At first glance, a pivot from being an electrical engineer to leading finance for a workforce-housing nonprofit may seem like a massive career shift.
And, to be sure, it is.
But Abbie Ela Wallhaus, ’97, has discovered ways to merge her skill set from the for-profit world with her new life in the not-for-profit universe, where she currently works as vice president of finance and CFO for Madison Development Corporation.
Her journey began when she was working full time as an electrical engineer at Madison-based Wisconsin Power and Light (now Alliant Energy), and enrolled in Booth’s Weekend MBA Program.
She had always known she would go to grad school: she debated between engineering and an MBA before ultimately deciding on the latter. “I just felt like I had more options and a bit more diversity on the business side of things,” she says.
Wallhaus would spend seven years in the utility industry, working in Alliant’s treasury department and then as a power plant comptroller. She loved the hands-on experience of being on location for power plant projects, such as a project to automate two hydroelectric plants in the company’s portfolio. She then spent more than 14 years with American TV & Appliance in the service department and distribution centers, focusing on budgeting, logistics, and process management.
But when that company shut down, she opted to make a major career pivot. A former Alliant Energy coworker (who’s also a friend and neighbor) suggested she apply to become director of finance for the Bethel Horizons Foundation, a religious 501(c)(3) organization connected with Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison.
“It was really a good way to get my feet wet in the nonprofit world,” Wallhaus says. “I didn’t dislike the corporate sector, but I am finding the nonprofit world to be very rewarding.”
In 2018, a colleague recommended Wallhaus to Madison Development Corporation’s CEO as a prime hire to fill a finance post. The 45-year-old nonprofit organization serves Dane County, providing affordable apartments, debt financing to small companies, and gap financing for startups.
“I didn’t dislike the corporate sector, but I am finding the nonprofit world to be very rewarding.”
“We’re really trying to fill the need for workforce housing,” she says. “A healthy vacancy rate for a city is between 3–5 percent—we consistently run less than 2 percent because of high demand.”
MDC currently manages 348 affordable housing units, and recently developed a 44-unit that leased up in less than four months. The organization has a 24-unit development in its pipeline and hopes to bring 50 new units online next year, Wallhaus said. It also oversees an $11.85 million workforce housing fund to lend to affordable housing developers.
“MDC has convenient, quality options for the workforce of Dane County, with offerings all over Madison,” says Wallhaus. “I think we’re doing a good thing for the city.”
When Wallhaus was a year into her role at MDC, the nonprofit considered building 20 townhomes on land it already owned. But Wallhaus assessed those plans and was able to use her engineering background to do even more good for the community.
“I saw the schematics and said, ‘If we took down this old 8-unit that nobody would miss, we could fit a 44-unit on that space,’” she recalls. “The architects loved that idea. Our CEO and president loved the idea. I feel like I’ve come full circle. I’m back around construction sites.”
Wallhaus says she’s thankful for the diverse career opportunities she’s had since Booth.
“One thing Booth was very good at conveying was all of the possible career paths and diversity,” she says. “I think my MBA really prepared me for any direction. Being able to make that switch and hopefully finish my career in an area that really gives back to the community has been truly wonderful. I’m grateful for that.”