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In an annual ranking that has overwhelmingly featured men, three financial advisors made this year’s group a milestone for an industry still struggling to recruit, retain and support women.
Advisors Jenny Tsai of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, Krystal Julius of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Xi Qiao of UBS Financial Services took the top spots on this year’s edition of Financial Planning ’s Top 40 Brokers Under 40 . It’s the first time in at least the past decade and likely the only instance in the history of the award recognizing elite young wirehouse and regional brokers that any woman has made the top three — let alone each of the top spots.
Before this year, only two women reached the top 10 on the rankings since 2011, with Qiao making last year’s group and advisor Nicole Christians of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management on the list in each of the prior four versions . As much as the 2021 winners reflect accomplishments on their part and a degree of progress in the industry’s stated efforts to usher more women and minorities into the profession, the mere fact that it’s notable to have female brokers at the top displays the industry’s problem when it comes to cultivating the next generation of professionals.
Wealth managers need only to take a look at the shift in U.S. population to a multiracial future and a generational wealth transfer estimated at $72.6 trillion by 2045 to understand why firms are investing in professionals and clients from historically excluded groups . Younger advisors are beginning to embody those demographic trends, Qiao, 37, said in an interview.
“This is a great thing that's happening, where we're seeing a lot of women take control and we're finding ways to work with them,” she said, noting that financial firms have recently been appointing more minority executives to visible roles as well. “The world's really changing and for the better.”
San Francisco-based Qiao added that she finds it “very exciting” to be among the inaugural group of women, echoing the reaction of Tsai, 38, who’s based in Pasadena, California. Both women are immigrants; Qiao came to the U.S. from China when she was 8 years old, while Tsai emigrated from Taiwan for school at 15. Each serves primarily ultrahigh-net-worth clients in the U.S. and abroad, especially China and Hong Kong.
“I really found my passion in helping clients strategize and helping them with resources to achieve their goals,” Tsai said in an interview. “I have developed a strong relationship and trust with these clients.”
Julius, 35, works at a Wayzata, Minnesota-based practice called Eckerline Wealth Management. Like Tsai, she first registered as a broker in 2008, the year after Qiao formally began her career. A decade ago, Julius started “her long-time collaboration, mentorship and friendship” with the practice’s founding advisor, Peter Eckerline, who later picked her to be “his successor, working hand in hand with her to ingrain the team’s signature approach to wealth management,” according to her bio on the firm’s website .
She first began working in finance at 15 years old as a bank teller, eventually being a supervisor at the branch who enjoyed problem solving with clients, Julius said in an email.
“Holding several different roles since starting my career in 2008 allowed me to see the business from different lanes, study different ways of delivering advice to form my own style and lane of expertise,” Julius said, crediting Eckerline as her “greatest influence” and for building a team that is “extremely committed and loyal to the families and small business owners we serve.”
For wirehouses and regional brokerages aiming to boost the number of female brokers and advisors who are Black, Hispanic, Asian American or from other minority groups, that type of generational partnership within practices carries valuable lessons. Succession represents “a huge opportunity” for major brokerages and RIAs across the industry to “incentivize more senior men to want to take on younger partners,” said Shauna Mace, head of practice management with Independent Advisor Solutions by SEI.
“So much decision-making as far as who you're hiring is informed by revenue and compensation,” Mace said. “What does the partnership look like? If they're not incentivized, why would they consider taking on a younger partner, whether they're male or female?”
Tsai, Julius and Qiao in that order produced the highest verified individual 12-month production out of the more than 400 brokers who applied for FP’s Top 40 Under 40. At more than $28.2 million in annual revenue and $5.2 billion in personal assets under management, their three practices’ combined business would represent a healthy year for some midsize brokerages.
As for the industry’s historic implied and sometimes express idea that top producing advisors are all white guys who just know better than others how to talk to wealthy men, the three winning brokers’ businesses alone should put it to rest but probably won’t in some quarters.
That’s because women and minorities remain incredibly underrepresented: Just 18% of advisors and 23% of CFPs are women. Racial and gender bias, or more extreme reactions to women and minorities in the form of chauvinism , racism or sexual harassment and abuse , can go unchecked in such a predominantly white male industry.
Firms have started responding more quickly when brokers or other associates get caught in public or on social media: Add Merrill Lynch parent Bank of America to firms such as LPL Financial , Raymond James and Frankin Templeton who have parted ways in the past couple of years with advisors or employees shortly after incidents provoked national outrage.
Still, aspiring advisors trying to break into the profession often find themselves being the only woman or minority in the room time and again. Carrying an added burden like walking with the weight of a hefty golf bag while peers of similar or lesser skills play the profession’s difficult course with a cart and a caddy, it’s no wonder that many prospective brokers don’t make the cut.
