“Perception matters more than intent.” As humans, difficult conversations are hard and many of us simply avoid them. This piece of advice was given at a moment when I needed to mediate some interpersonal challenges, and I have since delivered it to others multiple times. So often, the reason it’s hard to navigate conflict is because we refuse to understand each other. I have learned as Framework has grown, that taking responsibility for how my words are perceived, whether that is how I intended them or not, is critical to move forward. I now have a goal to get curious about conflict rather than run from it. Do I always achieve this goal? Absolutely not. But it’s a practice, and practice makes progress!
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Samalin, the CEO of Framework Homeownership, a mission-driven social enterprise created by two nonprofits that is dedicated to empowering smart and successful first-time and first-generation homeowners.
Danielle’s passion for the enduring importance of homeownership has been the driving force behind her successful housing industry career. She has helped transform the business model for the housing counseling industry and created new technologies and delivery systems to educate and empower homebuyers. Danielle has championed innovative, scalable systems that provide consistent quality and efficiency for homebuyers throughout the changing mortgage market.
Danielle was named one of Housing Wire’s 2014 Influential Women in Housing. She has served on Fannie Mae’s Affordable Housing Advisory Council (2016–17), was co-chair of the National Industry Standards Advisory Committee, and co-created the Coalition of HUD Housing Counseling Intermediaries, a national network of United States Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved housing counseling nonprofit organizations that also pass through federal funding to other nonprofits housing counseling providers. Additionally, she has published about homeownership and neighborhood stabilization in the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Community Development Investment Review.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. A fourth generation New Yorker, my great grandparents came from Eastern Europe through Ellis Island to New York City in the early 1900s in a classic immigrant story. Both sides were working class. My dad grew up in a housing project in the Bronx, my mom in a tiny rental apartment above a storefront deep in the heart of Brooklyn.
Both of my parents are artists. In the 1970s, when my mother was pregnant with me, and the city was basically just emerging from bankruptcy, they had an opportunity to buy. They didn’t. Rent was cheap, they had no money, they didn’t have financial support from their parents, and why in the world would someone buy a home in Brooklyn? In hindsight, it’s obvious this was NOT the best financial decision. Ultimately, my parents rented in Brooklyn for 30 years, and then they were displaced by gentrification.
I’ve always been the lone social scientist in a family of artists and creative types. I studied economics at Wesleyan University, and then went to NYU for my masters in urban planning. Being in grad school in my home town that was going through so much change and transition during the early 2000s was fascinating. For me, I felt this change personally, as it was during that time that my parents were displaced. I said to myself — what is a city without the diversity of its people? I focused on community development, on the humans that live in the buildings we discussed in urban design classes. And it was around this time that I connected to a credit union in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a predominantly immigrant neighborhood. The credit union wanted to create a mortgage program for this largely unbanked community that was being preyed upon by unscrupulous mortgage brokers.
Framework’s journey began following the 2008 housing crisis that resulted from such predatory mortgage practices. At the time, I was working at the Housing Partnership Network, leading homeownership initiatives. The nonprofit affordable housing industry was called upon like never before to respond to the crisis, and we saw firsthand how inadequate access to reliable information can create devastating results for people who are trying to build long-term financial security. This is especially true for lower income households and households of color who have been systematically held back from pursuing the opportunities to attain long-term wealth through homeownership, or, as was prevalent during that crisis, left vulnerable to predatory scams.
In launching Framework, I committed myself to building a social enterprise to ensure that as many people as possible have the information and tools they need to make homeownership decisions with confidence.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The Framework vision is to democratize access to unbiased, accurate information on homeownership. To be honest, this in itself is disruptive. The homebuying journey is confusing, fast paced, and often chaotic. Business models are set up so each player earns a commission off of the transaction, and the faster the transaction moves from start to finish, the better. The very nature of Framework’s mission, to be a source of unbiased information in a process that has previously had few, is disruptive to the way people buy homes. That Framework can be a ballast of calm and support as we democratize access to information, disrupts the notion that buying a home is by necessity chaotic, stressful, or confusing.
We believe that there is a different way to buy a home, and that this is a better way. It’s a way that ensures that for the biggest financial decision of a person’s life, they don’t feel like they need to close their eyes, cross their fingers, and sign on the dotted line. We built Framework on the principle that access to information enables and empowers the best financial decisions. Since, we have helped almost 1 million first-time and first-generation buyers prepare for what to expect when purchasing a home, and what to expect throughout the homeownership journey. And, through our robust network of partnerships who share Framework’s products with their customers, we have seen that key stakeholders recognize the importance of having a trusted, unbiased, third party to support consumers in the biggest financial transaction of their lives.
