, and friends in the Indian community, providing quality healthcare to the less fortunate in our community. So, I sought to follow his path, finding a field in which I could make an impact.  My career journey started in public service, a space in which I would work for many years to come.

When you were at Kenyon College, what were your career inspirations?

Lopa: I landed in the liberal arts college not really knowing what I wanted to study but I knew that I was interested in studying French, a passion I had discovered in high school. The exposure to the world when I was growing up made me realize that traveling and working in other countries was going to be a career interest of mine.

Although I would be studying at a liberal arts school, I knew I needed to have a practical skill set. There had to be something that I could major in and market to firms or organizations after graduating college. So, I decided to major in French literature and economics, combining the two, thinking that I could go down some kind of international track.

Speaking of career inspirations, what initially piqued my interest was a course I took in college. A Cameroonian professor taught a class called “Third World Development.” At that time, not many people were familiar with various countries in Africa, let alone Cameroon. There were only three students in that class. There wasn’t much interest because people were more focused on mainstream economics courses. The professor provided us with a baseline understanding of economics, discussing how economics and politics intersected and the forces that hindered developing economies. He also emphasized what needed to be done to accelerate growth in developing economies like Cameroon from both a macroeconomic and local perspective, including the role of government and non-profit efforts. I became fascinated with international development, an area that wasn’t widely known or explored back then. There were a few folks who were working at NGOs, aside from the UN. Even the World Bank and IMF were very macro-oriented and focused on monetary policy. So, I became very interested in economics and international development, and I told myself “I am going to keep this with me, and when I graduate from college, this may be a career I want to pursue.”

How did you decide on your first professional job?

Lopa: I graduated from college with a French literature and economics degree in 1989 when the savings and loans crisis had just happened, along with the oil crisis. We were in a deep recession, and that recession was going to continue for a few years to come. I applied for jobs that aligned with my economics major, focusing my job search on insurance companies, banks, and financial institutions. It was very difficult to get a job because I did not have a marketable skill – I was competing with graduates who had accounting, finance, and technical degrees. It was hard with little job experience to convince someone that I could hit the ground running in a bank. Jobs were hard to come by at that point. I spent the summer after college looking for a job, moved back home, and had several interviews, but nothing panned out. Toward the end of the summer, I decided to move to Washington DC. Some of my friends had already moved to DC after graduating from college. I drove to DC, found a place to live, and started looking for jobs in government, specifically focusing on international development, inspired by my professors and agencies doing that work.

I ended up taking an entry-level position at the State Department, which I am still proud of to this day. I worked as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, doing a lot of economic analysis and providing reports for higher-ups and assistant secretaries, supporting their diplomatic missions to meet with dignitaries and international counterparts. My first professional job was an interesting and fulfilling analyst job.

What factors led you to obtain your master’s degree from American University?

Lopa: I had been at the State Department for a couple of years, and I was enjoying the international aspect of it as well as the actual analytical work. It was during the Gulf War that I worked at the State Department, formulating a deep understanding of American foreign policy. I knew that I was interested in helping developing economies and began to rethink whether the State Department was the right place to do that because it was really focused on foreign policy and not advancing economic development. There was a significant amount of aid going out from the State Department, but they were really for security interests. A large amount of the foreign aid budget was going to Israel and Egypt, mostly for security purposes while a small amount of aid was going to developing economies of the world. At that point, I made a decision that I wanted to focus my career on international development.

Then I thought, if I were going into international development, maybe I should think about actually pursuing a master’s degree that would allow me to go a little bit deeper into international development and economics, political economy, and learn a lot more about how I could be involved in development in less developed countries in Asia, Middle East or Africa. That thinking really drove my decision to pursue a master’s degree and I left the State Department and went on to do my master’s at the American University, focused on international economic development.

Can you tell us about the work you have done in the international development area?

Lopa: The work I have done in the international development area is important in terms of linking it back to some of my college work, and also understanding the transition that I made from the international development industry into the domestic space. For the first 10 years out of college, I worked in international development. I worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for 5 years, and then I worked with a non-profit organization, spending quite a bit of time in countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, as well as Central America, working in microfinance and essentially working to establish new programs in partnership with local agencies to develop microfinance programs which would allow entrepreneurs to access financing at affordable rates, which they would not otherwise be able to access in the traditional markets overseas. It was a fascinating, fulfilling, and wonderful experience. I learned so much from working in so many different countries. I also did a little bit of housing microfinance as well, where I worked to provide housing loans. In some of these countries, low and middle-income families, poor families, aren’t able to access the mortgage markets so we had to work within some of these markets to establish programs in collaboration with some of the mainstream financial institutions. My practicum that I did during my master’s degree was a program that we established at the Housing Development Finance Corporation in India, to provide low-income financing to individuals specifically to build home improvements on their housing over a period of time because they just couldn’t access regular mortgages. It was a good decade of wonderful experiences that has stayed with me to this day.

