Michelle Venema, CEO of Home of the Sparrow, spoke with VISTA Today about being raised as the daughter of German immigrants who grew up during World War II; her childhood in West Chester when there was hardly any traffic on Paoli Pike; cheerleading in high school; and wanting to work as a teen but not being allowed to, because her parents said her only responsibility was to perform well in school.
Venema also discussed attending an all-women’s college in Virginia; her first job in banking and falling in love with the profession; how it helped her build relationships with leaders in the business community; and what Home of the Sparrow is focused on in 2022.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Michelle?
I am the eldest of two full siblings and was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and moved to West Chester with my parents when I was 3-years old. I have a half-sister who lives in West Chester as well and I’ve been in West Chester ever since.
What did your parents do?
My parents immigrated to the USA from Germany in 1957 and quickly became citizens. Dad was trained as an optician in Germany and after working for a local West Chester optician, he along with three partners founded Chester County Opticians. CCO was a long-standing Chester County business that was sold a few years ago. I’m sure that is where I get my entrepreneurial spirit from.
My mom, in the early days, worked as a secretary for Sears Roebuck in Wilmington. As we were growing up, after being a stay-at-home mom, she went back to work and volunteered in the administrative office of Glen Acres Elementary School, worked for Tolsdorf Fuel Oil Services and Agway Petroleum Corporation, and finally finished up her career as the corporate secretary and human resources manager for Metabo Corporation- a company headquartered in Germany. Back to using her German again!
Do you get back to Germany much?
I haven’t been back in several years. As a kid, I knew much of Europe like the back of my hand spending many summer vacations with family and friends in Germany. I honestly hadn’t been to many states, other than those surrounding Pennsylvania, until my brother was in the Navy being posted to many spots in the USA. We had a blast together when I helped him move cross country to California where he was stationed for many years during his service.
What are your fondest memories of growing up in West Chester?
I graduated from East High School in 1980 and enjoyed growing up in the 1970s. We lived just off of Paoli Pike, and I remember walking along Paoli Pike and there being hardly any traffic. What a difference from today! It was an innocent time. We were always outside playing, riding our bikes, and I have fond memories of chasing the ice cream man down the street waiving our quarters.
Did you do any sports in High school?
Yes, I was a cheerleader in junior high all the way through graduation from high school. We won the first cheerleading competition held at WCU for what was then known as the Ches Mont League. I loved being a cheerleader.
What drew you to cheerleading?
I love watching sports, plus I’ve always been an extrovert. I enjoyed being in front of a crowd, dancing to the routines, cheering on the team, and showing school spirit at football and basketball games and believe it or not wrestling matches. I made a lot of great friends. Cheerleading gave me a lot of personal confidence, made me enjoy being in front of a crowd, and helped me to be a popular, involved kid throughout my school years.
Where does your desire to be at the center of the action come from?
I know it was instilled in me by my parents. They took a big risk by coming to America and leaving everything and everyone they knew behind to start a new life with only dreams and two suitcases. They demonstrated courage and a showed real sense of adventure combined with an optimistic can-do nature. They made a new life in a new country and showed us what determination and hard work can create. They always said we could do anything we set our minds to if set our minds and worked at it. Being lazy and mediocre was simply not acceptable. They always made my brother and me feel safe and gave us everything we needed. My parents were loving and supportive and demanded we do well in school and behave ourselves.
What jobs did you have growing up?
I wasn’t allowed to work growing up while in school. My parents told us our only responsibility during the school year was to perform well in school, get good grades, learn and be good citizens.
During the summers of high school, I worked for a company called Harowe Servo Controls on the production line, worked as the county pool inspector for the Chester County Health Department, and as a bank teller for the First National Bank of West Chester as it was known then during the summer between my junior and senior years in college.
What kind of music were you listening to back in high school and college?
I loved the music of the 1970s, especially the singer-songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel. I was a huge fan of The Eagles, Kansas, Journey, Abba, and the BeeGees. My brother called me the “Soundtrack Queen”. I have always liked all types of music from opera to ACDC. I have a subscription to Sirius Radio and listen to 70’s music almost every day.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Sweet Briar College, an all-womens’ college located on 3400 acres at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. I knew I wanted to go south for college. I also knew I wanted to be far enough away that my parents couldn’t check up on me every moment but close enough to get home in under six hours.
Did you look at any other schools?
No, the only school I considered was Sweet Briar and I applied for early admission. I met a Sweet Briar recruiter at a college fair at the old Philadelphia Convention Center. I then spent a long weekend on campus the following Spring. Sweet Briar seemed like a good fit for me.
Looking back, was Sweet Briar College a good fit?
A perfect fit! The school offered a rigorous curriculum paired with the individual attention I wanted. My plan was to enter the medical field and I knew I wanted to major in the sciences, biology, and chemistry, and smaller class sizes suited me. Small class sizes were the norm and I even had a class where I was the only student in the class. Two of us graduated my year with biochemistry degrees.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw potential in you?
