How globetrotting CEO Helene Raynaud fell in love with a Baltimore nonprofit

Helene Raynaud

Helene Raynaud

By Tina Irgang

Following a distinguished academic and professional career in Europe and a stint at Fannie Mae, Helene Raynaud was looking for a job that would allow her to be more hands-on in helping people recover from bankruptcy and foreclosure. In January 2016, she signed on as CEO of nonprofit credit-counseling agency Guidewell Financial Solutions. In the following interview, Raynaud shares her thoughts on finding opportunity in the U.S. and on why, after roaming the globe, she has made Baltimore her home.

You have advanced degrees in international affairs and social science. How did you end up working in credit counseling?

Raynaud: I was raised in France and went to graduate school both in France and England, with initially the intent to become a diplomat or an international lawyer, but I quickly realized after doing an internship with the European Union parliament that really, I wanted to make a difference and be close enough to the people that we have the opportunity to help. I think I always had a strong drive for social justice, community programs, anything that could really make a difference in somebody’s wellbeing and stability. … All these reasons have led me to land in the nonprofit sector and ultimately in the financial-stability education sector. Really what credit counseling is, is helping people stabilize their financial lives. I came to the U.S. about 20 years ago, after leaving a position in England, where I was really involved in business engineering projects at American Express. … After a few years working at Fannie Mae, I landed in the nonprofit management area and started working with credit counseling agencies, helping them develop tools to help people manage their finances better. … At the time, we started to see the beginning of the foreclosure crisis. I got to do a ton of training; I spent a year on the road training nonprofit counselors and just fell in love with the work people were doing in the sector. … I moved to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, where I focused on developing a lot of programs for the member agencies programs for prevention, … helping people redevelop their financial lives after foreclosure or bankruptcy. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to move to one of the member agencies and really be in charge of the delivery of the actual services and continue in that space. It’s the perfect fit for me.

Your predecessor at Guidewell had the job for 20 years. What’s it like following that kind of legacy?

Raynaud: They’re big shoes to fill obviously. … The nonprofit sector really has been struggling for the past four or five years; the traditional sources of funding have diminished. We enjoyed really healthy support from the federal government for our housing services, but that funding is really going downhill. You have a period of uncertainty in the sector and the agency itself. A lot of work was done around the time my predecessor was going to retire anyway, by the board, on where do we go from here, do we remain independent, do we focus our efforts locally, in our traditional markets of Maryland and Delaware, do we try to expand nationally? Do we merge? I mean, they went through all of that kind of identity crisis right before I came on board. At the end of last year, the board decided they were really going to bring in somebody that would be invested and creative and would help us regain traction in our traditional markets … but also help us build a stable strength of revenue, plus national partnerships, which is what I’m coming with. I have a lot of relationships at the national level. It was a great time to come in because the board was ready to make this decision on the direction. … They’re really trusting me to be creative and try new things. My experience in my previous job, where I had the chance to work with counseling agencies and see what would and wouldn’t work, all that is really helping the trust. It’s not a blank canvas, but it’s definitely a new page for the organization.

As someone who came to the American business culture after experiences in France and England, what’s your view on how the cultures are different?

Raynaud: I feel like the British and especially the French culture are very traditional. Pretty much, what you study and your socioeconomic background really drives your future and is very defining. I think they are more hierarchical cultures than the American culture. I think basically the biggest difference is here in the U.S., there are many opportunities. If you’re working hard, and I still believe that strongly, if you’re working hard and you’re committed and are good at building relationships, the doors are going to be opening for you. … People are not going to care so much about what you studied back in college. I think for women especially, there are more opportunities. … I’m actually a single mom, the children live with me, it’s not shared custody, and in spite of that, I had the opportunity to gain flexibility. I’ve worked very hard on my life and being able to build the trust of my supervisors and mentors, and gaining enough flexibility to really pursue my career. I’m not sure that would have been possible back home.

As someone who has lived and worked in many different cities, including Washington, DC, what are your thoughts on Baltimore as a place to do business?

Raynaud: I really love Baltimore. … I call it a real city with real people. I feel like it’s easier to connect with people. … There are people from lots of different socioeconomic, cultural, racial backgrounds in the city, and I think it brings some diversity and richness that maybe I didn’t feel in DC. I feel there’s definitely a creative streak in Baltimore that you don’t necessarily feel back in DC, which I think is very important to making a place kind of fun to live. For me, personally, I feel like people are very open to exploring opportunities, looking at things a different way. … [In DC], when you meet new people, they’re very interested in finding out what you do, and in Baltimore, people are generally interested in who you are. … That’s why I’ve felt more at home in Baltimore.

What’s your favorite place in Baltimore?

Raynaud: I lived in Hampden first, on 37th Street. I was there for a year. What I really liked was the street festivals and the culture. Baltimore has 99 different neighborhoods, so talking about diversity and cultural richness, it’s great. There’s something to do every weekend, which is really unusual. … Then I lived by MICA, right by the train station, and that was a very interesting neighborhood because I love to paint and sculpt, and so I got the chance to … meet a lot of local artists, really talented individuals. I like these two areas because that’s where I spent a lot of my time.

About Human Element:

Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.