Familiar with the turf, adviser courts female entrepreneurs

Ex-Edward Jones rep understands trials and tribulations of small-business owners; 'Finance 'n Stilletos'

Mar 17, 2013 @ 12:01 am

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

As the founder and president of Harris & Harris Wealth Management Group LLC, Zaneilia Harris can empathize with her clients who are female entrepreneurs. Not only did she leave Edward Jones and establish her own shop, she did it in 2009 in the middle of a brutal recession.

“I understand the trials and tribulations of being in business,” she said. “I understand the pain of seeing failure and wanting to give up sometimes.”

That perspective helps her connect with women who run their own businesses, a demographic that represents about 20% of her clientele and one that she is working to expand.

“It is a natural niche that I felt has been overlooked by mainstream financial services,” Ms. Harris said.

Her motivations are twofold. For her own advisory practice, Ms. Harris sees women who start their own firm as a growth market.

“Women business owners are a major driving force of the economy,” Ms. Harris said. “We are pillars of the economic recovery.”

She also is promoting the niche because it helps her home area — Prince George's County, Md., in suburban Washington. Although the capital region is known for its concentration of high-net-worth households, Ms. Harris' county lags behind.

SHARING STORIES

As a way to build relationships among local female entrepreneurs, Ms. Harris formed a group she calls Women of Prowess. It comprises women who have started their own company — ranging from the proprietor of a virtual-office-space provider to a maker of upscale leather goods to a solo-practitioner certified public accountant to a life coach.

They gather periodically to share their stories of how to make it on their own in competitive markets.

“I want us to be a force to be reckoned with and [demonstrate] that we do exist in P.G. County,” Ms. Harris said. “I want all of us to succeed.”

Some members of Women of Prowess are also Ms. Harris' clients. Other female entrepreneur clients include an event manager, the owner of a staffing firm, a therapist and an attorney. Although these women started their own business, they don't necessarily understand money. That's where Ms. Harris comes in.

The first thing she does is try to help them think strategically about their business plans. For instance, do they eventually want to pass the business on to a child or other relative, or sell it?

“When you ask them, 'Where do you see yourself 10 to 20 years down the road?' you often get a blank look,” Ms. Harris said. “You can't be successful if you don't know where you're trying to go. I try to create a vision in their mind. For a lot of them, it's deeper than money.”

THINK LIKE AN EXECUTIVE

From a retirement-planning standpoint, Ms. Harris helps the female business owners think like executives.

“A lot of them don't have retirement savings set aside,” Ms. Harris said.

She has also counseled female-entrepreneur clients on setting up an employee benefits program that extends beyond health care, and creating a rewards program for people who refer business to them.

One challenge for Ms. Harris is making women comfortable talking about finances.

“Women are not as vocal about money as men,” Ms. Harris said. “We're ashamed to admit when we're not in a certain place financially, especially in the D.C. area. I find that it affects how they open up to me.”

To help generate a conversation, Ms. Harris has created an inviting atmosphere in her office, which she has designed in what she calls “warm colors.” She also offers tea, coffee or water — in a glass — and plays soothing music.

“I want the women to feel they're at home,” Ms. Harris said. “When you become part of my firm, you're part of my professional family.”

Ms. Harris finds potential female-entrepreneur clients by targeting events that might draw them and in which she has a personal interest, too. For instance, she is learning to play golf. She also likes to cook and attends parties where women invite a chef to prepare dinner.

In a more traditional marketing effort, she addressed the Junior League of Annapolis, a presentation that led to creation of her blog, Finance 'n Stilettos.

“I was trying to encourage women that finance is not boring,” Ms. Harris said.

As that idea catches on, Ms. Harris will be in a position to expand her own business.

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