By Chelsea Sherman
COO of Habitat for Humanity of South Hampton Roads
Christine Early has always been a planner. After she graduated with a degree in environmental resource management and planning from the University of West Florida, Early began working as a planner for city governments. She then went on to roles in planning and development for private builders. What Early didn’t plan for was falling in love with a very different aspect of real estate development—building homes for the less fortunate.
Early became involved with her first Blitz Build—a project where builders come together to build several houses in just a few days—with Habitat for Humanity of South Hampton Roads in 2006. At the time, she was working as a project manager for The Dragas Companies, one of the builders involved in the project.
Photo by Melissa Blue Photo
“Finding my passion was accidental. I loved giving back, and I started doing more community-oriented work,” says Early. “Then I realized that giving back was so important to me that it was my whole passion. That was surprising to me because I had always thought of it as just a hobby.”
That hobby eventually became a full-time job when Early was asked to come on staff at Habitat for Humanity. She had served on the board of directors for several years when she was approached for the position of COO. She decided to commit to one year. It’s now been four, and Early knows she has found her calling.
Early’s job is a smorgasbord of building and development-related tasks. She manages the day-to-day workings of Habitat, from construction, inspections and permitting, to family services, mortgages and even acquiring and selling property. She is constantly in meetings—with city authorities, her construction team, her grant writer and many others.
The nature of Habitat’s work also creates a unique set of challenges for Early. Regulations and permitting rules are endless and seem to change daily. Each project creates reams of paperwork, which must be kept on file for 15 years. On top of everything else, Early must be a disciplined record keeper.
“All the roadblocks and setbacks we hit because of regulations can be discouraging,” Early admits. “But then you run across a volunteer who has an amazing story, or you talk to a homeowner who says, ‘you changed my whole life,’ and it’s worth it.”
One of the most rewarding parts of Early’s job is the home dedication, which takes place once a house is built and a family is ready to move in. Hearing the touching stories and seeing the moment a family’s life is changed forever is what fuels Early’s fire. And the results speak for themselves: children of homeowners are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to graduate college.
While it has been a rewarding vocation, Early’s ascent to an executive role in the development industry has not been without its challenges. In every job she has had in the private sector, women are an obvious minority. Developers and builders are 95 percent male, and executives in every industry are still mostly male. Competing in a male-dominated industry has been a hurtle, but Early has undoubtedly made her mark.
“When I was younger, I’d get comments like, ‘where’s your daddy?’ while I was out working. Even people who weren’t outright derogatory would be surprised to see a woman in my role. It’s turning around now, but it’s taken so much longer than it should have,” Early says.
Early is passionate about encouraging women in her industry to succeed. She has mentored many women over the years and is actively involved with Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW).
“Women sometimes forego applying for these higher positions because they are traditionally male roles. Statistics also show that women don’t ask for raises as often as men do,” Early says. “I advise women to speak about their achievements because they’re not always noticed. Let your superiors know about the great things you’re doing, and don’t be afraid to go for that raise or promotion. Chase what you’re passionate about, and find a mentor who can help you get there.”