Less Talk, More Action to Support Female Advisors

Less Talk, More Action to Support Female Advisors by Marie Swift was originally published on Advisor Perspectives.

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Equita Financial Network is helping women build independent financial advisory firms efficiently with tangible, meaningful support.

The financial services industry isn’t known for being inclusive. Women face an uphill battle building a career in finance, and there’s no clear path that makes the hill easier to climb. In fact, many organizations designed to support women in finance focus on networking – sharing stories and support. While networking is important (women consistently identify difficulty networking as a barrier), action, empowerment, and tangible support matter more. Katie Burke and Bridget Grimes, co-founders of Equita Financial Network, an umbrella RIA designed to help women build independent firms, are on a mission to provide those more tangible and meaningful components.

Less talk, more action

It started with Katie Burke. She launched Method Financial Planning in 2015 and like many newly independent RIAs, realized the sheer volume of decisions and work — beyond the client-facing day-to-day — that it takes to run a firm. “I was a silo,” she said. “Picking things like a CRM or reporting software, or if I had planning questions – I was by myself. I had to make all the business-owner decisions with no support network or community around me.”

Bridget Grimes launched her firm, WealthChoice, a year later, in 2016, after leaving a large RIA. She said, bluntly: “Katie launched as an RIA. I was petrified to do that. I wanted to start my own company, but I was afraid I would screw up compliance, didn’t know how I would afford good portfolio management, so when I finally got the guts to launch my own firm, I did it a different way.”

When the two met and started talking, Grimes asked Burke: “How would you solve some of these client problems?” Which expanded to, “If we could build a perfect firm, what would it look like? What resources would it have?”

As the ideas came together, the pair quickly thought about economies of scale and how a network that goes beyond talking and discounts didn’t exist for women. “We thought: Wouldn’t other women want to be a part of this?” said Grimes.

The answer: “Yes.”

Building a new business model

Pause for a second, and think of the RIA landscape that Burke entered in 2015, followed by Grimes in 2016. Advisors leaving mega RIAs or wirehouses had two main options:

  1. Tuck in somewhere, with the hope that you’d find a firm whose values, services, pricing structure, and technology worked for you and your clients.
  1. Launch your own firm and invest significant time and energy looking for affordable technology or paying a significant premium to access legacy tech on your own.

Burke and Grimes chose option two. While Burke researched technology and figured out a system that worked, Grimes paid 20 basis points for access to the custodians and technology she used at a larger firm (no asset management involved).

And that’s when the two met and figured out how to build a solution. Equita is an umbrella RIA with six, soon to be seven, female-led member firms.

Legally, member firms are Equita “doing business as” (d.b.a.) their own company name, so each member firm can keep their identity and branding. They also keep their book of business, determine their own fee structure, and otherwise are fully independent.

To join, each member firm pays a monthly subscription for baseline services and 20 basis points for the outsourced CIO solution and trading team. Equita collects the fee quarterly and handles registration with the SEC, Form ADVs, and all billing (using Advyzon). They also provide access to a vetted array of technology and service resources, from compliance (Smartria) to financial planning (eMoney) to E&O insurance (Box Professional Insurance), as well as an outsourced CIO (Eastbay) and trading team (Advisor Logistics) that their members can use for 20 basis points.

The structure fills a gap in the advisory profession. Think “female advisor network” meets “the AGC” meets “RIA tuck-in.” “If it had existed, we wouldn’t have created it. But it didn’t,” said Grimes.

To understand how truly unique the model is, consider how Grimes talked about attracting members: “We don’t need their money,” she said, pointing out that Equita is not an aggregator. She added: “We also don’t want their clients. We want them to succeed and build the business they want. And each of us has a different vision for what that looks like.”

Choosing the right technology

Burke and Grimes knew that technology was key to building Equita. After all, researching and cobbling together a tech stack, or paying high fees for access to the technology they were used to at large firms, was part of what kept them (and many other female advisors) from going independent.

