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Online Exclusive:From United Way to Habitat

By Philip Walzer

Michele Anderson '89 had spent her entire 33-year career at United Way of South Hampton Roads, rising from intern to president and CEO. This year, she decided it was time for a change.

Anderson and her family moved to Austin, Texas, where she began work in February as president and CEO of the city's affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable housing in Austin and surrounding counties.

"I could see my skill set matched what they were looking for," Anderson said. "Austin Habitat for Humanity is poised for growth, and that's exactly what we spent the last five years at United Way doing."

The two nonprofits share the goal of "speaking for those who don't sit around the corporate table," she said. "The people we represent are working but struggling."

But Anderson also sees a major difference. "United Way was a lot of strategy and the 30,000-foot view. At Habitat, I get the 10,000-foot view, but we go all the way to the ground level to build a house."

Michelle Anderson

She helped out on the first house built during her tenure, doing sheathing with a coil nailer on the second floor. "We were out there for eight hours," Anderson said. "I was sweaty and hot, and my right arm was a little shaky. But it's nice to be able to see your work from the ground up."

At Old Dominion University, Anderson majored in communication and minored in marketing. That, she said, allows her to use "both sides of my brain."

"Especially during COVID, you have to address a situation that you could not have prepared for and do what you think is right for your team and the community. But at the same time, you always have to look at what has been successful and not successful and have a plan and execute it."

Anderson was the first in her family to get a college degree. Shortly after she graduated, she secured an internship with United Way. "I went out and talked to businesses and employees about what United Way does in the community," Anderson told The Virginian-Pilot last year.

She gradually rose to director and then vice president of major gifts. In 2015, Anderson was promoted to chief development officer, overseeing fundraising for United Way. Four years later, she was named president and CEO.

Anderson credits her success in part to her family's entrepreneurial streak. Her father was in real estate on the Eastern Shore; her mother owned a sewing business. Her grandparents ran a restaurant and gas station.

That background, she said, gave her the initiative to launch several United Way programs, including those for major donors, young leaders and women seeking to become self-sufficient.

Anderson also expanded the United Way endowment. It was created in 1999, she said, "but it really didn't grow until years later." A campaign last year increased its value to more than $50 million.

At Austin Habitat, Anderson has large ambitions. She wants to ramp up construction to reduce the affordable housing shortage. Habitat built 500 homes in the past 30 years. She wants to finish the next 500 within five years.

"We also have to go vertical," Anderson said. "Now we're building condos and townhomes so we can serve not just families but hard-working individuals seeking affordable homeownership."

Her organization prepares people for homeownership in other ways - promoting job stability and strengthening credit - and provides home repairs, particularly to seniors and veterans.

Anderson credits her success to a corps of alumnae who mentored her. They include Kim Curtis '82, president and CEO of Tidewater Home Funding; Deborah Stearns '80, senior vice president of JLL, and Marianne Dickerson '71 (M.S. '97), a civic activist and retired teacher.

To pay it forward, Anderson was active in Old Dominion's Women's Initiative Network (WIN), which pairs successful woman executives in Hampton Roads with female undergraduates. "Giving back and supporting others is a gift, and that fills two souls at the same time," Anderson said.

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