By the time Shannon McLay founded her financial advisory company, The Financial Gym, in 2015, she was used to a lack of inclusion in the financial services industry. Until 2013, she had only worked in white, male-dominated workplaces, including a long stint at Merrill Lynch where "there wasn't even really diversity in the guys," she tells Refinery29.
McLay's goal wasn't to shrink-and-pink finance, but to ditch overly-complicated ways of talking about money that tacitly keep underserved groups out. Six years later, she says, things are going well at The Financial Gym, whose clients have an average $80,000 in assets (ranging from $0 in starting assets to over $6 million). Most of them are women — and many are women of color. To reflect the Gym's "diverse client mix," McLay made sure to hire non-white "trainers" (the company's name for its advisors), including two Black women, Chandra Savage and Lisa Aliche, in January 2018. But that's when the record began to skip: McLay's assumption that some people might want financial help from advisors who look like them proved too true in some cases — to the extent of revealing some clients' racial biases.
The financial advisory space is still predominantly white and male, especially at senior levels. A 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that women comprised 28% of first- and mid-level managers and 29% of senior-level managers from 2007-2015; white people held nearly 80% of management positions overall. The report partly attributed the disparity to a preference among existing managers to "give hiring or promotion preferences to persons who have hobbies or educational backgrounds similar to theirs."
White men have historically been the group in society that has controlled money, McLay says, and so the financial services industry reflects that. But even though there have been slight shifts in wealth control and in the economy, she adds, "the financial advisory space isn't changing with that." The problem goes beyond gatekeepers, though.
McLay never had any intention of exclusively assigning Aliche and Savage Black clients when she hired them, and neither of the Level II trainers signed on with that expectation. But after only five months of the women working at the company, the CEO says client turnover and requests for reassignments have increased — specifically among white clients with black trainers. The number of reassignments isn't astronomical (she estimates about a dozen requests) but they all came with the same excuse: "She's a nice person, but I don't think she's going to be a fit."
New trainers tend to have high higher turnover rates as they adjust to their roles as financial authority figures. And new-client turnover is typically highest within the first three months of that person working with the Gym. (Sometimes, people realize they aren't ready to do the work, McLay eplains; other times, they want a more targeted service — only geared at investing, for example.) Fit isn't a wildly out-of-pocket explanation for declining services, either. Money is a sensitive subject and most people need to feel comfortable with the person listening to their situation. But the CEO says trainer reassignments didn't really ever happen before January: "In the past, we usually just [had] people leave the Gym."
After the first month or so of transfers, Aliche and Savage started to get an idea of what that meant. "The first time I got feedback that it wasn't the right fit, I couldn't understand it because from my interaction with this client, it was all positive," Savage says. "There was never any indication that anything was wrong until they started not doing what I laid out for them in their financial plan and then just stopped responding to me. They kind of ghosted me."
A month or two later, her client contacted someone at the Gym and asked for a new trainer, citing fit as a reason for the change. Wanting to make sure she wasn't giving out bad information, Savage reviewed the plan she had devised for the client with others at the company (a common practice) but was told everything was sound. When the client came in later, Savage tried to get a more specific answer in case there was something she could improve, but she was met with a wall.
"We sat down in our library and that's when I realized that I wasn't going to get an answer because there was no answer, and she didn't want to tell me the real one," she says.
Aliche says she realized something was up after a few weeks of "one-off" meetings when clients reacted with "unexplained discomfort or hostility on occasion." She also questioned whether she was doing something wrong or "triggering" sensitive areas, but she had "never gotten any super-direct feedback" about her work from clients, either.
"It's always just tiptoeing around: 'Oh, I don't necessarily feel like we clicked or that I feel comfortable with you as my advisor,'" she explained. "Most times, when clients don't want to continue or have some type of issue, they'll let you know directly; that's usually the standard. But I was noticing that a lot of these clients would not necessarily want to talk to me about it directly and would maybe direct a complaint toward another trainer or Shannon."
Savage says Aliche eventually broached the topic with her when the two were on a lunch break. In a small way, each woman was relieved to find out she wasn't alone or uniquely bad at her job; "It's like a secret handshake: It wasn't the right fit. There's a code that I'm learning," Aliche says. Still, neither woman was sure how to change anything.