Women’s experiences in the industry
On the other hand, as shown by Tsai, Julius and Qiao, some do. Advisor Sathya Chey and her business partner launched Arise Private Wealth in Rolling Hills Estates, California, last year with LPL Financial after leaving Wells Fargo Advisors, where the team managed $580 million in client assets.
Chey, a 15-year veteran advisor who is Cambodian American, views the three award winners as a reason for “hope that we are making progress” toward breaking “social norms of what experience and financial expertise looks like,” she said in an email. As a woman of color, she has “had to prove myself many times to clients and peers” and confronted doubts in her own mind from imposter syndrome as a result, Chey said.
“You feel you have to work extra hard to prove that you deserve a seat at the table,” she said. “And if you are fortunate to get a seat at the table, is it because you are valued as a leader and your contribution or is it because you fit a diversification box they are trying to check off? If you find your input heard but not implemented or taken seriously, that could be a serious sign it is the latter.”
Young professionals running into the same barriers should know that they’re just as qualified as anyone to break into the field, Chey added. Advisor Melissa Joy, who leads an all-woman team managing $128 million at Dexter, Michigan-based Pearl Planning , has been encouraged to see more women coming into the profession and finding potential advantages with being the “exception in the room,” even as the industry’s demographics are slow to change.
“They have a unique perspective, they're willing to share it and I'm excited for the possibilities,” said Joy, who is white. “One thing we can do to continue to improve the climate for women and people of color would be to seek to sponsor and promote those who are really doing a great job and to encourage those who are looking to walk into the door to a financial profession to be welcome. It's all of our jobs to promote that climate and point it out when it's not.”
Brokerages that don’t cultivate it will suffer the consequences if motivated advisors and wealth management professionals decide to leave the firm. Michelle Wong launched her marketing, client services and paraplanning firm Nifty Advisor Support in 2018 after being recruited by two wirehouses and working for an RIA as an advisor, she recalled in an email.
“Many women and minorities choose to leave firms due to the lack of opportunities for advancement due to poor leadership, while also having a desire to serve their ideal market based on their personal experiences and the needs of their ideal community,” said Wong, who is Chinese American. “Instead of conforming to a one-size-fits-all model, they seek other alternatives that will allow them to scale and serve their ideal client, while joining a team that lets them feel safe to be their true, authentic selves.”
Lessons for aspiring brokers
Qiao certainly worked hard to find her place in the industry and build her practice to its current size. Without wealth or family connections as a 22-year-old graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, she went through 10 different interviews and called the hiring manager of another firm repeatedly until he finally let her into its training program. The financial crisis of 2008 brought additional challenges for any young brokers starting out at that time.
“They told me it was going to be harsh. They told me it was going to be one of those careers where you could make everything out of it or make nothing,” Qiao said. “It also presented opportunities, because then I could really go out and talk to people. … I took advantage of that opportunity and that's how I grew my practice.”
Julius and Tsai also entered the industry right after college, the University of California at Riverside in Tsai’s case and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota for Julius. A former collegiate soccer athlete, Julius started as a Bank of America wealth management banker working with Merrill Lynch brokers on banking and lending services. She noted the major strain the pandemic has placed specifically upon women.
“Balancing virtual learning, working late nights, challenging financial markets, caring for aging parents while trying to stay physically and mentally healthy ourselves, women as multitaskers rise to the occasion and step into survivor mode,” Julius said. “We do not do a good enough job of celebrating the wins, big or small, so I am very appreciative to be a part of this recognition and these other leading ladies.”
Tsai, who majored in electrical engineering but has always been interested in finance and business, followed her best friend into the field after college, she said. Most of her clients have been with her practice for a decade or longer. Asked for advice for brokers and aspiring advisors trying to reach the same level, Tsai said to remember to “stay dedicated to your clients” through the difficult times.
“There will always be down times. In these down times, you will realize that the next step is up,” she said. “These clients will be your best resources to build your book.”
She and Qiao mentioned that referrals from existing clients have boosted their practices, with Qiao noting that she doesn’t do very much marketing or prospecting and never foresaw that her book would grow so large. With the rise of tech firms, there are “a lot of cross-cultural exchanges” between the U.S. and China and Millennials who have invested their fortunes with her, Qiao said. She also makes herself available to clients at all hours in different time zones. Starting at zero helped motivate Qiao when she first started out in the field, she said.
“It's just untapped. I can work as much as I want and as hard as I want, and the possibilities of achievement are untapped,” Qiao said. “It's not going to be easy. This job is not easy.”