Michael Brathwaite's mother was wrong. When he first dreamed of becoming a stockbroker, she didn't think it was a great idea. She told him she couldn't envision "white people giving you their money."
That was 35 years ago, and since then the Morgan Stanley broker has invested money on behalf of people of all races. In fact, he couldn't have survived in the business had he not.
"The black market is not a natural affinity group," Mr. Brathwaite points out. He said that African-Americans do not even benefit from the advantages of a unifying language, as do some other minorities such as Asians and Hispanics. "I had to go out of culture, to find people willing to take a chance," he said.
This story is part of an ongoing initiative by InvestmentNews to provide inspiration, education and awareness around workplace diversity and inclusion. The project aims to cultivate a financial advice profession where diverse perspectives and experiences are welcomed and respected, and where industry best practices can be shared across organizations.
Mr. Brathwaite, 58, grew up in the Bronx and first got interested in finance as a student at Iona College in suburban New York. In 1983, he joined Dean Witter's newly launched branch in White Plains, N.Y., where the brokerage firm was beefing up its office with 18 trainees.
He later worked for Gruntal & Co. and UBS, before he was hired by Morgan Stanley in 2007. He is a member of the firm's Urban Markets Group, which focuses on inner-city communities. He manages $178 million, targeting nonprofits and universities, as well as individuals who need help with retirement planning.
As a member of the group, he also teaches financial literacy to young adults. He travels often and has spoken to more than 98 organizations about the basics: credit, budgeting, saving, investing, how markets work, balancing a checkbook and the power of compound interest.
Marilyn Booker, a Morgan Stanley managing director and head of the Urban Markets Group, said Mr. Brathwaite has a rapport with people that makes him a natural to teach financial literacy.
"He understands people and interprets body language, reading between the lines," she said. "He can interact with people from every walk of life, running from kids in foster homes to multimillionaire clients."
Mr. Brathwaite took an instrumental step in his career 30 years ago, when he joined Business Network International's first chapter in New York State. BNI, the world's largest business referral organization, still helps to generate about a third of his clients.
"The group becomes your family, and you learn to trust the people you see regularly," Mr. Brathwaite explained. After liberally providing financial advice at BNI meetings, he became known as "Mike the Money Man." There he learned to position his business, creating the right message and strategy. Now he is co-executive director for BNI in Manhattan, helping others to expand their networks.
Three critical factors
Mr. Brathwaite attributes his success to three critical factors: passion, integrity and dedication to clients. He recalls how he tried at first to behave according to his image of a broker, then gradually learned "to be himself." He remembers one telling experience as a board member of the Westchester Symphony, where he attracted little new business. "It wasn't because I was black," he said. "It was because I hated the music! If I'd been authentic, I'd have been more successful."
These days he connects with people through his teaching and mentoring. In 2007, he joined a live, daily radio show called "Money Talk," that focused on addressing individuals' lives and time horizons, rather than institutional themes. The show was a natural fit, thanks to his ease with public speaking and enthusiasm for the subject.
Mr. Brathwaite said that as a minority, he's encountered his fair share of hurdles in the advice business. "We must distinguish ourselves, and fast, because people make judgments from first impressions," he said. He's always felt he has to be superbly prepared and had to develop "double the knowledge" of his colleagues.
His mother and her memory — she died in 1983, three months before he started at Dean Witter — has become his great inspiration and motivating force.
"I've always had her memory to carry and propel me as I went forward," he said. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of his clients are female retirees, widows and divorcees, and those who need his help most. "I try to protect them because I can no longer do that for my mother."
Vanessa Drucker is a freelance writer.