On the Road to Gender and Racial Equity in Finance

By Malaika Maphalala, Natural Investments

Twelve years ago, I was the first woman and person of color to join Natural Investments as a Financial Advisor.

Natural Investments LogoI was thrilled to have found them. Burnt out after a frustratingly underpaid fifteen years in the non-profit sector working in underserved communities, I was determined to cultivate a new career in social finance, where I hoped to more powerfully and effectively move money into things that matter, while also increasing my personal income.

I was living on the end of a dirt road in a poor, rural community in the rainforest jungle of East Hawaii, and after months of research, made a serendipitous cold call to an 800 number I’d found online for Natural Investments, an investment advisory firm that had specialized exclusively in Socially Responsible Investing since its inception. Michael Kramer, now my colleague and long-time friend, answered the phone, and we quickly found unbelievable common ground: not only did he share my passion for Permaculture, we realized we were both living on the very same island, and that he’d studied for his Financial Advising license eight years prior right in my neighborhood, on my friend’s farm. He encouraged me to come to an SRI in the Rockies conference in Whistler, Canada to get a sense of the field and meet the then four-person, all white male team. It was an absolutely inspirational conference, they were warm and welcoming, and I was hooked.

My early years were hard – I was a single mother with two young children starting from a baseline of poverty. It took years to build a practice and client base that allowed me to comfortably make ends meet. But, I deeply appreciated the warm support the firm provided me in the form of mentorship, freely shared resources, and perhaps most important, total acceptance as a mother with responsibilities to my children. I was able to build my practice on my own terms: with flexibility and the freedom to focus on my interests and passions along the way.

Malaika Maphalala and Daniel Fireside at Equal Exchange-worker Co-Op-organic fair trade coffee and chocolate
Daniel Fireside and Malaika Maphalala during a site visit to Equal Exchange, a democratically run, worker-owned cooperative and producer of organic, fair trade coffee and chocolate.

Today we have grown into a billion-dollar firm with 21 advisors across twelve states, and I’m honored to be one of six Partners. I am at the peak of my career, able to focus on exactly what I am most interested in and beginning for the first time to really accumulate wealth at a level I hadn’t imagined was possible for me. It’s an amazing point in my personal trajectory and I am feeling deeply moved to give back: to hold the door open for others like me, women of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who never imagined they could have access to opportunities like this.

According to a 2020 report from Cerulli Associates, “Women and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) remain drastically under-represented among financial advisors. The research finds that women represent 18.1 percent of total financial advisor headcount, …only 2.9 percent of advisors identify as Black or African American, 5.1 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 4.3 percent as Asian.”

As an advisory firm, we’ve done a pretty good job of addressing gender equity within the team. From the early days when it was just me and five White guys, today our team is 43 percent women – far exceeding the financial industry norm. And while I’m no longer the only person of color, we still have a long way to go to achieve racial equity. However, I’ll note that with our three Black women advisors representing 14 percent of our advisory team, we’re still beating industry statistics, and absolutely crushing representation for Black advisors.

Wonderfully, there’s a deeply shared commitment to addressing racial equity at Natural Investments, and we are working to address issues of equity both within our firm and without, through our work. Internally, we are embarking on a deep dive into racial equity, and we’re having important conversations we’ve never had before. We know that diverse teams are stronger teams, and we value the broader perspective and insights brought as we forge our path forward. With people of color making up almost 40% of our US population, we’ve committed to seriously increasing representation within our firm. We have a vision of a legacy for our firm of a beautifully diverse, gender balanced team working to transform our economic systems with humane, restorative values at the core.

One of the key strengths of diverse teams is that when multiple perspectives, connections to, and voices of different cultural experiences are informing and driving decisions, resulting outcomes are much more likely to meet the real needs of our communities. Finance is only just starting to acknowledge that we can’t hope to truly benefit oppressed communities unless representatives of those communities are not just included in the decision making, but centralized, leading, and able to redefine what power even is. As a woman in the field, a representative for mothers informed by the experience of economic disadvantage, and as a daughter of Africa, I am aware of the opportunity and responsibility I have to contribute to and shape my firm and field.

Like it or not, in our position as Financial Advisors, we become gatekeepers. At my gate, I give preference to investments that demonstrate not only financial health, but also a deep commitment to socially and environmentally responsible practices that intentionally include working to build equity across gender, race, and class through their work. This should not be just a side note, or a well-crafted sentence or two in investor materials, but a thoughtful core element of the work with attention to increasing representation and equity across management, staff, supply chain, service providers, and beneficiaries.

Through my work and with my firm, we seek to elevate voices typically left out, democratize access to power and resources, and directly counteract entrenched systems that perpetuate the racist, sexist status quo. It’s just, and it’s about time.

 

Article by Malaika Maphalala, Partner and Wealth Advisor at Natural Investments, a nationwide SEC registered investment advisory firm. A lifelong advocate for social change, Malaika is driven by a passion for finding innovative approaches to bringing people and resources together to address social and environmental imperatives. 

Malaika has been an advisor at Natural Investments since 2009 and holds a Certified Private Wealth Advisor (CPWA®) designation administered by the Investments and Wealth Institute in conjunction with the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. She provides portfolio management and financial planning for high-net-worth individuals, families, and institutions across the country. Malaika specializes in Regenerative Investing, which is investment that directly supports the regenerative capacity of communities and ecosystems. Her clients share a deep commitment to socially and environmentally responsible investing and want to use their wealth as a tool to transform society and economic systems using humane, restorative, and ecological principles as the guide.

Prior to her work with Natural Investments, Malaika spent 15 years in the non-profit sector as an independent consultant providing administrative, development, and program management services for numerous socially driven organizations in Hawaii and Oregon. She holds a BA from the Johnston Center for Integrated Studies at the University of Redlands. Malaika currently serves as a Member of the Board of Directors at Iroquois Valley Farms and of the Advisory Board at Envest Microfinance. She also served as a member of the Review Committee for Impact Assets’ IA50 in 2020 and 2021.

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