As you progress through your career, how did you assess new opportunities, especially as you moved from the public sector to the private sector?

Lopa: I was in the international development sector for a decade, most of the time working overseas. I was based in Washington D.C. but would spend weeks in various countries. At the same time, I met my partner, and we were engaged to be married and then were looking to start a family. I was giving a lot of thought and talking to my spouse about my career. I knew that my international development career would not fit well with my family and home life. So, I did a lot of exploring, thinking, and wondering what I might be able to do and how I might pivot and still have the fulfillment I was getting from international development. Then, after talking to mentors and professors, I made a deliberate decision to pivot into the US affordable housing and community development sector.

I was struck by the number of parallels between international development and the US affordable housing sector. The challenges were the same as international development — low-income families did not have access to mainstream finance such as mortgages or developing businesses. I made a decision and took my first job focusing on affordable housing with the Fannie Mae Foundation, which was my starting point in the domestic field of housing and community development.  

Going from the public to the private sector has been interesting. As I look back on it, I want to say it was strategic, but it really wasn’t. As I began to focus on my career in the United States and in affordable housing, it was important for me to gain both policy expertise and experience as well as practitioner focus in the field of affordable housing. Affordable housing and policies are executed at three levels: federal, state, and local. Resources are appropriated and allocated by the US government, and programs are run by federal, state, and local agencies. To be an effective policymaker, it was important for me to work at all three levels, which I have done over the course of my career in affordable housing.

In 2002, my husband was offered an executive-level position in New Jersey for the Department of Transportation, so we moved from Washington, D.C. to New Jersey. I was hesitant about moving to New Jersey because I loved D.C. and I did not know anything about living in New Jersey. But, I went there, settled in, and put my resume out. I was brought on by the governor to work on housing policy at the state level, which was a very interesting and exciting experience. I spent five years doing that.

A few years later, I started thinking about whether I should try my hand at the private sector. I wanted to have a practitioner perspective on developing, financing, planning, designing, and running affordable housing as a developer. So, I made a move to work with a developer to do that. Then, a few years later, I received a call from the Obama administration in Washington, D.C. to join the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and help run housing policy there. It was an opportunity I hadn’t had before. There was so much excitement and energy that I couldn’t say no to that. So, I did work for the federal government for a few years. Those stints are for a few years. You work really hard and you have to figure out what you are going to do next.

I did enjoy my time in the private sector and thought about going back and working with a larger organization, running operations, and strategic planning. I wanted to work with the organization to build affordable housing, and I did join a company to do that for almost five years. Then, I got a call again from the government to return to public service – this time from the Biden administration.

In between, I actually worked to understand how local government and housing authorities functioned. I have been accumulating knowledge, skills, and experience in a field that requires a holistic understanding. This is especially important for a topic that is social, community and mission-oriented. There is also a business aspect to doing affordable housing. Today, affordable housing is no longer just for very low-income people. It is for the working class and the moderate class. Affordable housing has become completely out of reach for so many families and communities across the United States.

Moving in and out of government and private sectors has given me a more holistic understanding of the industry and how I can be impactful in addressing the scarcity of affordable housing in the United States, which is where my focus is.

What has surprised you the most in your career?

Lopa: I have been working in the affordable housing space for the last 30 years. I have experienced many of the things that other women do, who are actually coming up through the ranks, whether it is in finance, medicine, or other industries. This field is not any different. I have attributed my success to many people that I have worked for and along with including many wonderful women and men.

But what I have been really surprised about is that when I started my career in the United States, the workforce was still very homogeneous, not diverse, and mostly dominated by white men. And 30 years later, we are still in the minority as women, especially as women of color. I think things have changed to some extent, there is more awareness, and there has been some progress, but I would have thought there would have been more progress, and that is surprising for me.

I do worry because we, as women, are not in as many board seats or C-suite positions as we should be. I don’t want to say that we have not made progress because I do think we have, but I don’t think we have made as much progress as I thought we should have over the three decades that I have been in the workforce.

Can you tell us about an important career risk that you took?

