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About Fannie Mae
NAWRB: What’s a favorite aspect of your current position? And what are some of the unique challenges you might face in it?
Sarah Goldfrank (SG): I would have to say my favorite part of my current position is being a part of Fannie Mae and our mission because it is such an incredible mission to be an integral part [of]. In essence, we are at the center of the housing market which is at the center of the U.S. economy, and it’s so meaningful to millions of people across this country, what we deliver everyday, and we are an incredibly mission-driven company. Every year our employee engagement shows that, and I am absolutely one of those people where the mission gets me up everyday and makes me excited about the work that I do.
NAWRB: What would you say, in your particular role as General Counsel, are the unique opportunities that you have, or are the big items that you tackle?
SG: As Chief Legal Officer to the single-family mortgage business, my team and I cover an array of issues from our initial relationships and contracts with our lenders through the guidelines and tools that we provide to them in terms of selling and servicing, as well as when a loan goes out, how a default is handled up to and including a foreclosure. And we handle loan-level litigation where that is concerned in some cases.
NAWRB: You have formal practices in place, but is there a general culture that makes it easier for women that are starting out at Fannie Mae to move up through the pipeline to those positions?
Alicia Jones (AJ): I think across the board—male, female across the ages— it’s a culture you can ask anyone in any department. You’re not afraid to ask questions because asking questions gets you not only to the what we’re doing but the why we’re doing, and helps you develop more of a sense and pride of why you are working for the company. Through that you build relationships, sponsorships. I know there’s a big mentorship/sponsorship debate, but you essentially build a backing especially in your immediate team of someone that’s not only capable but wants to grow, and I think that is really the important essence here at Fannie Mae.
Fannie Mae has had a commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, including the promotion of women and advancement of women since well before my first time in the nineties. And it’s really quite remarkable the work that we’ve done both from a quantitative and qualitative standpoint. Just this year alone, we named Kimberly Johnson as our Chief Operating Officer and elevated Celeste Brown to Chief Financial Officer among other very senior women in our ranks. You know, that’s a testament to the company we are and our succession planning and our promotion of women. I think in many ways the proof is in the pudding on our perspective.
NAWRB: That says something that you started in your twenties and came back. What was your first role there?
SG: I was a contractor and was hired full-time afterwards. I worked in what was called the Office of Diversity at the time, and in the Office of Diversity we handled both internal complaints and disputes as well as running diversity programming. I actually started out on the EEO/ADR side of the house because of some work I had done, some of the work I did when I was in college around EEO, and so I was hired as a contractor and worked my way up from there.
NAWRB: What are some of the ways that you incorporate mentorship not only in your career, but in your life? What does it mean to you both for your career and personally?
SG: I think it’s a really important question and there’s a lot of different aspects that I can tie into but the first thing that I jumps to mind is actually something I think I said at the conference on stage, which is every interaction is either a positive or negative. There’s no neutral interaction that we have day-to-day. By no means am I perfect at remembering that with every interaction, but I think it’s really important to try to remind oneself of that because there might be people that we interact with once a month or once a quarter, and there’s other people we see everyday. With people you see every day, you become very attuned to each other’s habits and practices, and if somebody’s having a bad day you just know that’s what they are having is a bad day.
I think of mentorship at the first measure as tying into how we communicate with people as human beings, and that’s the first thing; mentoring is part of being a good friend. It does goes beyond that, but it is being a sounding board, as someone who helps provide guidance to people who are in search of it, and I will say I have been incredibly lucky in my career to have mentors, including in my earliest days at Fannie Mae in the ‘90s. I was here right out of college, when I was going to law school at night.
One of the reasons I was able to go to law school at night while I worked at Fannie Mae was because I had a boss who was also a mentor to me who supported me. She said, “I get it. Everyday I want you to leave at 5:00 for night school, because ‘Guess what Sarah?’” She said to me, “I also went to night school/law school when I was working on the Hill, my boss wasn’t always able to let me go everyday at 5:00, and that made it harder for me to be in school at night.”
