Honoring Women’s History Month

This is part of RCAP’s series to celebrate Women’s History Month and highlight the leadership and wisdom of the wonderful women who support this network

My career path initially launched out of necessity rather than passion. I needed a job that provided health insurance for my five children. Ironically, that necessity led me to find my calling in life. I also learned some critical life lessons around mentorship, giving and receiving grace and the importance of being bold.

Moving to rural Fowler, Colorado in 1991, and owning a cow/calf ranch with my family was a dream come true of sorts. I was raised in New Mexico on a trading post near Chaco Canyon and later lived with my grandparents who farmed and ranched for a living. But the cattle market is mercurial, and we experienced -20-degree weather our first winter there! I spent that winter pulling baby calves, desperately trying to keep them alive, while caring for my two birth and three adopted children.

It became apparent that while we might survive the winter, financially it was going to be rough. I saw an ad in the weekly newspaper for a CDBG Contract Manager for the Town of Fowler. Well, I didn’t even know what the acronym CDBG meant, so I went to the library and looked it up. Community Development Block Grant…and those funds were for an owner-occupied housing rehab program for three counties and three municipal governments. I figured I knew enough to be dangerous, so I threw my hat in the ring. I had worked at Arthur Andersen & Company, so I knew a bit about accounting. I also worked for an architect and loved remodeling, so I had quite a bit of construction (particularly rehabbing) knowledge. And I had real estate sales experience, so I understood titling issues and mortgage qualification criteria.

There were 34 applicants: 31 men and three women. I got through the first round and was the only woman finalist, and the final interview was intense. The volunteer town board asked questions about my qualifications and how was I going to manage working and being a mom? (Insert eye roll…!) Finally, one of the board members said to me, “You’re a tiny thing. How are you going to handle contractors?” I took a deep breath and said, “Actually, you cannot legally ask me that question. But I want this job, so I am going to answer. My dad is a rodeo stock contractor, and I have been in that world a long time. I can handle rodeo cowboys, and I guarantee you I can handle your contractors.” He made a motion to hire me on the spot. We had health insurance — boom!

It took me about two months to realize that I had found my passion, my calling in life. I loved being able to take the negatives in a rural community (lower income levels, aging housing) and turn that into positives through CDBG and other programs that I was learning about. Five years in, the CDBG program I ran had a larger budget than the town, so we formed a 501(c)(3) and called it Tri-County Housing. I also had two additional little humans to add to my insurance. About then, the State of Colorado Department of Housing shared a Request for Proposals from Rural LISC. I wanted to apply, but my board was a bit unsure. One female board member told me I was getting too big for my britches. Luckily, the rest of the board over-ruled her. I submitted our application and was absolutely thrilled when I was notified that Tri-County would receive a site visit.

We were selected as one of 56 initial Rural LISC grantees and I was fortunate to be mentored by Sandy Rosenblith, Rural LISC founder and a true rural visionary. Tri-County was still a one-woman shop (me), so it was really a boost to receive an unrestricted grant and hire additional staff. We eventually became a NeighborWorks organization. I left Tri-County in 2004. The organization was well established with 20+ employees and a solid balance sheet. Tri-County (now Total Concept) continues to do great things.

Rural LISC’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 included rebuilding rural medical clinics. I was asked to join the response as a consultant. I helped rebuild medical clinics using USDA Community Facilities funding. It was incredibly rewarding and interesting. As I traveled back to Colorado from Mississippi my last trip, Rural LISC again came calling, asking if I would manage their loan and grant portfolio on the west coast. That was in 2007, just before the housing crisis. I had the largest loan portfolio in LISC, most of it in rural California. As the impact of the housing crisis became painfully apparent, I began reaching out to partners, which included RCAC (Michael Carroll) and NeighborWorks Capital (Jim Ferris). We became the “three amigos” and began working through the various loans we were all involved in. We formed a lenders collaborative and successfully worked through the various projects and loans without losing any affordable units.

In 2013, Tina Brooks, LISC Executive Vice President and Michael Rubinger, LISC CEO offered me the Rural LISC Vice-President position. Rural LISC had struggled for a few years, and I was hopeful that my field and grassroots experience would be useful to recalibrate the Rural LISC model and program. By building a strong team under my leadership, Rural LISC rebounded.

As you know, the next chapter for me is the RCAC chapter. I joined RCAC because I wanted to be in an organization that was solely rural focused. I love being part of RCAC and our diverse body of work.

My reflections and lessons learned from my 30-year journey include:

  • Do not be afraid to try — put yourself in the ring! Even if you aren’t fully qualified.
  • Be bold! Lead with, and exhibit, your strengths.
  • Be genuine and authentic in interviews. If you don’t know, say so, while expressing your curiosity for learning. We all have weaknesses. Acknowledge those but mitigate them with the unique talents and knowledge you DO have.
  • Do not let your youth or lack of education hold you back! In full transparency, I do not have a college degree, but I had been through the school of hard knocks. Sometimes the school of hard knocks is the best education you can carry into a position.
  • If you are not directly invited to the table, invite yourself! When you walk into a room at a conference or meeting, don’t gravitate to tables with folks you know. Sit down at a table of unknowns, introduce yourself, listen and learn. Find a common denominator and begin a relationship with at least one person at that table.
  • And when you are invited to the table, accept and embrace that invitation and the opportunity to learn and grow!

Lastly, as you become comfortable at diverse tables in your career, don’t forget to share that grace and invite others in. Look for the person on the perimeter; invite them into your conversation. Watch for the individual or twosome in the lobby, not sure where to go to dinner and include them. Seek out the individual walking into a crowded ballroom looking uncomfortable; stand up and wave or walk up to them, and intentionally invite them to your table.

Over the past 16 months, I have often considered the unconventional journey I traveled to arrive at RCAC — and I am so grateful to the mentors who lifted me up along the way and continue to impact my life. I have no doubt that I am where I am because so many people invited me to their table and showed me an abundance of grace. I leave you with the definition of grace: the exercise of love, kindness, mercy, favor and the disposition to serve another.



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Suzanne Anarde

Suzanne Anarde is Chief Executive Officer of RCAC, and a lifelong rural resident, leader and champion for rural culture. https://www.rcac.org/