Does the financial services industry want minority clients?

It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about over the years. I’m probably not the only one — no one really wants to discuss the elephant in the room in front of mixed company. But after reading a Forbes article outlining the bleak economic outlook for black and Latino Americans, I have to come to the only logical conclusion: the answer is no.

Our communities combined have an average net worth of less than $10,000 and that number will drop to zero before the end of the century, according to the article. White Americans have an average net worth of slightly more than $100,000. People of color are at the bottom of the wealth chain and it bothers me.

With the advantages white Americans have inherited simply by default — profiting from nearly 250 years of forced slave labor and more than 150 subsequent years of strategic restriction on our earning power, our participation in wealth-building platforms like investing, entrepreneurism and home ownership, and our ability to sustain strong families and communities — you would assume that the number who have a net worth greater than $1 million would be much higher.

Zaneilia Harris
People of color are at the bottom of the wealth chain, says Zaneilia Harris, president of Harris & Harris Wealth Management.
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People of color are at the bottom of the wealth chain and it bothers me.

According to my research, less than 10% of the U.S. population has over $1 million in liquid assets. And 50% of Americans, no matter their racial identity, have less than $100,000 in wealth. While minorities are often criticized for financial management, the numbers tell us that privilege and access have not guaranteed it, either.

Knowing these statistics, there is a limited number of wealthy Americans that any wealth management firm can go after. There are but so many clients out there that can help me sustain my business if my goal is to service only high-net-worth people. This belief, though prevalent, artificially introduces a scarcity mentality in the financial services industry.

As a result, I’ve watched my colleagues exclusively target this small group rather than helping less wealthy people who are striving for a better life and economic position.

We are a capitalist society. Our system is based on how much capital is spent on an annual basis. The IMF has forecasted economic growth in the United States at about 2% for 2018. By comparison, China’s is about 6%. So you would think lawmakers would appreciate that increasing employment opportunities and elevating wages that affect the growing populations of black and Latino Americans would in turn increase economic growth for the entire country. There’s no evidence that they understand that, however.

I get it. The lead time to convert minorities is too long, given the deficit we’re saddled with from the beginning, and our goal in the financial industry is to make money now.

THE SAME EXCUSES
Coming into this work as a black woman, I have found myself repeating some of the same excuses about how I need to diversify my client makeup to survive and sustain my business. (Translation: I wasn’t going to make as much money if I served only clients of color.) I felt the pressure to do what I saw large investment firms do. If it worked for them, I reasoned, surely it would work for me.

Then I read some articles about the bias lawsuit against Bank of America and learned that the strategy of targeting white clients doesn’t necessarily lead to success. When my former business coach encouraged me to do a self-examination and self-reflection, I had an a-ha moment that changed the way I do business. I determined who I work with best and that I needed to think outside of the box when it comes to building my wealth management practice.

When I meet with clients, most who look like me, they share some of the assumptions other professionals in my industry have made about them and the micro-aggressions they’ve experienced because of them: the not-so-subtle reactions when they walk into a meeting, the immediate assumptions that they are risk averse or the condescending attitude financial advisors assume when explaining investment concepts.

What’s more, they don’t understand the desire — and in some cases, deep rooted responsibility — to do well so these clients can financially help their immediate and extended families. That’s a cultural standard that spans both black and Latino communities.

Are people of color worth servicing? Absolutely, resoundingly yes. That’s what motivated me to leave my former position at a large investment management firm to start my own company instead.

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The gratification I get from seeing professional clients who look like me succeed is well worth it.

The industry touts financial commandments — you know, 1) go to school and get a college education to enhance future earnings, 2) save 20% of your income (5% for emergencies and 15% toward retirement) and 3) invest for growth while you’re young, 4) live beneath your means and 5) buy a home only when you can afford it.

So if a larger segment of Americans who are Henrys (that stands for High Earners Not Rich Yet) follow these rules, people of color included, I believe more of us will have assets of at least $1 million as our younger generations become increasingly savvy and informed. Also important is professional guidance and an understanding of our unique circumstances.

I live and work in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the wealthiest, predominantly black county in the country. But only a few large investment management companies exist here, which is surprising, particularly when you consider the size of the population and the number of highly educated professionals. Some would call it a financial desert.

When I look at surrounding counties, the financial landscape is very different. That’s why becoming a certified financial planner was important to me. I wanted to expand the level of services I offered to clients who are overlooked by major firms. I understand that it may take more time, effort, even creative problem-solving to straighten the learning curve, but the gratification I get from seeing professional clients who look like me succeed is well worth it.