Here at Fannie Mae, I try to make myself available to people. I have mentees who are lawyers, that’s true. I also have a mentee who has been a hedge fund investor and I have people who I mentor who are from the risk management space and other groups. It may be on a micro issue, so sometimes people come to me and they want specific advice about being out in the workplace, because maybe they’re not out in the workplace. Other times it’s much more macro about how to manage, or different macro issues about how to manage when one is promoted, in terms of that transition to a larger [position]. Or it’s just general career advice over years and years, or even decades and decades, and certainly I’ve been lucky enough to have had mentors who have done that for me as well.
NAWRB: Have you ever had anyone that has formally come up and said ‘Will you be my mentor?’
SG: Yes! I have had people come ask me that. In fact—I swear it must be the lawyer in me— but I had someone on my team come ask me if I would be her mentor and I said ‘No, I actually don’t think I can do that because of what you want me to mentor you on. As somebody on your management chain, it wouldn’t be appropriate. I’m happy to be a sounding board! You can always come talk to me, but in terms of a mentor relationship you need to find somebody outside your chain of command.’
About Sarah Goldfrank
NAWRB: And you went to law school full time at night as well?
SG: The typical night school, if I’ve got this right, there are four-year programs when you go to law school, and there are three-year programs if you go during the day. So, you are literally in night school, in class, 5:30 or 6:00 until 7:30 or 8:30, five nights a week. You can actually do it in three and a half years, if you take summer school which I didn’t do, and so it is one year they basically cram into the night program three years into four—it’s pretty intense. Georgetown has one of the largest night schools, at least that I’m aware of. We had more than a hundred people in my night section, so there were quite a number of us—a lot of people from the Hill, a lot of people from law firms, private industry. One of my friends was a single mother who worked on the Hill and went to law school at night.
NAWRB: Do you have any advice for future lawyers who want to get into the field you are in?
SG: The first thing I would encourage people to consider if they’re thinking about a career in the law is what they want to do on the other side of it, and consider working as a non-lawyer or getting to know a number of people who are already practicing in that area before you decide to go to law school. Because law school is a big time commitment, it’s a big money commitment and I think it’s important for people to go in with eyes wide open and hopefully come out on the other side and practice law or other things with a degree that makes a lot of sense, and not find out “Gee, this wasn’t the right career for me.”
I would say my career is not necessarily a straight line when it comes to the law, just because of the experiences I had and the people who mentored me at the law firm. I was trained as a litigation and enforcement attorney before then doing regulatory and some deal work, which is a pretty broad range these days for a lawyer, and I benefit from being in financial services when it had and continues to be a very hot industry with plenty of work to keep us all busy.
I think it’s really doing some good homework and being open to opportunities and experiences. Maybe some people were born to be antitrust lawyers, but most people I know they find good mentors and they learn from them and they might discover they fall in love with a practice that they never anticipated practicing in and that’s great too. Being open and not saying no to things is a good idea. One of the reasons I went to trial as a second-year associate is because I didn’t say no to an ERISA case when I was a summer associate. I still remember the work coordinator coming to me and saying “Well, Sarah, we have this project we need help with. We want to make sure you’re okay doing ERISA.” And I’m thinking “I’m just a summer associate I’ll do whatever you ask when it comes to work.”
Of course I’ll do ERISA. Obviously, I don’t know anything about it but I’m happy to learn and I’ll do whatever it takes, and so I did that project and it turned into a project that was extended over time. I even worked part-time during my last year of law school when I wasn’t at Fannie Mae because I left Fannie Mae to go to the associate position, and then it turned into a trial by the time I was a second year associate. I got to go to trial, and a lot of litigators never go to trial.
NAWRB: What are some of your favorite things about D.C., about your hometown, even just restaurants or stores as innocuous as that may sound? You mentioned a small town vibe within a big city.
SG: It is a small city in many respects. I think what’s amazing about it is we are a small city. It’s walkable, and people tend to be friendly. We have certainly over the past couple of decades really improved in terms of our options for eating out and bars, small stores, big stores and that sort of thing. But one of the things I’ve always loved about this city is that it is a small city, but it is also a big city in terms of opportunities, whether that’s arts and culture, the public monuments, the public parks, all the way through the different types of work one can do here.
