I am a black woman adviser. Am I valued by this industry?
(Editor's note: As protesters march worldwide in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, we are highlighting stories that address racism and inequality in the wealth management industry. This first ran March 8, 2019.)
There’s been a lot of talk lately about diversity and inclusion in the financial services industry, and how we can improve both. But to me, it’s just that — talk. Why? I need look no further than my own experience as a woman, minority financial adviser.
As I’ve grown my independent financial advisory firm, there have been few mentors, let alone sponsors, willing to counsel me along my journey. Once at an industry luncheon, I approached an older, well-respected female adviser. I introduced myself, hoping for a connection, and was stung by how she blatantly disregarded me. She didn’t look me in the eyes and didn’t want to shake my hand when I extended it. Mind you, we’d both spent hours seated at the same table and I was the only black woman at the event. I persisted in getting her to talk by asking about her journey as a woman in this industry but what I remember most about her is how she treated me like I was insignificant.
She was not an exception. After the event, there was no networking with me. Others turned only to colleagues they already knew and I was not included in those conversations.
These are the kind of micro-aggressions that can distance women of color from their colleagues. I’ve always wanted to connect to or even create a network of supportive advisers interested in building deep, lasting relationships. We would be able to identify with each other because they’d understand my journey and I’d relate to theirs, too. But what I’ve discovered instead is if you’re not careful, this business can make you bitter, especially when you’re in the minority.
When I talk to industry people, I notice the same look and feeling during our interactions. It’s distant, often distracted, and I can detect that they’d prefer to be chatting with other people — particularly the white men — in the room. Conversations tend to be short and not very meaningful with no interest in a lot of follow-up discussion.
Years ago, when I walked into another luncheon and sat down, no one at my table spoke to me. It was like I was a unicorn. I even jokingly said to the lady sitting next to me, “Wow, do people talk and engage at these things?” My humor didn’t make her bite.
Because of those experiences and an unfortunate number of others, I’ve limited my exposure to industry events. The latter one happened very early in my entrepreneurial career, so it influenced my decisions about becoming active with local and national financial organizations. I questioned if they’d value my thoughts, insights and opinions. Instead of getting involved, I decided that my focus needed to be on expanding my business.
I have grown my firm outside of the traditional AUM model, meaning I might charge hourly or retainer or AUM. I also create packages for lower-end clients to help them grow their assets. I have had to accept that my model is different from other firms. At the same time, I also believe it could be a helpful approach for other women and people of color.
My experience in the industry as a whole hasn’t been all bad. Otherwise, I would’ve given up on this business and gone back into consulting. I’ve met some wonderful people but I haven’t stayed in touch with very many. I’ll admit there are days when it would be nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of to confirm I’m doing the best for myself. No one has ever asked me, "What’s your journey been like as a black woman financial adviser? How can I help you?" (and really meant it). Nor has anyone ever said, "Hey, I’ve noticed some great qualities in you that I identify with, so I want to help you become successful. I want to mentor you."
It feels like our industry measures who we are as minority and women advisors based on standards set by white men. Also, when I look at pictures promoting diversity in our industry, I only see white women as success stories or one token person of color to represent diversity and inclusion. As a black woman, I constantly feel dismissed, even among those who come together for the purpose of unity. I’m forced to question if I‘m truly valued or if these public conversations are just a smoke screen with no urgency for change.
We all want to achieve our own level of success. I just wish that we truly supported one another on the way there.