As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Janelle Chan acquired the habit of asking questions. Once she received her degree in ethnic studies, her inquisitiveness never waned, a practice to which she attributes her steady ascent up the career ladder.
Deeply concerned with public policy issues and social and economic equality for women and minorities, Chan worked at several organizations where she honed her skills in fundraising, grant writing and union organizing.
“I’ve worked with diverse people and dabbled in a number of nonprofits,” said Chan.
She gained valuable fundraising and grant-writing experience while working at Asian Neighborhood Design, a San Francisco nonprofit that builds affordable housing and trains people in the building trade.
The work fueled her desire to make long-lasting changes for the under-privileged.
To pursue this dream, Chan enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she earned her master’s degree in city planning. While still taking classes, she pondered the best way to impact the real estate market; coincidentally, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston hosted a competition that would influence her professional direction.
“They matched a team of students with a community development corporation to work on a neighborhood project,” Chan said. “I was paired with the Asian Community Development Corp. First, I was a student, then an intern, and now am at the helm.”
In 2010, Chan was named executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp. (ACDC).
Changing Zip Codes
A transplant from California, Chan initially found it challenging to gain trust from the local community.
“You need a lot of local knowledge when it comes to real estate,” she said, adding that her determination to “get down, get dirty, and get it going” has helped her overcome some of these obstacles.
“I’ve been in Boston for eight years now and am vested in the community. I’ve been relatively successful in the sense that I have built some wonderful relationships,” she said.
Chan launched her real estate career in 2008-2009, a difficult time in the housing market. But in addition to facing professional demands, she encountered some personal challenges.
“I was a new person, coming in after a charismatic director. I had to change course and establish myself,” said Chan. “I’m young and a woman. From the beginning, I noticed that when I looked around the room, I didn’t look like everyone else. But I found wonderful champions, allies and mentors along the way.”
Despite the stumbling blocks, Chan’s determination and positive attitude have helped her overcome adversity. During a recessionary period, she assumed oversight of Boston’s Chinatown Project, a collaborative effort between ACDC, Emerson College, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC). Dubbed “Parcel 24,” this mixed-income, mixed-use development will ultimately become 345 affordable and market rate housing units. Groundbreaking is expected to take place later this year.
Particularly proud of this project, Chan is nevertheless quick to credit those around her for these achievements.
“A lot of my success is linked to wonderful staff and organizational accomplishments,” she said.
As she moves forward professionally, Chan vows to remain relevant. “I need to continually find new goals to recharge myself. I’ll continue to ask ‘Am I doing my best?’” she said.
Chan advises other professional women with career aspirations to remain flexible and resourceful. Her mantra – make it happen, make it work – might help others maneuver the maze to professional success.
“You don’t need to know it all. Look for champions, not just mentors. And if you have an opportunity, go for it. Don’t let your own personal insecurities get in the way,” Chan said. “You can only control what you can control. Realize that you won’t be everyone’s best friend, but make decisions with thoughtfulness.”