NAWRB: What is one thing that you would like to do, or more of, that you haven’t had a chance to do or dig more into?
SG: I don’t know. I want to be a better kayaker! I mean, I don’t because here’s something I struggle with: Do I want to be better at mobile technology or do I not? I don’t know the answer to that.
NAWRB: What set you on a path to become a council member of NDILC, and why is the work we do on that council important?
SG: As you know, I’m a still relatively new member to the NDILC, and I’m still learning. What I see is an organization that is committed to the advancement of women, particularly in real estate and the economy more generally, which obviously has more work to do, so that’s an important mission for the institution. For the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council, it’s a group of senior women who have come together and said: “Let’s figure out how we can make disparate parts of these industries work well together and help make a difference in individual lives and communities.” I think that’s really important work to do. We have a terrific group of people. I know we’re adding new members as well and we keep growing and building. I think we can make a lot of terrific impact in the years to come and so I’m excited by the opportunity. I still have a lot to learn, in my role in the Council, but I’m really excited by the opportunity to come together with this group of women and make a difference.
NAWRB: We’re excited to have you. Did you have any takeaways from the Conference? What would you envision for a future Conference that we would have? Is there something that stood out to you that you would love to see again?
SG: I really enjoyed these things called SHETalks. Those were like 15 or 20 minute, not TEDTalks, but SHETalks, and I had the benefit of seeing several of them. Personal stories from the heart from other people who were there and I thought those were just terrific because you can learn so much from other people when they speak from the heart, authentically, about their experiences and give you nuggets of knowledge to take forward. That was really one of my favorite parts of it, so I think seeing more of that would be great. I think in terms of years to come, because again, I did miss a day of the conference, half a day, then saw most of the last day before I had to get on a plane. I mean, I think the thing that I was struck by was the opportunity to touch more people, to have a wider attendance, which is always hard but I think that there’s so much good in terms of the messaging and people speaking that having more people there to hear it would be terrific.
NAWRB: On our Luncheon Panel, you mentioned that lawyers sometimes have a hard time listening. Did learning to listen better in your role also shape your life outside of work? What are some ways you feel we can become better listeners?
SG: I think one of the things I said was that at law school we’re not trained to be good listeners because you have to start from understanding what the problem is that your client has and have an empathetic ear. I think that people often think of lawyering as about the facts, it’s analytical and it’s very—I don’t want to call it mechanical but it seems almost. Unless you are dealing with an emotional issue, it’s not about the emotions of it, right?
If my kid comes to me with something and I immediately jump to the solution or I interrupt him or whatever I do, if I’m not a good listener, then I’m not really being there for him, right? And so I think that’s true across the board and it’s something I can always improve on as a human, whether it’s inside or outside the workplace.
NAWRB: Is there something your fellow NDILC council members would be surprised to learn about you?
SG: I said this to Alicia before: I think I’m eminently boring. I don’t think there’s any surprises or anything interesting about me.
Alicia Jones (AJ): You’re not boring at all. You know that.
SG: A fun fact is that I work a third of a mile from the high school I attended growing up in D.C., how about that? That’s like my fun fact until we moved downtown because Alicia sits in our spanking new downtown offices. So in mid-October I won’t be a third of a mile. I’ll be 2 ½ miles. I was born and raised in D.C. and I really am a D.C. person. I continue to live in the city. I really love the city.
I also love small town country life, and I have relatives up in a small town in Vermont right on a lake. I love to spend time up there, and I love the fresh air, the wildlife and the small town community. What’s interesting about it is there are absolutely overlapping experiences between the two, because on the city block I live on people are really close-knit and know each other and very friendly and look out for each other. That’s definitely the experience I have with a small town too, so it has both sides of me which is total city girl as well as a little bit of a country girl. I mean, I’m not saying you’re going to want to put me on a farm and I’ll be very helpful, but I do have both sides of me. Maybe not everything you see is what you get depending on where you see me. How about that? Because if you see me at the office in a suit you might think one thing not knowing that in Vermont you’re going to see me in a flannel shirt. And it is absolutely a flannel shirt you are going to see me in.