A very worthwhile conversation

Sep 11, 2011 @ 12:01 am

At last year's InvestmentNews Retirement Summit, Lazetta Rainey Braxton approached me and asked if I had a few minutes to chat.

Deducing that I attend many industry gatherings in a given year, she asked if I ever noticed the low participation of minorities at financial adviser conferences and other events.

Ms. Braxton, founder and chief executive of Financial Fountains LLC, a fee-only advisory firm, asked me this question out of frustration, as she is often one of only a handful of minority professionals at the conferences she attends.

Her greater concern, however, was her inability to identify minority colleagues with whom to collaborate on developing best practices and approaches to overcoming biases and challenges affecting minority financial services professionals.

Ms. Braxton explained how she relies on industry events and professional organizations to build her network of trusted colleagues — and how she would like more opportunities to connect with peers.

I encouraged her to attend a session, “Interview with John Rogers: The Importance of Diversity in the Financial Services Industry,” at the 2010 National Association of Personal Financial Advisors annual conference. Mr. Rogers is chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments LLC.

Ms. Braxton took my advice. I contacted her soon after and suggested that she write an opinion piece for InvestmentNews about racial diversity in the financial services industry.

Ms. Braxton wrote an insightful Op-Ed and we published it Aug. 15, 2010.

Last week, Ms. Braxton informed me that the Financial Planning Association had recognized her as a top professional who is working to raise awareness of diversity issues in the financial planning profession. Ms. Braxton, one of three recipients of the FPA Diversity Scholarship Award, said the Op-Ed helped get her message out.

“Several African-American financial services professionals sent me e-mails stating their appreciation of my willingness to write the piece and my approach to the issue,” she said.

I asked Ms. Braxton what she would like to see come out of all this. “My ultimate goal is for the FPA [diversity committee] to leverage FPA's commitment, resources and platform to build a strong network of minority financial advisers within FPA's membership and through partnerships with other targeted organizations,” she said. “I would also like to see an increase in the visibility and voice of minorities in the profession.”

Ms. Braxton said that the industry in general needs to become more minority-friendly.

What's needed is a dedicated initiative to research and address the needs and desires of minority investors and advisers, she said.

She said financial services organizations need to signal an earnest commitment to help all their members/employees/practitioners to be productive advisers and equip them to serve the needs of minority communities, in addition to the other communities that advisers serve.

Ms. Braxton believes that minority financial professionals will begin to embrace industry efforts when these organizations have incorporated minority feedback into their leadership structure and business practices, such as inviting minority speakers for conferences and webinars, and offering topics geared to minority professionals and investors.

She also believes that industry organizations must find ways to serve as a resource for minority organizations whose constituents would benefit from professional financial advice or exposure to career opportunities in financial planning.

Once these organizations receive buy-in from minority professionals and consumers, constituents will become advocates and will enthusiastically promote these organizations as minority-friendly and progressive, she contends.

Ms. Braxton said it would be great if various industry organizations found ways to utilize their collective influence to address their mutual commitment to serve the growing minority consumer base and to recognize the value of having diverse perspectives when providing financial planning to consumers.

I asked Ms. Braxton what industry leaders and firms can do to attract minorities to careers as advisers and in the financial services.

“They can start by offering support and resources to develop minority professionals, which is the key for attracting and retaining a diverse base,” she said. “Often, major firms lack formal or informal mentoring programs, which are critical to creating an inclusive professional environment.

“Partnerships with membership-based organizations that offer content and support allow major firms to extend their diversity efforts and signal to their employees and affiliates the firms' breadth and depth of their commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

I am certainly glad Ms. Braxton asked me if I had a minute to chat.

Jim Pavia is the editor of InvestmentNews.

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