Freddie Mac's Debby Jenkins on moving beyond cultural affinity Within reach: Conversations with leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry

09 October 2020

The road to leadership is different for everyone. For Debby Jenkins, Executive Vice President of Freddie Mac Multifamily, it meant embracing competitiveness and understanding that you're never done.

“I was asked by some of our media folks literally how do you want to portray yourself? We’re creating this persona for a new leader, new female leader. You happened to be married to a woman. How do you want to handle that? And my response was, I will be doing an injustice to women, to the LGBTQ community, to my own family, frankly, if I don’t voice my diversity and utilize it to the good of everyone.”

—Debby Jenkins, executive vice president, Freddie Mac Multifamily

Tanya Ott: I’m Tanya Ott, and I’ve been talking to women in the financial services industry to get a sense of how they navigate that space and where they draw their inspiration. And sometimes, it comes from some unusual places. Like the ballfield.

Today, Debby Jenkins is the executive vice president of Freddie Mac’s Multifamily platform.

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Debby: Basically, what that means is I run the business. I’m proud to be the lead of this team that does roughly US$78 billion a year in business, is a leader in the commercial capital markets arena, and is a pioneer in the risk transfer space, especially in the housing industry.

Tanya: Debby joined Freddie Mac right before it went into conservatorship in 2008. Before that, she worked at a variety of small banks and lending platforms in Michigan. But, she says, the thing that really shaped her leadership style was what happened before that.

Tanya: You mentioned growing up just outside Detroit in a blue-collar community. What was it like when you were growing up there?

Debby: Blue collar is a very accurate statement. To put it in perspective, in the height of the financial crisis in 2009 or 10, the house next to my parents’ in Warren, Michigan, where I grew up, sold for US$12,000.

And that is pretty telling, just in terms of the area that I grew up in. You’ve probably heard of the movie “8 Mile” with Eminem. I grew up at eight-and-a-half mile. I actually went to the same high school [in] different years. I was the first one in my family to go to college. Part of that reason was because it was on an athletic scholarship. That really changed things around for me and opened up a lot of opportunities.

Tanya: You were a three-sport athlete in high school. What were your sports?

Debby: I was primarily a softball player, but also basketball, and I played volleyball in the winter season just to stay in shape. Kids don’t necessarily do this today; they are focused more on one particular sport or maybe two. But for me, it was three. So that athleticism and being a team-sport athlete has been a big part of my career, and of my life, frankly.

Tanya: So, you go to Wayne State, you’re on a softball scholarship. That’s what allowed you to go to college. How did your experience as a college athlete shape your approach to leadership?

Debby: Anyone who has been a college athlete knows that it is truly like a full-time job in addition to your studies. You learn a lot of things, not the least of which is how to multitask, [and] how to balance multiple things going on at once and making sure that you're getting things done. Your executive-functioning skills are either heightened or challenged or both. One of the mottos that we had on our team was, “There’s no I in team.” That was not an original thought by us, but when you’re a member of a team sport, you learn to work together. You learn to collaborate. It’s not just one superstar that wins anything; it’s a team that does it. That’s something that I’ve taken throughout my entire career, making sure that I surround myself with other leaders and teammates, that we complement each other. We all have our weaknesses and we all have our strengths, but that complementary collaboration and trust that you build, you learn those foundations on the baseball diamond, on the basketball court. And it carried through in my career and as a leader now.

Tanya: I know some athletes sometimes struggle with the extreme competitiveness, which can be good or can maybe be a little challenging sometimes. I have seen multiple interviews where you’ve said that you’re a highly competitive person. How do you balance nurturing your teams and being competitive?

Debby: I’m not going to lie; competitivism is a key driver in my life and in my career. During COVID, I’ve had a goal of lowering my handicap in golf. I’m a very goal-driven, goal-oriented person.

I don’t think you can teach someone to be competitive. I found that out through my children. I have one that’s extremely competitive, one that’s not so much, and one in the middle. You go with what you have. [Competitiveness] could become negative if you take it too far. That creates that “I in team,” if it’s all about you and you being competitive. But if you take that into team spirit, it makes you want to be the best at what you do, whatever it is. Perfectionism is not necessarily a great trait, but it’s one of those things that really drives you. For us at Freddie Mac, in the state that we’re in now, we all have a common goal, which is exiting conservatorship. All of these things are starting to occur in the marketplace that you’re hearing about and it’s a key driver. It gets me up in the morning knowing that we could have the chance to make a lot of change and do a lot of really good things for the housing industry. So, competitiveness for me is one thing that I look for when I’m selecting team members. It’s a really good quality.

