5 Things About Incorporating DEI in RIA Firms with Daria Victorov and John Eing

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Daria Victorov, CFP®, and John Eing, CPA, CFP®, of Abacus Wealth Partners have been avid listeners of the 2050 TrailBlazers podcast from the beginning. As a result, they teamed up to expand their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within their firm. 

Abacus Wealth Partners has made a lot of progress on building a diverse firm. Approximately 63 percent of their firm’s employees are women, which is well above the industry average, and 60 percent of their board members are women.

They were finding success with growing a diverse organization, but they also knew that there was work to be done to increase ethnic diversity. They decided to form a committee within Abacus focusing on growing their diversity initiatives. This committee develops strategies for next steps and evaluates how their DEI initiatives can help to boost business results. 

I recently sat down with Victorov and Eing on my podcast to discuss what actionable steps they’ve taken, what’s worked and what bumps in the road they’ve encountered that you can use to build an actionable blueprint to get started.

How did your diversity committee get started?

Victorov: We created “why” statements based on the book by Simon Sinek, Start with Why. Everyone knows what companies do. Some people know how they do it, but not everyone has a why. For us it was important to create that why statement—why are we interested in diversity and inclusion? Why are you here? Why do you want to make a difference? If John and I had different why statements compared to some other people that were on our committee, that wouldn’t really be helpful because we would all be coming at it from different angles. We have to work as a team with our committee. John and I are different ages. We’re in different locations, we’re different ethnicities and we also put a term limit on ourselves of two years because we want to make sure that we’re having diversity of thought with this committee. It’s also important to have diversity in the leadership.

What were some challenges you had in developing the diversity committee?

Eing: We realized without a strategic tie-in to a business purpose, we would quickly lose steam. So we said, what’s a tool that we could use to help us really hone and focus our mission? Similar to what we do with financial planning clients—you start with figuring out what’s important to them and then you create the financial plan—we took a similar approach. We read a book called Measure What Matters by John Doerr. This book talks about a framework called OKRs—objectives and key results. So, the whys we identified really gave us a vision but not direct objectives. An objective, for example, would be: we want to build the tallest building in the world. The key results would be: how do we do it? We have to find out what the tallest building in the world is. We have to find out how many floors it has, etc. We were able to take this framework to create concrete steps.

We’re large in the RIA space, but we’re not a huge company. We don’t have a dedicated chief diversity officer—we have people that have hobby jobs. Daria and I both serve on several committees, so we knew data was going to be important. And I mentioned our size—we found size being a challenge in that it was hard to fit demographic data to fit a particular office.

For example, I work out and in the San Fernando Valley in a smaller office; there’s four, maybe five of us out there. Well, it’s hard to match us to mirror the community we serve. The community is 60 percent Asian. I’m one of four people in the office, and I am the only Asian and it’s hard to go from 25 percent to 60 percent when there’s only four of you. But what we found was we were able to better mirror that if we took the whole firm together and we said, what does Abacus look like as a team, as a firm in total? How do we compare to the U.S. Census data? Because Philly looks very different than Santa Monica, which looks very different than San Mateo. But as a firm, we’re able to focus on the areas of opportunity for us and how we can get better.

What kind of programming did the diversity and inclusion committee offer?

Victorov: When we started the diversity and inclusion committee, we didn’t ask for money from our company. We really had to get creative about how we were going to connect with people and make sure that people were learning. John came up with a model where we have to entertain people, we have to educate people and we have to empower them. And everyone’s got to eat. So we just started with the idea of lunch and learns. We were having lunch and learns already for different topics at Abacus, and we wanted to pivot—instead of learning about estate planning or tax planning, maybe we’re learning about a different culture. Because of budget constraints, we looked to our own diverse colleagues. We all come from a different background and we all have different experiences and we ask people at our own company to start speaking. In September we asked George who’s our controller, so not in an adviser role, to speak on his experience in Brazil and a little bit about the differences between Hispanic and Latino heritage.

Your diversity committee used to be called something else. What was that?

Eing: So our tagline was “awakening our cultural consciousness.” The George example is so perfect because I’m Asian; I had no idea there is a real distinction between Hispanic and Latino. And something we learned was the three-factor model—entertain, educate and empower. We came up with that model because we said, look, we’re giving up an hour of our day; let’s make it fun—which is the entertaining part. Teach us about their culture and with George, it was really interesting because he grew up in Brazil and came here as an adult. He also shared with us what it’s like to be an immigrant in America and still be Brazilian and how Brazilian Americans adjust to that culture shift.

Then empower—it was like, okay, great. Now that we know about Brazilians and Brazilian Americans, what do we do with that information? That’s where these great diversity trainings get lost. How many times have you left the conference or training like, wow, that was awesome, and you’re all pumped up and you go back and you’re like, what do I do with it?

George gave us some specific takeaways about working with Brazilian people—very simple things. For instance, in Brazil, the concept of time is very different than how we look at it in America. In Brazil, people are late and they just expect it. But even though they show up late, they want you to be generous with your time. If you think about that from a cultural perspective, can you imagine someone who grew up in America, if you’re 15 minutes late for a meeting, they’re going to be incredibly perturbed. Yet this Brazilian person shows up [late] and they’re happy as can be.

Why is diversity of leadership on the committee so important?

Victorov: We’re a large RIA, we get together every two years as a company. John and I had an opportunity to speak in front of the company about what we’re doing for diversity and inclusion.

Right after our presentation someone came up to me—they were one of the few minorities we have in our company—and said, “I really enjoyed your presentation.” That was really refreshing to hear, because during the presentation they didn’t ask questions or say anything. I was at a conference later this year and someone asked what do we think about how the future of our profession is going to change? And I said, the face of our profession is going to be changing. We’re all going to be looking a lot different. Later in the evening, a couple of the minorities had come to me, they were like, “Thank you for saying that.”

I challenged them. “Why didn’t you say anything after I said that?” Because after I said it, there were crickets in the room. It was really heartbreaking, to be honest. I think the profession can look different and no one had anything to say. Someone changed the conversation to something else. That’s why I challenged them. I was like, why didn’t you carry on a conversation? Why didn’t you say anything? They didn’t really have an answer. I brought this story back to John because I thought, what is going on?

This is not something where we’re creating a committee and then all of the sudden our demographics of our new hires is going to change. It takes a lot of work. It’s something that’s going to take years.

Even though I’m co-lead of this committee, I feel really awkward sometimes. Talking about it feels very uncomfortable and you just have to power through and know that it’s important and that the awkwardness is worth it. 

Rianka Dorsainvil

Rianka R. Dorsainvil, CFP® professional, is the founder and president of Your Greatest Contribution (YGC), a virtual, fee-only comprehensive financial planning firm dedicated to serving entrepreneurs, first-generation wealth builders and thriving professionals in their late 20s, 30s and 40s. She also hosts 2050 TrailBlazers, a podcast aimed to address the lack of diversity in the financial planning profession by engaging industry experts and leaders in conversation.

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