Day in the life of: Shola Olatoye

The NYCHA CEO on revamping a cash-strapped agency and taking over the world by 9 a.m.

Jun.June 01, 2015 07:00 AM
Shola-Olatoye

Shola Olatoye (Photo: Max Dworkin)

Shola Olatoye is the CEO and chair of the New York City Housing Authority where she oversees 178,000 apartments, 11,000 employees and a roughly $3 billion budget. Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the 40-year-old Olatoye — who worked at the national nonprofit affordable housing organization Enterprise Community Partners, HSBC Bank and real estate consultant HR&A Advisors — announced a sweeping 10-year plan to address the authority’s dire finances and crumbling housing stock. “The current system is broken and the status quo is not working,” Olatoye said. The so-called NextGeneration program hopes to generate $500 million through leasing NYCHA land to private developers to build more affordable housing. It’s also hoping to create an overall surplus of $200 million-plus by cutting costs and targeting new revenue streams. That’s a tall task given the $2.5 billion operating deficit it’s facing over the next decade. But Olatoye — who was pregnant at the time of this interview and gave birth right before press time — projects an air of confidence.

5:00 a.m.   I’m used to waking up this early. During my pregnancy, though, I’ve been waking up around 6. I check my phones, social media and email to make sure I’m up to speed. On a recent morning, for example, there were reports of a manhole fire in one of NYCHA’s 334 developments.

5:30 a.m.   Even though it’s still dark, I am typically in Central Park running at this hour about four times a week. I run the six-mile loop with friends. I was training to run my first full marathon — I’ve done multiple half marathons and I was a sprinter in high school — but had to stop when I found out I was pregnant.

6:30 a.m. After I’m showered and have made my coffee — or during my pregnancy, my tea — it’s time to start making lunch for my two boys: Alexander, 9, and Rowan, 7. That’s a laborious task. It’s always a guess as to what they want.

7:15 a.m. I wake up the kids and then it’s a mad dash for about 45 minutes. It includes everything from finding homework to getting dressed to making sure musical instruments are packed.

8:00 a.m.   If it’s my day to drop off, we’re out of the house by now and we hop in a cab to drop the boys at school, about six blocks west from where we live in Harlem.

8:30 a.m.   If it’s my husband’s turn to drop the kids off, I’ll be at a breakfast meeting Downtown. I joke with my friends that you can take over the world by 9 o’clock, because by now, I’ve been in touch with many different people across the city. I’ll have emailed the mayor and updated him on the latest news.

9:15 a.m. I am in my office and sit down behind my desk, although that is not where I spend most of my time. I divide my time between meeting with members of the department, external stakeholders and my colleagues in City Hall. Most of my recent meetings have been about our NextGeneration NYCHA plan.

11:00 a.m. I instituted a new program, called “Coffee with the Chair,” in an effort to connect better with staffers. There are some employees who have worked for NYCHA for four decades and have never been on the 12th floor of 250 Broadway [where the executive offices are located]. We need to make a culture change at the agency.

12 p.m.   When I don’t have a lunch meeting and I have some time to sit down to eat, I like going to Ecco, an old Italian place on Chambers Street. When you walk in, it’s as if you’re entering New York City in 1975: white tablecloths and waiters with black vests. And they have excellent bruschetta.

1:00 p.m.   If I have to grab a quick lunch, I usually stop by Fresh&Co or Le Pain Quotidien to grab a Cobb salad. I usually run into half the city administration. You want to get your business done? Go there.

2:00 p.m.   I often head to City Hall in the afternoon. There are meetings with the mayor or deputy mayor Alicia Glen on a weekly basis. And no matter what time, if the mayor calls for a meeting, I immediately go.

3:00 p.m.   There’s usually a 15-minute break during which I grab a cup of tea — black English Breakfast with milk and honey — until I go back into several meetings.

4:00 p.m. I meet a lot of staffers and residents out in the field. Last year, I visited 90 NYCHA developments. The visits help me understand the authority better. About 30 percent of the staff also lives in the developments.

6:00 p.m.   I make an effort to leave the office around the same time every day, to make sure I’m home for dinner at 7:15 p.m. with my husband and kids. I enjoy cooking and during the week mostly whip up easy American fare. I am the cook in the house. The rule is that if you cook, you don’t have to do dishes.

7:00 p.m.   On Friday nights, we go out to eat at our local Italian restaurant in East Harlem.

8:30 p.m.   The kids are now in bed. I say hello to my husband, the editor of the Mansion Global website at Dow Jones, Matthew Strozier [and a former editor at The Real Deal], and I sign back on to do work or hop on a call. 

9:00 p.m.   If it’s Thursday night and I can stay awake, I am going to watch “Scandal” on ABC. It’s the only place where you can watch people behaving badly in fantastic fashion. 

10:00 p.m.   I devote two nights a week to late-night commitments. Those range from community meetings to benefits. Some nights, I go to multiple events. On those nights, I can be all over the city.

10:30 p.m.   I try to get to bed and read something completely unrelated to public housing. I’m a big fan of female Nigerian writers coming out of Britain and Nigeria. Most recently, though, I’ve been reading a children’s book from the 1980s, named “The Adventures of Shola.” I’m reading it with my oldest son. The book is about a little white dog named Shola, who has all these little adventures and thinks that she is really a lion, so she engages with the world as a lion. It’s actually quite fitting.


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