Tanya: Obviously we’re talking about gender equity right now, so I can’t let the moment pass without asking you about the difference that Title IX made in your life as a female athlete at Wayne State.

Debby: I’m glad you brought it up. Title IX was [established] in the early 1970s. I was a kid then. I don’t think I really understood the meaning of it until I got into the business world—being in commercial real estate and the finance industry, [there are] lots of blue blazers out there and not so many women, especially in leadership. [Title IX] laying the groundwork literally almost 50 years ago moved things along.

But I would be remiss in not talking about the fact that the Supreme Court’s ruling around sexual orientation, gender identity, the LGBTQ population—this is truly transformational. It’s the next generation of creating equality. Women have been very vocal over the course of the last few decades around inequality. We’ve moved the needle some. We’ve got a long way to go, but this is about everyone now. And the racial injustice, all these things coming to light, really tell you that it’s about inclusiveness and equality for everyone. I’m looking forward to the next phases of what these conversations look like, because it’s important and I want our kids, our next generation, to have the history, but I also want them to move forward in a really, truly leveling the playing field, so to speak, since we were talking about sports earlier.

Tanya: When you were in college athletics, it took a fight sometimes to get resources at universities for female sports versus male sports. Then you move into the world of finance where you mention there’s a lot of blue suits. Gender equity in that industry, in finance, why is it personally important to you, but also important as an industry itself? What did it feel like when you first got into it as a woman?

Debby: As far as the industry goes, it’s been an evolution. My first manager, believe it or not, was female, which was really interesting. I don’t think I had another one up until ... maybe never. I might have had one or two along the way for short periods of time in my career. But I personally have been fortunate because many of the men that I have had as mentors in my life have been very in tune with inclusion and diversity. I remember the first time that I actually came out into the workforce. I was almost 40. I had spent most of my career in the closet, so to speak, and came out at that time to a gentleman who was my boss, the president of our company. This is the small mortgage-banking firm. And his response to me was, “So?” I realized at that point that I was the one who was worried about it, not him.

A lot of times men don’t necessarily know how to approach women. Part of this is on us. Let’s start the conversation. Let’s be the ones to say, “Hey, it’s OK if you know you want to do something good, but you're not sure how.” Frankly, I’m experiencing that with the racial inequalities and all of the things that we’re talking about today, because I’m learning as I go. I don’t know what it’s like to walk in the steps of a person of color or a transgender person. But guess what? I can ask questions. I can educate myself. I can educate my family.

At Freddie Mac, we talk a lot about affordability. Another pillar of what we should be talking about is equality and inclusivity. To me, that’s going to be the next steps that we take.

Tanya: That leads me to my next question, which is, as organizations look at inclusion and diversity, how can they embed it in their business efforts rather than just making them sort of standalone projects?

Debby: First thing has to start with your hiring practices. If you keep doing the same thing over again and pulling from the same pool … we’re really trying to be more inclusive all the way around. Instead of just going to some of the top-rated schools in the country, let’s think outside the box a little bit. Every time you have an open position in a leadership role, I’m a big believer of promoting from within, but you’ve got to look out there at diversity. Studies have proven, and behavior is proving, that the more diverse you are, the better your platform is, and frankly, the more profitable it will be as well.

We work a lot with diverse suppliers, making sure that we’re trying to figure out how do we incentivize, how do we promote more diversity in every area. And we’re looking into new ways that have not been tapped into yet. If you think about the industry that we’re in, [there are] not too many minority owners of multifamily properties, not that many leaders in terms of equity platforms, debt platforms. What do we do from the position where we sit as leaders in the industry, as a company, to help promote some of those things?

Tanya: You mentioned recruiting at some of the top-tier colleges and universities in the country. And there’s an interesting piece of research that I read recently from a woman who followed the finance industry, and she observed a lot of recruiting at some of the top-tier universities and colleges.1 She developed this idea that oftentimes, even without us really knowing it, we start to make hiring decisions based on cultural affinity. Do you have the same hobbies that I have? Do you travel to the same places that I do? Stuff that isn’t about hard skills but is more about those side conversations that we have. For diversity purposes, that can be a real challenge sometimes if you’re talking racial diversity, if you’re talking about economic diversity. As someone coming from a working-class neighborhood, the eight-and-a-half mile, I would imagine that you’re pretty conscious of that and how that translates into hiring.

Debby: I like to think I am. I don’t have the pedigree, necessarily, that someone else may have that went to an Ivy League school or something of that nature. I look at it a lot differently than maybe some folks would. What you really want to do is find the person that will fit from a cultural perspective in your group, your team, your platform, whatever it may be in. It’s one of those things where it’s an unconscious bias that you may have, that I may have and frankly, thinking about it, I like to look for folks that have played a team sport for all the reasons we just talked about. But not everyone does that, and not everyone can do that. I’d like to look—and you’re right—at what do they enjoy doing? You want to make a personal connection. And it can’t necessarily just be because of our own backgrounds and the way that we grew up. We need to branch ourselves out a little bit further than that.