Having worked at the First National Bank the summer before I graduated, I fell in love with banking. First National offered me my old job back after I graduated and as I was figuring out my next steps having decided medicine was not for me, I thought it would be a great starting place. I loved it and I kept getting promoted.
Dick Cloud and Bill Hughes were two senior executives at First National who saw promise in me and took me under their wing along with Chairman, CEO, and President Charles Swope. They let me do some new things the bank hadn’t done before. I brought in new technology used to better analyze financial statements and underwrite borrowers’ abilities to repay loans. I thrived under their mentorship.
What do you think Dick and Bill saw in you?
I think they saw my willingness to try and learn new things to problem solve, my extroverted personality, and my ability to communicate and listen; all those things that make a good business developer and commercial lender. I am a detail-oriented person who had a head for numbers and an optimistic, positive attitude. I always looked for ways to make a deal happen.
Were there others who saw promise in you and opened doors for you?
Yes, many, but my parents deserve a lot of credit. Because my dad was an entrepreneur and both parents were involved in the community, I always volunteered and had a desire to give back to my community. At First National volunteering was just expected and I excelled at it.
I served on many local nonprofit boards, belonged to many chambers of commerce, and joined the Rotary Club of West Chester to name a few. I believe that volunteering not only brought me personal pleasure and great joy, but also an ample supply of banking business and contacts with many of the movers and shakers of Chester County. I had the opportunity to build relationships with leaders of the West Chester business community. Leaders like John Ciccarone, Peter Latta, Howard Stevens, and Perry Pepper encouraged me.
At the beginning of 2022, what are your priorities moving forward?
Home of the Sparrow is on the front lines of preventing homelessness for women and children in Chester County. We were founded in 1994 and our mission has never waivered. We enjoy an excellent reputation in the community and are solely focused on Chester County. It may be naïve, but I would love to get to a point where we go out of business because everybody has a home.
The prevention piece is very important. We never want a woman or her children to experience the trauma of homelessness- we want to prevent that from ever happening, so our focus will remain on programming that helps a woman achieve housing and financial stability in whatever form that takes. Eviction prevention, supportive housing, shared housing, pre senior bridge housing, Women’s Re-Entry (WRAP), and our graduate outreach programs will remain our core programs and we will remain laser-focused on the.
We have seen a marked increase in the need for mental health services. We will be focusing on our client’s overall health and well-being by utilizing a trauma-informed, individualized and holistic approach as we help to create stability plans. We also approach each case individually because everyone’s needs are different.
It’s expensive to live in Chester County, and affordable housing is sparse, but as a County, we are blessed with access to many services and programs. We will also be focused on advancing our mission by working with our partner agencies that we collaborate with. Fortunately, there is collegiality working with other non-profits in Chester County. We are not competing, as much as we are collaborating which I think is unique to Chester County.
What are you focused on now coming out of the pandemic?
We never skipped a beat during the pandemic to date. We came back to in-person office work in June of 2020 when the stay-at-home orders lifted and we’ve been in the office ever since. I feel like it has been business as usual for us for a long time which is really great.
From a fundraising perspective, we did not have our events in 2020 or 2021. We want to get back to our in-person events in a safe way, and we need to re-assess the pulse of our funders for how they will give in the future. We did have a very successful Fashion Show in October.
We are still working hard to find affordable housing. We do as much advocacy as we can. It’s nice to see affordable housing going up at the Melton Center in the Borough of West Chester, but it’s not nearly enough.
What do you do with your free time?
There’s not a lot of free time! I’m an avid reader and am enjoying British and Scottish mystery novels right now. I generally can be found with a book in my hand. I enjoy getting together with friends for a good meal and good wine.
What’s the last good book that you read?
I probably read one or two books a week, so it would be hard to say! I’m a huge fan of Craig Johnson, who writes about a sheriff in Wyoming. I just read his newest book and loved it. I anxiously wait for him to release books! I have easily 600 books on my Kindle but I still love the feel of holding a hardback book.
What gives you hope, Michelle?
Lots of things give me hope and much of it is built around our community’s resiliency and grit. Chester Countians, find ways to help others and do so generously in my experience. Folks volunteer, donate, advocate, and support us and our mission. I’m an optimist and I always look at the glass as half full.
The news is often so grim right now, and that’s one of the reasons I’m not on any social media platform but LinkedIn. That helps me keep my positive outlook. I don’t have time for negativity, and when you think positively, that’s how you create real change.
I think if you’re generous of heart and of your time, talent, and treasure, those kinds of things come back to you tenfold in ways you would have never expected. That has certainly happened for me in my career and in the community.
Finally, Michelle, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It will come from my parents again, and it’s a few different pieces. The first is to always treat people well, be kind. They taught me to treat the janitor as well as you treat the CEO.
Another is to always have confidence in yourself. You can do anything you want to if you put in the time and effort.
And finally, to give 100% to anything you do. If you’ve done your best, no matter the outcome, you can’t really ask for more than that. Don’t be that somebody that stands on the sidelines, be present and engaged and involved and you can create the outcomes you desire.