Photography by Marie Constantin
Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana
Family: Married for nearly 30 years to husband, Kevin, with two children: Kevin “KC” Cunningham Jr., 28, and Sydne Radcliff Cunningham, 22
Years with company: 8
Helena Cunningham’s career has been inspired by strong women who came before her, starting with her mother.
“My mother by far was the most influential person in my life,” she says. “This year marks 10 years since her death. She was a single parent who worked three jobs so we could attend Catholic school. My mom wanted us to understand education was the key to success. She also wanted us to be independent and not rely on anyone for anything.”
Under their mother’s guidance, Cunningham and her siblings pursued education and entrepreneurship. Today, Cunningham has accounting and law degrees under her belt and is the founder and CEO of her own business, National Housing Consultant Services, which offers development consulting services with an emphasis on affordable housing.
She says developing affordable housing is like putting together a puzzle with a missing piece. You know the who, when, where and how, but the missing piece is the financing structure. That’s where the challenge comes in.
“That’s what I love doing,” Cunningham says. “At the end of the day when you put that last puzzle piece in, it’s very rewarding especially for the population we’re serving—people in need of homes at affordable prices.”
At NHCS, Cunningham uses her experience in the industry and accounting background to offer consulting services to public and private entities on affordable housing and funding opportunities. After her CPA career, Cunningham attended Southern University Law Center, interned with a New Orleans firm focused on affordable housing and later became general counsel of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency.
Cunningham’s expertise has been sought out for high-profile developments in Baton Rouge, including the historic Saltz building downtown and the old Entergy site in Mid City. But she’s most proud of developing affordable housing in her hometown of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as well as in north Baton Rouge and downtown—including 438 Main St. apartments, the first affordable housing built downtown in 50 years.
“There’s a lot of high-end developments in downtown now, but we have put our footprint in downtown as well for affordable housing,” Cunningham says. “We’re excited to be part of redeveloping downtown Baton Rouge, but for everyone.”
Starting her business in 2010 was a major decision that shaped Cunningham’s career, and she credits her mentor, the late Debra Lazare, and her husband, Kevin, for encouraging her to take the leap. Today, she says, her only regret is not starting NHCS earlier.
In the housing industry, Cunningham says her journey as a female business owner has been made smoother by women who came before and paved the way, like Ronnie Edwards and V. Jean Butler, who are also women of color. Cunningham tries to inspire and support other women, as well, which is advice she received from her mother.
The most important contributing factor to her success goes back to family. Her husband of 30 years has been her best friend and her rock, she says, and her proudest achievement in life has been her two children, who are educated, career-driven, “good people who are good to people,” Cunningham says.
“My common thread is family,” she says. “I’m able to do what I do because of the support system I’ve always had.”
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT | Personally, my children. I know this sounds so cliché, but my kids are by far my greatest achievements. My son, “KC,” is 28 and is graduating from Temple Law School in May. After graduating from Tulane, “KC” lived in Japan for three years. While there he learned the language and opened a business in Osaka. Sydne, my “mini-me,” recently graduated from LSU and will be attending Tulane Law School in the fall. During her last year as an undergrad, she had three jobs and a full-time student course load—and she graduated a semester early. Professionally, taking the leap to start NHCS. Starting NHCS was a tough decision that has certainly shaped my career. With the support of my husband, I took the giant step and never looked back. I love what I do, I love the people we serve and my only regret is that I did not take that step sooner.
RELAXING AFTER A BUSY WORKDAY | I love watching sports, so my favorite way to relax after a busy day is to recline in my comfortable chair while watching sports (preferably football or tennis) with a glass of champagne.
HARDEST LESSON | To take risks and be confident. Although I had a great support system of family and close friends who encouraged me to become an entrepreneur, initially I lacked confidence to venture outside my comfort zone and open NHCS.
1988 • Graduates from Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting
1992 • Becomes a certified public accountant
1996 • Graduates from Southern University Law Center
2001 • Becomes president of the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency
2010 • Opens National Housing Consulting Services
2011 • Develops 438 Main St., the first affordable housing development in downtown Baton Rouge in 50 years
2014 • Expands NHCS to include nationwide relocation services
2017 • Develops the Saltz Building in downtown Baton Rouge, her first historical redevelopment