Maybe the conversation should switch from, “What is it that we have in common?” to, “What can I learn from you?” Based on the fact that you come from somewhere completely different than I do, you see the world differently—because of the fact that your skin color is different, you’re male versus female, or you’re any of these things that we’re talking about. Maybe that’s the conversation that we start should start to have, what do we learn from each other and how do we become better as a team, given that diversity? That may be something that we need to take back to our own companies even today and start to change that conversation.

Tanya: How have you used your role to make changes at the systemic level within your company?

Debby: That’s a really good question. I took over the Multifamily division, became the head of the group, in November of 2018. I was asked by some of our media folks, “How do you want to portray yourself? We’re creating this persona for a new leader, new female leader. You happened to be married to a woman. How do you want to handle that?” And my response was, I will be doing an injustice to women, to the LGBTQ community, to my own family, frankly, if I don’t voice my diversity and utilize it to the good of everyone. But first I need to prove myself as a leader and through our results. I don’t lead with me and my personal history. But now I’ve been doing this for a year and a half and I’ve spent a good chunk of the time now talking about all of these issues. It’s time. It’s more than time. And our society today is more than ready for it. People within Freddie Mac are asking the questions. “How can we help? What can we do?” Just watching the unrest that’s going on within our country on so many different levels—people’s minds and hearts are open more so than ever to people’s differences. When we started talking about having this podcast, it was before COVID, it was before the racial unrest, before a lot of things that have happened over the last few months, and my mindset has changed a lot. Just realizing, I thought I was a pretty inclusive person ... there are some things I need to work on and I’m learning every day. It just opens all of us up.

Tanya: Bringing it from the macro back down to the organizational level, how do we know when efforts towards diversity and inclusion are paying off?

Tanya: Is it just a numbers game?

Debby: It’s not, and it’s not about checking the boxes. Freddie Multifamily just won the MBA Diversity and Inclusion Award last year, and it’s something that we’re very proud of. We’ve done a lot of work in that regard. Today, the issues are different and they’re even more pointed. I don’t think you ever really say, “Whew, I'm done now.” It’s an evolution. It’s a continuous process because the world around us is changing. The things that we thought we needed to focus on last year were great, but it needs to be refreshed every single year and probably even more frequently than that just to stay in tune with what’s going on. The needs in terms of inclusion, equality, and diversity are changing. And you’re never done. We’re just starting. I don’t know when we will feel like we’ve done good on the latest issues because it’s yet to be determined. We’re determined to not just talk about it, to take action, but frankly, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have an answer for when do you know it’s paying off? It’s when you have folks that want to come work for you and with you, and part of it is because of your culture of inclusiveness, part of it is because of your hiring practices. And kids in that generation, millennials and others, they’re so in tune to it. I'm learning from my millennial every day how open they are to what's happening around the world and showing me things that I never realized I should focus on. It’s both a top-down and a bottoms-up sort of uprising from our younger folks and our millennials that are working with us today.

Tanya: I was going to say I’ve got three millennials of my own, and I learned from them all the time. And one of them actually plans to go into the field of finance, and she’s a woman. I wonder what you think the conversation is going to be like, say, 10, 20, 30 years from now when our millennials are maybe in leadership roles.

Debby: If we do this right, then we’ll know that we’ve succeeded because we won’t have to have a conversation of, “How are we going to fix it?” I look at it from our family’s perspective, and I think 10 years from now, 20 years from now, our kids are going to be the ones that are going to be the leaders here. They’re frankly sometimes better humans because they are more in tune than some of us that have been around 50 years. I’m encouraged by our youths today, because they are more sensitive and more determined that the world is going to be a better place. Some would call them idealistic, right? That’s the millennial sort of mantra. I call it exactly what we need in order to make some changes. Sometimes you learned from folks that you don’t necessarily expect to. Our kids are one of those examples.

Tanya: Debby, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fantastic talking to you.

Debby: Thanks so much for having me. My pleasure. These issues are near and dear to my heart. So I appreciate the time.

Tanya Ott: Debby Jenkins is the executive vice president of Freddie Mac’s Multifamily platform. She’s one of several women in leadership roles in the financial services industry that we’re talking with on the show. You can find more of the interviews at our website, You’ll also find reports on diversity and inclusion, videos, and all kinds of resources.

The Press Room podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, online at and on Twitter at @deloitteinsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.

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