New Orleans native Damon Burns is a finance professional with a background in both entrepreneurship and investment banking. As the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Finance New Orleans, he focuses on financing affordable housing and economic development.
Burns opened up about the progress his nonprofit has made, the importance of human interaction, and which leaders he has learned from.
From Hurricane Katrina to now, what improvements has your organization been able to make in the community?
Well, we have been in a very difficult space for the last 15 years because of Katrina, and because of many other natural disasters that have happened along the way. So, we’ve been trying to reimagine and re-envision what we need for the community of New Orleans. The real vision is to create a resilient wallet standard and we mean everyone from top to bottom across the spectrum. So in order to do that, it has required us to build community relationships. It has really taken the time to understand what the community needs, and then start with the programs and all the infrastructure. So since 2020, we launched our program, we’ve closed six transactions and helped six new projects come online representing over 500 units of affordable housing for the city of New Orleans, and then we have four more transactions that we’re preparing to close right now. So that’s meaningful because we’ve had a lot of delay and disruption in our ability to build affordable housing in the city consistently.
What was it like running this organization during the pandemic?
It was very challenging and, for me, on an individual level, I like to be out every day meeting with people and talking to people. You can’t do that in the pandemic, everything’s switched to these kinds of meetings that we’re on right now. So I think it was a lot of value in Zoom, the way that we worked, and it gave the world a break. In a sense, even though it was a very frustrating time, everybody got a chance to regroup and reconsider what work means and what they want to do. A lot of life changes were made during that time, so from an individual perspective, I had to think about our team and how it was affecting them. So we fully took advantage of the remote working system and we learned early [that] you need to have the infrastructure in place in order to successfully do remote work and a lot of lessons were learned in that process. But I think one of the biggest lessons learned is that you cannot replace human connection.
Who are some business leaders you’ve learned from to become the leader you are today?
I will say [one of] the leaders that comes to mind [is] Malcolm X. I just always loved his truthfulness. In more recent times, I like what Mellody Hobson is doing, I like what Robert F. Smith is doing, and a number of other Black entrepreneurs. I have always loved what hip-hop entrepreneurs are doing, like Jay Z. Those guys, they’re doing all types of amazing things from an investment perspective that are redefining the game.