Lopa: One important risk in particular was having worked in government for so long and making a decision to move into the private sector. It was easy to just stay in government, right? When I made the decision to go to the private sector, I was asking myself, “Am I going to have the skill sets to be in the private sector; am I going to be accepted because I have always been a government person; am I going to be able to contribute in the way that I have contributed in government?” Taking my first job in the private sector was a big risk for me but I also realized that the skill sets that I had developed in government, around leadership and management and operations, building and leading teams, driving strategy, and producing tangible results and outcomes, also applied to the private sector. While I did not have an MBA, or finance, accounting, or business, degree, I found that some of my higher levels of leadership skills were the ones that were very much applicable to the private sector. So, I was happy that was the case and that I actually could participate in the private sector and bring in the skills and experience that I had from public service. That was a risk because I could have just stayed in the government sector happily and been in my policy world, but the risk I took turned out to be a great experience.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

Lopa: The biggest challenge I have faced was in my position within the Biden administration. I took the job soon after the election in November of 2020. It was a big position to run the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which is the largest insurer of mortgages in the world. It was a large organization with 2,000 staff members and I was selected to come and run that organization. The first challenge was that we were all working remotely because of COVID. I was taking on a new political position in a new administration where I would be running an organization from my home. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day work of the FHA, I was expected to address a million delinquent mortgages in the portfolio that had resulted as a result of the pandemic. The death of George Floyd in 2020 had focused the Biden administration to break down barriers to structural racism and my work would be focused on driving racial equity in the housing sector. In addition, the previous administration really hadn’t invested in affordable housing and urban development — it wasn’t a priority — and so many of the staff at HUD had retired or left. Also, we were in the lowest interest rate environment, which was a good thing, but we had queues and queues of FHA applications coming from everywhere that we couldn’t keep up with on the multi-family side and then on the single-family side as well. Within my purview, I also had a manufactured housing component and a healthcare component. I was sitting at my desk at home and thinking to myself, “This is just not running the FHA and coming into a regular administration and being able to hire people. I am coming into four years of disinvestment, trying to unravel regulations that have been put in place or put in regulations that were unraveled during the Trump administration.” Dealing with these higher-priority issues while just running the organization was a significant challenge. It was probably the most challenging position in my career. I don’t know if I overcame it. As much as I managed to bring together a strong team of civil servants and some great external hires, it was a day-to-day battle.

How do you balance your professional and personal goals?

Lopa: For most of us, it is a continual challenge, and we are all doing the best we can. This question made me think back to 2012. There was an article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I was working in the Obama administration at the time. She was a high-level person in the State Department and ended up leaving the administration. There was a lot of controversy around the article. When Anne-Marie was in meetings in the Middle East and overseas, she came out and said that she kept thinking about her young two boys and family. She had a very supportive partner, but ultimately she did make a decision to leave. So, that was a challenging time when many of us in my cohort at the Obama administration talked a lot about it. We all had young kids at the time. Then a few of us were invited to the White House for a women’s event by Valerie Jared, who was the senior advisor to Obama at the time. I recall someone asking Valerie about her thoughts on the article. She had grown kids at the time. I will never forget her answer, “You can have it all, but you just can’t have it all at the same time.” I am realizing now that my kids have become adults but I have aging parents. It is now a different situation that requires balance. It is about whatever you have going on in your life. I look back at my career and I feel very fulfilled by it. There were some times when I had to take a back seat to things because I needed to be there for my girls or my mom or in a nitty gritty experience. It was nice to hear that from Valerie. We continually figure out the times when we just need to take a back seat in some areas. Many of us have support structures, whether it is partners or siblings that can step up in times when we need to step back or step up.

What advice would you give to your younger self? To younger professionals?

Lopa: When asked this question, most people talk about the importance of networking and finding good mentors to help guide us through our careers. That advice to younger professionals certainly holds true. But the advice that I would give to younger professionals – and women, women of color in particular – today would be to become listeners, master the power of observation, read the room, understand body language, have empathy and steadiness, and not be the loudest voice in the meeting. These are the things that have worked for me throughout my career. What I thought which I did not realize at the same time, in the sense that, if someone demonstrated these behaviors, people would think that the person wasn’t as assertive as they should have been or they would not get ahead because they were not as aggressive as they should have been. I have always been a shy person who has these attributes. And, what I found over the course of my life is that I have actually seen them work for me in the workplace. I think in the 1980s and 1990s, they were not necessarily seen as a strong voice, and the person who spoke the most in the meeting was perceived as the strongest. I think to be successful in this world right now, these are some of the behaviors that we need to put forth and we need to show. Everyone has their technical expertise, and what they bring to their job but these soft skills are going to be really critical to success. To some people, it comes naturally, to some, it doesn’t. I do think that these skills have worked for me. Also, these are the skills that I have seen in strong, successful leaders. This is what I want to pass on to the younger professionals. And, of course, find those great mentors, learn from them, and do as much networking as you can. Post-COVID, those of us who are more introverted have shied away from some of those things because we have had the opportunity to be successful and productive in our spaces. But, I do think you need to get out there, discover your natural strengths, and put the work in.

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