Perspective published on February 14, 2023
Lighting a Pathway for African American Candidates into Asset Management
Asset management firms trying to improve workforce diversity, build equity, and create a more inclusive culture have had limited success to date.
African Americans remain underrepresented in financial services, particularly within asset management, a predominantly white industry. As of 2020, African Americans made up just 3 percent of all executive or senior-level managers in the financial services industry.1
Through Lighted Pathways Scholarship and Internship Program, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) is partnering with Breckinridge Capital Advisors and other asset management firms to address the issue. Breckinridge Chief Marketing and Distribution Officer Dominica Ribeiro led a discussion about the program and the experience of DaMaria Abernathy, who interned with Breckinridge through Lighted Pathways.
Dominica Ribeiro: What are the goals of the Lighted Pathways program and what is involved?
Diego Aviles, UNCF vice president, Development, Northeast Division: The program was created to increase the number of African Americans in asset management and develop pipelines of diverse talent coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority serving institutions to Boston.
This program is all about providing a curated pathway for talented students to be successful. In addition to matching corporate sponsors with qualified student interns, UNCF and our corporate sponsors support Lighted Pathways participants in several ways.
Along with providing internships, corporate partners meet with students to provide feedback on their resumes and to coach them on interviewing skills. It includes guidance on how begin to build a resume with limited experience. Tips include highlighting transferrable skills, such as team building, on resumes.
Dominica: Nick, you brought the program to our attention at Breckinridge. What is our role?
Nicholas Elfner, Breckinridge co-head of research: We provide feedback on student resumes and their LinkedIn profiles. We offer guidance to help them prepare for an interview. That includes having some answers to common questions in their back pocket. When one student was visibly nervous, we helped him prepare a message on why he wants to be in the industry.
What’s special about this program is our ability to be hands on. We verified student academic transcripts and made sure they matched resumes. It felt like being a student advisor.
Dominica: What are some challenges the program faces?
Diego: One challenge is convincing prospective interns to come to Boston. For students from across the country who have never been to the city, it can be perceived as a foreign or even hostile environment. There’s a narrative that the city is not very welcoming or inclusive.
To help overcome that, the program’s secret sauce is connecting students to pillars of the African American community during their stay in Boston. On their first day in Boston, students go to the African American Museum, where they learn that the city had the first public schoolhouse for children of African Americans and was the birthplace of the abolitionist movement. Students connect with African American leaders at social networking events and visit the Oak Bluffs Beach area on Martha’s Vineyard, a long-time summertime sanctuary for the African American community.
Those connections matter. We often heard stories from HBCU Alumni who opted to stay in Boston after coming to the city for graduate school or employment. They would say “that it was connection to community” that made them remain in the city. They connected to their Church, fraternity, sorority or found respite on the Vineyard. With these learnings, we were very intentional to build these connections as part of the programming for the students. We could not just let it happen by chance.
Dominica: DaMaria, what was your experience like in this program?
DaMaria Abernathy: When I applied, I didn’t really think I’d get in. But I did and I was unsure at first. I live in Texas and I had never been to Boston. I was reluctant to leave my family for the first time ever, and they didn’t want me to go, but I figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. But when I got to Boston, I immediately wanted to go back home! I called my parents but they convinced me to stick it out and after a few days, I acclimated.
At first, I was nervous out of my mind. I was so uncomfortable and socially awkward. But you and Kristin (Kristin Wetherbee, director of marketing) were really nice and made sure I was really comfortable.
I didn’t really have an interest in marketing, but my resume, which was a bit out of date, had indicated it. But my real career interest is in information technology. So, when the folks in Breckinridge’s marketing department heard this, they arranged for me to meet with people in the IT department as well as other areas, including research and corporate sustainability.
Dominica: Can you talk about your assignment while you were at Breckinridge?
DaMaria: I worked on a project gathering data based on client engagement at Breckinridge and connecting it into the company’s marketing content. Then I analyzed details on times and dates when clients had the highest engagement with social media and general marketing content. It was pretty interesting and the first time I really had to drill down into data that way.
Dominica: That was a project for our team in Marketing and your work was great. You came back with meaningful recommendations and delivered a thoughtful and well received presentation.
Diego, what makes the Lighted Pathways program unique?
Diego: Lighted Pathways brings asset management partners together for a common cause and establishes a stronger pathway for African Americans into the industry. Many companies have diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs in place, but no one’s going to solve this alone.
Dominica: As an industry, we can’t continue to steal diverse candidates from each other. We need to focus on the younger generation and building stronger pipelines. How important is it for student interns to spread the word about the program?
Diego: The students have a key role to play in reporting their positive experiences in the Boston asset management industry back to their schools. Sometimes the messenger is even more important than the message. DaMaria is a great ambassador for the program.
Dominica: DaMaria, what did you learn about diversity through this experience?
DaMaria: Being in the program is important for any student of color going into an industry and wanting that industry to be diverse. You want to see people who look like you succeeding at the companies that you work for. It makes it more comfortable to work there. I think before the internship, I didn’t realize just how important diversity was, and how much companies really lack diversity on so many levels and especially in certain industries.
UNCF helped us understand the importance of leading the way to help these industries grow and be diverse. This can add more opportunities for people of color and it benefits the company to have different perspectives than they would otherwise have.
Dominica: Bob, how does Breckinridge feel about Lighted Pathways?
Bob Conlon, director of human resources at Breckinridge: Our experience was positive. It’s invigorating to have interns here.
We understand the program’s objective and value the potential it has to benefit the students, HBCUs, our company, and our industry. We realize benefits through our participation and it’s a great opportunity to give back. It energizes the firm.
We’re committed to continuing our involvement with the program. We will host a student again this coming summer.
The intern who will be joining us worked with a member of our Consultant Relations team in the mentorship program Lighted Pathways undertakes, so it will be a real positive to have the student work side-by-side with the professionals on our investment team this summer.
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