"If it's based on my work then I know what to improve on, but I can't be less black. I can't change that, nor do I want to," Savage says.
It's no secret that "fit" can be used to advance bias, unconscious or otherwise. Over the last decade or so, companies looking to hire top talent have used culture fit as a selling point for their own brands, as well as a way to ensure retention. But in white-collar industries in particular, underrepresented people of all backgrounds have shared how not being a "fit" can be used against them, even when their skills are sound. If a workplace is predominantly male, you might be deemed a bad fit for not having the same interests. If all the top experts in an industry tend to be from one race, you may assume a person of a different ethnicity is less skilled.
"If you are constantly picking up Money magazine and everyone in Money magazine looks like you, you would just assume, 'We are the driving force of finances,'" Savage says, speculating on the motivation of clients that opted not to work with her. "However, when I was young, I found out about personal finances through Black Enterprise magazine and everyone looked like me. I didn't have that illusion that only people like me were doing this because I don't get to have that."
To her credit, after seeing the reassignment requests increase for her only two Black trainers, McLay decided to sit down with each of them and address the elephant in the room. She admits that she was "dreading" the conversation and had no idea how to broach the topic, but decided to come right out and say it — something Savage and Aliche were grateful for. Adopting a "colorblind," Kumbaya approach is something many people promote. But doing so wouldn't address the problem that some of the Gym's clients certainly did "see color," and it was impacting the company.
"Even though I know I get judged by being a woman or a blonde woman and I've had my own challenges, I feel like that's a different level," McLay says. "They're in a harder place, and I feel bad for not realizing that [sooner]."
Aside from becoming a little concerned about their own reviews, Savage and Aliche worried about their work being offloaded onto their colleagues. McLay assured them there was no resentment directed at them, explaining that if anything, their coworkers "didn't really feel great about" never knowing if a transferred client truly did harbor racial bias against a teammate, and having to work with them. "It just doesn't feel good all around," she says.
The situation doesn't have an easy fix. Challenging bias is hard, especially when the person isn't explicit about it or is asking for help. Take the many doctors of color who have spoken out about what it's like to interact with patients who refuse to be treated by them because of their race. Unlike a medical provider, a business might choose to refuse services to a racist person because their life isn't in danger. But if someone claims the issue is "fit" rather than prejudice, few companies would turn down their dollars. McLay, though, says she isn't one of them.
"From a business perspective, I could give two shits," she deadpans. "I don't want to make money like that."
In her view, she is responsible for both her clients' and employees' success. And having observed what has happened in her own business, she wonders if so few advisors of color are hired and retained because employers weren't willing to do the work. "Maybe they've seen a challenge with the success rate for those planners, and they were just quick to fire them," she speculates. "Meanwhile, I want to fix this."
The three women discussed possible remedies, with the most apparent, and fraught, solution being to assign clients by race wholesale. So far, that hasn't proved necessary, as the majority of Aliche and Savage's clients of all races and ethnicities are happy with their trainers. Nonetheless, McLay says the two will likely take on more Black clients as they come in — something neither woman is averse to, but a strategy that still feels problematic. McLay, Aliche, and Savage all think there are benefits to The Financial Gym being seen as a "safe space" for Black people seeking financial advisory services and getting those services from Black women, but they are all aware doing so as a rule feels segregational.
"I don't care about the turnover. I really don't — we have clients coming in all the time," McLay says. "But I want them to have the highest likelihood for success in their day-to-day. I don't want [my trainers] feeling anxious going into a meeting. I want them to feel strong and confident, and if this is going to help them do that, this is what we need to do for the time being."
She has also started to underscore the inclusive employee and client base at the Gym with new clients, asking them to take a look at the trainers on her website, read their bios, and let her know if they have any questions. It's a heavy-handed approach for sure, but also an attempt to directly address a shadowy issue clients won't be open about themselves. In other words, it's a start.
For the time being, Savage is happy to keep doing what she's good at with the people who value her work. "I'm never going to want to stop helping people but you can't help somebody who doesn't want to be helped by you," she says.