Finding success on your own terms
How financial consultant Michelle Howell learned to have money conversations.
- By Michelle Howell, CFP®, Vice President, Financial Consultant at Fidelity,
- Fidelity Wealth Management
- – 01/31/2023
- Don't be afraid to be your authentic self; your passion will breed career success.
- Learning about and empathizing with other people's experiences can help drive deeper conversations around money.
When I first started working in the financial services industry, I wasn't sure I'd fit in. Twenty-two years ago, there weren't a lot of professionals that looked like me—female, with brown skin. I had grown up in a family that valued education and hard work, but we didn't talk about money. As a new professional you were encouraged to reach out to your family and friend network to build your practice. Between my appearance and modest circle of influence, I was apprehensive about my ability to establish a longstanding career as a financial consultant.
I am Black and Korean, adopted as a baby by my French and German mother and Irish father. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood in North Minneapolis. Financially, we could have lived in one of the more affluent communities, but my parents made the conscious choice to stay in the city to surround me with cultural experiences and connectivity they were unable to provide given their own background. They also sent me to local schools, which like many inner-city schools struggled with higher dropout rates, poverty, and school violence amidst a core of dedicated teachers and ambitious students. In high school, our house was a safe space where friends could rely on my parents for rides, grab snacks, get help with homework, or just escape their home life by staying over.
From a young age, I knew my life was different from many of my friends and that I had access to opportunities that others didn't have. I learned important life lessons from my childhood experiences; my upbringing was grounding. Now that I'm the parent of 3 children, my husband and I think a lot about how we can try to teach our kids to have the same kind of appreciation for financial stability while keeping their "feet on the ground."
Finding a passion
My mother was a trailblazer. She didn't go to college, but she started working in information technology at the University of Minnesota—a very unusual job for a woman at the time—and became a high-level manager. I have so many early memories of going with my dad to pick her up and seeing a line of her staff and department heads outside her door waiting to bend her ear. Many nights I'd complete homework at her desk, while she met with staff at her conference table. Though my family never talked much about money, the representation of hard work and having a career was ever-present.
During my time in high school, our school participated in a pilot program with a corporate sponsor that happened to be a bank. One of their initiatives was to hire students to learn the banking industry. I loved the experience so much that during college I continued working at the bank and eventually became a supervisor. I had always thought I would go to law school, but I realized I wanted to stay in finance, was passionate about the continuous learning involved, and truly enjoyed helping people with their financial decisions.
The only woman of color in the room
After graduating, I moved on to the securities industry and struggled a bit in my earlier years. In banking, there was more diversity but as a securities professional, I struggled with the lack of representation around me. There were almost no women in my workplace, never mind women of color. In speaking with clients, they didn't know my ethnicity from talking to me on the phone. On occasion, I'd come around the corner to greet a client in the office and observe them having a negative reaction in their body language.
My first firm sent all new hires through gender-specific wardrobe training classes. I still remember there were certain colors we were encouraged to stay away from, and specific jewelry and hair styles we were told to avoid. Given the conservative and rigid role that appearance played, I never considered wearing my hair natural—even all these years later, I still struggle with that.
Looking back, I wish I would have started out being more comfortable carving out my own space within the industry instead of trying so hard to fit into the status quo. It wasn't that I lacked confidence in my identity or skillset; I was unsure that the industry would be accepting of me.
Making deeper connections
Over time, I began to feel more comfortable at work. I realized that the financial industry is really a people industry where you happen to talk about money, goals, and investments.
I'm passionate about learning other people's backgrounds and stories. I assume that people have as much complexity in their histories as I do, and it's my job to peel back the layers to learn and help them achieve their financial goals. Sometimes it's necessary to have difficult conversations, but those conversations are worthwhile—they drive the deepest connections if done right.
When I sit down with clients, I try to get past the typical stuff and really figure out what motivates them when it comes to money. My belief is that I should learn from my clients as they learn from me, and sometimes I'll share my own family's experiences. For example, my mother had dementia and passed away at 74, after several years of needing a great deal of care. Some of my clients are navigating similar situations and I can empathize and share some strategies from the perspective of a caregiver, a daughter, someone who grieves the loss of a parent, and someone who helps their widowed father continue to forge on and find new joy and contentment in a life absent their spouse.
The next generation
The financial industry is dynamic and ever-changing. Looking around me now, there is so much more diversity both within the industry and within my clientele. I can't help but be proud as I watch young women step into financial professional roles and begin their career. I love when I see their personality shine through fun earrings, art on their fingernails, naturally worn hair—all things I was encouraged to avoid as I started out in this profession.
Unlike in my childhood, money is a common topic in my house. My husband and I talk to our kids about spending money and needs versus wants. We try to have them use cash as much as possible because I think electronic payments make it harder for young people to understand budgeting. And we talk to them about setting goals and working hard to achieve them.
Nearly 30 years after I started in the financial industry, the same passion I discovered is alive and present. But now I'm not concerned about finding success across previously trodden paths. I blaze my own trail. Every so often, my daughters will ask me why I always wear my hair straight and not natural and curly. Some days, for them, for the progression of the industry and for myself, I walk into the office with my hair curly too.
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