At Nela Richardson’s first job, she was a “fly on the wall,” she recalls, as the greatest financial disaster of the modern era unfolded in front of her. Richardson was an economist at Freddie Mac (FMCC) at the height of the housing bubble, and she witnessed some of the brightest minds in her field get blindsided by the crisis. The lesson? Even the best thinkers miss black-swan events they never thought they’d never overlook. And the most valuable skill an economist can possess isn’t arithmetic—it’s humility.
Richardson grew up in deindustrializing Indiana, a state with long ties to the Ku Klux Klan, where she developed a fascination with the problems of economic development and social justice. She was the daughter of a single mother, and in high school, she traveled her home state’s small towns as the state debate champion. It was an education, she said, in learning to engage with people who think very differently. That education continued at Indiana University, where she tripled majored in math, philosophy, and economics, before going on to earn her masters and Ph.D.
Richardson is now chief economist at Redfin, an online real estate brokerage and research firm. She leads the company’s efforts to leverage their vast database to inform consumers about the still convalescent housing market. Her focus of late has been on the headwinds facing the middle class and working class as it tries to achieve the American dream. “At Freddie Mac, we talked about making housing affordable, but that’s just half the story,” Richardson says. “It has to be livable too.” That means that communities must have “great schools, job opportunities, a mechanism for upward mobility.”
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To that end, the startup has come out with data sets on not just home prices, but also walkability of different neighborhoods, proximity to good jobs, and neighborhood trends. That’s along with regular information on the market itself and where its heading.
A hobbyhorse of Richardson’s is making information more transparent, and easily available to people that need it, something she strives for in publishing her research at Redfin. Often, good information can be the difference between economic mobility and bad investment decisions. Richardson recalls that growing up, that the more information that was available to her, the bigger the world became: “I think that comes from being a girl from small town Indiana with big dreams.”
A version of this article appears in the September 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “How Nela Richardson Became the People’s Economist.”