We are disrupting the idea of who has access to information, especially around the question of whether to buy, or not buy, a home. Homeownership, the primary way for lower income families to build wealth, is ripe with information asymmetry. Our disruption story is a story about social justice and the need for systems change. It’s about wealth building, but it’s also about housing stability and affordability — who gets to stay when cities change, who is forced to leave? Who can afford it?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In Framework’s earliest days, there was so much to get done to launch our company and I was taking on more tasks than I could realistically handle. But we were in startup mode — I was chief cook and bottle washer and the sink was getting full!
So I became an accountant, and did some recruiting, and created marketing materials (if you can even call them that). What I didn’t know then that I clearly know now is: 1. You don’t have to do all the things and 2. I am not a graphic designer.
Sometimes, leadership is knowing when to step back and bring others in — sometimes someone else can do it better than you. And, rest assured that if you do decide to go ahead and try creating layouts in MS Paint, your future marketing team will have a good, long laugh!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I have been lucky to have had strong female leaders in my life who have served as role models and mentors. The thread that ties them together, whether they are company founders or college or grad school professors, is the fierce focus on standing in their power, unapologetically. My mentors have shown me that I do not need to conform to someone else’s notion of leadership to lead. These women have shown me that being myself, without the armor and the conformity, and trusting my intuition, is how I will be most successful. As a female founder and CEO, running a social enterprise that’s very mission is about disrupting a system, and doing things differently, there are many opportunities for doubt to creep in. It is because of the women (and some men!) in my life who have provided feedback and support along the way that I can recognize the doubt when it is creeping in, but not listen to that critical voice, and instead be confident in who I am and the message I have to share with the world.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
To me, being disruptive means being willing to look at something established — an industry, a product, a way of thinking — and being unafraid to say, “what if we did this differently?” In the Framework example, of course it’s, “What would have to change to increase access to homeownership for more people?” In general, I think it is always a positive thing to be able to look critically at something and ask, “is this the best we can do?”
The nuance comes when we fail to understand the problem before we rush to “disrupt” it. I don’t believe in disruption for disruption’s sake. I think disruption without a full understanding of the context of the challenge is doomed to fail, or doomed to leave someone out in the process, or have some other negative consequence. First and foremost, empathy is critical to successful disruption and change management.
I personally look at disruption from a social justice and mission perspective. For example, even if something has “withstood the test of time,” that system might still have inequities. That product or system was still designed by humans with blind spots or biases, and truthfully, in the case of long-established systems — they might be the ones most in need of change!
To really understand something — to understand it so well that you might want to change it — requires deep learning. It requires an understanding of history, as well as the current pain points that might suggest a change is needed. Take the homeownership industry, for example: the mortgage market as we know it has basically been in place since FDR and the New Deal. But much of today’s inequity around wealth, in particular around the racial wealth gap, can be traced back to the origins of our system. True disruption (in the form of systems change) requires an in-depth understanding of this important context and history.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- “What does your gut tell you?” This is something we hear all the time, but in this case, it’s made it to my top three because the person who gave me this advice has perhaps been the most important support in my life the last few years that I have stepped into the Framework CEO role. I’m a highly intuitive person, but at the time, I was struggling to access that intuition to help make critical business decisions because I was so caught up in the false notion that being highly intuitive meant I wasn’t a data driven person, and I had learned that being data driven was critical for success. This advice was given to me along with a fascinating article about the nerve synapses in our actual guts — and being able to literally feel in my belly what my reaction was to business challenges I was facing helped guide my decisions and better understand scenarios.
- “Perception matters more than intent.” As humans, difficult conversations are hard and many of us simply avoid them. This piece of advice was given at a moment when I needed to mediate some interpersonal challenges, and I have since delivered it to others multiple times. So often, the reason it’s hard to navigate conflict is because we refuse to understand each other. I have learned as Framework has grown, that taking responsibility for how my words are perceived, whether that is how I intended them or not, is critical to move forward. I now have a goal to get curious about conflict rather than run from it. Do I always achieve this goal? Absolutely not. But it’s a practice, and practice makes progress!
- “Self-care isn’t selfish.” It’s so easy to get caught up in the work, especially if your company is wrapped up in your sense of self as a founder/disruptor! It’s not just one person that has given me this advice, to disconnect once and a while, and leave it be, frankly, most of my friends and family give me this advice from time to time — “take time for you.” It was a yoga teacher that phrased the advice this way, and it was honestly a mind shift! The very notion that in order to do good in the world, to achieve Framework’s mission, I have to first take care of myself now makes so much sense, but it took a while to get there. This is true on the more personal level too — as a mother, it’s too easy to put your needs last. So, this has become my “oxygen mask” mantra: put your oxygen mask on first.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Increasing access to information is just the beginning of our mission to democratize homeownership. What are other ways we might influence the way people buy and sell homes? What if we could create a platform that allows our members to buy and sell homes differently — in line with their timelines, their values? What if we could democratize access to homeownership by increasing access to information AND homes themselves?
