News / Info

by Michael Thrasher

Students, academics, guidance counselors, and financial advisors are gathering November 3 for the University of Akron’s fifth annual symposium created to make the wealth management industry more inclusive.

Wealth management conferences have faced  criticism for having panels of speakers that are dominated by white men — the industry’s current demographic profile — rather than the more diverse faces of financial advisors and clients of the future. But at one growing conference, diversity and inclusion aren’t just strengths, they are the focus.

The fifth annual Diversitas is taking place Wednesday, November 3, a one-day, in-person and virtual event created specifically to make the wealth management industry more inclusive by connecting college and high school students, academics, career counselors, and practitioners.

A more inclusive wealth management industry is critical to attracting enough young professionals to it. Over the next decade, more than 111,500 financial advisors — representing one-third of the workforce and assets under management — are expected to retire. Not enough people want to fill their shoes, largely because of a misconception that all advisors are salespeople. Diversitas is working to reeducate students, and those influencing their career decisions, and encourage more people to pursue wealth management.

Organized by the Financial Planning Program in the University of Akron’s College of Business Administration, Diversitas began as a local, in-person conference in Northeast Ohio that drew a couple hundred attendees. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to become exclusively a virtual event, which organizers hoped would broaden its reach and participation. That’s exactly what happened: more than 600 people attended in 2020 and Diversitas expects at least that many will again this year. There is no cost to attend.

“Diversitas has really taken off. If anything, I’m working more because it has really taken on a life of its own,” Barry Mulholland, the director of the Financial Planning Program at The University of Akron, told RIA Intel.

In addition to the national online portion of Diversitas Wednesday afternoon, more than 20 other partner universities will host local meetings and workshops earlier in the day. Those in-person connections are still important because some of the best conversations and ideas have come from those engagements, Mulholland said.

Sabina Pandey, a doctoral candidate and instructor for the School of Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, is planning to participate in Diversitas locally and virtually. She’s attending to learn more from others, as well as show students that private wealth management is a career for anyone. “I don’t see many Asian women” in the industry, Pandey said. Her hope is that more students, as well as would-be employers, realize there are underserved communities eager to work with someone from their community.

Autumn Azar, an associate at Dakota Wealth Management, was a successful costume designer with clients across the globe (including backup dancers for an Australian boy band) before she went back to school to study economics and finance. She had no intention of becoming a financial advisor at the time. “I had a common misconception that it was all sales, that you had to go out and cold call people. Really there’s so much more that you can do.”

She is participating in Diversitas for the first time Wednesday, including as a panelist to discuss what she wishes she knew as a student. Even within wealth management, there are diverse career paths focused on investing, marketing, and other areas that students might not know about.

It also helps students to see a professional who was in their shoes more recently, at least compared to most financial advisors (the average age of financial advisors is about 55 and 20 percent of them are 65 or older, according to a J.D. Power study last year).

“If you don’t see yourself in positions where you want to go, it’s very easy to be discouraged,” Azar said. “Someone from every group has something that they can bring to the table.”

There are more women than men in the U.S. but only 18 percent of financial advisors are women, according to Cerulli Associates, a Boston-based research and consulting firm.

To keep up a consistent effort to make wealth management more inclusive, Diversitas also plans to create new symposiums to take place between its largest annual ones.

There is also plenty of opportunity for Diversitas to expand, Mulholland said. There are now more than 300 financial planning university degree programs. He believes that if each one partnered with Diversitas and invited local students and wealth management professionals to participate, the conference could be many times its current size.