Between the two of them, they had experience with many of the big-name providers and innovative startups. And they considered all of them when choosing a simplified tech stack.

“Katie and Bridget were clear about wanting to work with tech partners that could help them manage operations and scale effectively,” said Advyzon Senior Vice President for Business Development Matt Braatz. “But they were also very focused on solutions that let their member firms retain their independence.”

Equita chose providers that offered flexibility – not every advisor in their network wants to use the software the same way. “We give them the technology, we walk them through how to use it, we give them the chance to meet with partners,” Burke said. “But all of us work with it a little bit differently.”

For instance, some use the Advyzon client portal while others use eMoney. The only constant is the billing system, which is set up through Advyzon to accommodate the pricing structures of each d.b.a. firm.

“We spoke at length about how member firms could keep their independent feel – things like putting individual logos on reports or personalized pricing for every firm,” said Braatz. “That was very important to them.”

All Equita firms meet weekly (virtually) and have access to an online forum to chat through questions tied to technology, firm management, marketing, client care, or life. Based on needs and discussion, Burke and Grimes explore additional partnerships. They have members who’ve used, for instance, Riskalyze, Holistiplan, and/or Pontera – and Equita remains open to working with new providers at the firm level when it makes sense.

Representation matters

The interesting thing about Equita firms is that, unlike some other advisor networks, they don’t exclusively focus on serving female clients. Some do. Some work with couples where the woman is the more engaged partner; others don’t focus on gender in determining target clients.

Yet, increased visibility for female advisors can create ripple effects, starting with financial services.

“I had never worked with a female financial advisor [prior to Equita],” Burke said. “I didn’t know I could be a financial advisor.” She didn’t think she could create holistic financial plans or work with the clients she wanted to serve at her previous firm, so she built what she wanted to see in the industry from scratch.

Grimes had a similar bad experience: “I was told by my male lead owner that I was too ambitious, I kid you not. I was too aggressive.” While her colleague later apologized, she discovered pay differences when she left the firm. “I would kill myself 60 to 80 hours a week because in my head, the harder I worked, the more successful I’ll be. And I brought in a lot of revenue. Then found out I was getting the same bonuses as people who worked part time.” Not to mention, she spent less time with her kids and family than she would have wanted.

“For Katie and I, that’s one of the big reasons we want women to launch their own firms, if it’s a fit for them – you control what you get paid.”

What they’re building will impact women outside of financial services, too. As women earn and inherit a greater share of the world’s wealth; as women earn college and post-grad degrees at a higher rate than men; as women realize career and family aren’t an either/or… seeing women as leaders, managing money, creating financial plans, and running their own firms may make financial advice more accessible.

Representation matters – not just within a firm or an industry, but for anyone looking at financial services from the outside. When the firms they see look like Equita, equity and equality are more attainable.

Walking the talk

One of the Equita members, Stefanie Crowe MBA, CFP®, founder/CEO of AegleWealth, has, along with seven female co-founders/general partners, even gone a step further by launching two angel funds to provide access to capital for female founders in the Southeast. Since 2013, The JumpFund has invested in more than 30 women-led companies, has had several successful exits, and engaged the capital of over 100 women (plus a few good men).

“Since our launch 10 years ago, we have seen the growth of gender-lens investors rise steadily, but even more work needs to be done to help women find parity,” Crowe said. “We recognize that the gender gap in venture capital can make it difficult for women-led companies to secure funds required to scale. While we have remained industry agnostic, we invest in areas where our general partners (and limited partners) add the most value and create the greatest impact. At the end of the day, nothing draws more capital to the proverbial party like proving your thesis and achieving success.”

Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is!

Marie Swift is president and CEO of Impact Communications, Inc., a full-service marketing and PR firm for financial planning, financial services and fintech firms. She’s been a passionate cheerleader for women-led businesses and independent financial advisory firms since 1993.

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