Our mission means that we must build products that address the vulnerability lower-income homeowners face, over the lifetime of their homeownership experience. In 2020, Framework combined market and academic research, subject matter expertise, and our commitment to social justice to build Keep Home, a digital platform to support long-term homeownership success. It is the first independent mobile app that supports the consumer throughout their entire homeownership journey. Through unbiased content, tools, and resources on Keep Home, Framework will chip away at decades of misinformation that has held so many Americans back from achieving their dreams of homeownership. This platform also opens up the possibility that we can influence the system in ways that go much farther than we already have today.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Here’s the thing: for women in the workplace, we face a number of unique challenges, whether we are disrupting an industry or simply trying to advance in our careers. Case in point: Framework as a company was launched the day I went into labor with my second child! This means I was on maternity leave during the first few critical months. The elusive work life balance isn’t only a challenge for women, but by and large, women face tradeoffs and challenges that men don’t. And recently, the many reports about women leaving the workforce during the pandemic underscore this.
As a female CEO, I receive a lot of advice, much is unsolicited! Often, I ask myself, “if I were a man, would this person have said that to me?” Usually, the answer is “no.” I have been given advice about everything from my hairstyle to the font size I use on my outgoing emails, to my “emotional” responses to things. If I were a man, would that be called “passion” instead of “emotion”? And for disruptors, who by nature are doing things differently, this becomes even trickier, because we by nature are nonconformists — that is literally what we are doing here!
In my personal experience, and I certainly don’t want to speak for everyone, I feel an extra burden as a woman engaging in this disruptive work. As I launched Framework as a company, it is this burden that I have experienced as a woman in the workplace that has led me to many of the decisions I’ve made for my team, for example, around paid parental leave, vacation and sick time, and other benefits. I also think it’s critical that we as woman leaders speak openly and honestly with each other about our experiences and the challenges we’ve faced, so other women don’t feel so alone or isolated or frustrated.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Yes! Right now, I obsessively listen to both of Brene Brown’s podcasts: “Dare to Lead,” and “Unlocking Us.” Dare to Lead has also been a tremendously important book to me these last two years as Framework has gone through much change and transition. Both of these podcasts have such relevance to me as I navigate 2020’s unprecedented challenges, both professionally and personally. And, let’s be realistic, in many ways the personal and professional have overlapped like nothing we’ve seen in 2020. Brene Brown’s perspectives on vulnerability, authenticity, and shame, have centered me during this time — as a woman, a mother, and as a CEO. I believe I have been a better leader to Framework during this crisis because I have seen that to lead during this time requires me to be my authentic self, to be honest and vulnerable about what I don’t know, and to acknowledge the powerful role that shame plays in hindering our ability to grow.
Another wonderful book I would recommend for all types of leaders is Wolfpack, by Abby Waumbach. I think this book is so important that I even purchased the YA version for my 12-year-old son! This is an inspiring and thought-provoking book that underscores that it’s time to create new systems of leadership. It’s a great book for disruptors in all industries — it’s disrupting our ideas of what it means to lead.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m proud to have built a movement from the ground up that strives to democratize homeownership for all, and to have helped nearly 1 million first-time homeowners purchase and keep their home. The work that we do at Framework provides a means for families to build equity, and generation wealth with reverberations for years to come. I envision a world where we can provide content and tools so that anyone has access to and can succeed at homeownership, regardless of their background; so that people like my artist parents don’t face displacement; and others aren’t manipulated into predatory mortgages or other financial transactions. I would like Framework’s mission to become a social movement, to disrupt the homeownership industry with consumer demand for unbiased information, buying and selling homes in line with their values, on their terms.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is a poem by Mary Oliver called “Praying” that I simply love. It reads,
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
As a life lesson, this poem underscores a few things for me. First, there is the appreciation for what we have. Personally, professionally, it was when I actually slowed down and appreciated what surrounded me that I was able to realize the path I wanted to follow. Second, there is the simple act of paying attention, of listening. It has been through paying attention and listening that I have been able to understand better who I am and what I need to do to succeed. And finally, to me this whole poem is about mindfulness. Cultivating a mindfulness practice is so hard with everything going on, all the juggling, the pressure. But through mindfulness I have been able to expand my ability to have empathy, to embrace my more intuitive side, to let other voices speak, and to be grateful.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!