Courtesy of Valisha Graves

Valisha Graves '85

July 2, 2020

Cornell Alumna Discusses Lack of Racial Diversity in Finance Industry

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“Oh, you’re very articulate. Where did you attend college?”

This is one of many microaggressions and instances of unconscious bias Valisha Graves ’85 has experienced throughout her extensive career in the financial services industry.

She recalled an instance early on in her professional career as the only Black employee of an analyst training program. When members of the program gave individual presentations, the senior manager moved Graves to the back even though she was originally supposed to present first. Incidents like these are a part of Graves’ experience of “carry[ing] a heavy burden of being Black” in a white-dominated workspace.

The issue of racial diversity in the workplace is especially pervasive in fields like finance, which has a notorious history of being dominated by older white men. A 2017 trend report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that only 28 percent of professional positions in financial services were held by minorities.

Upward mobility is another problem: Black and Latino employees make up 4 percent or less of executive and senior level employees of the largest U.S. banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup.

A lack of representation for minorities can be attributed to several factors such as on-campus recruitment and unresolved prejudices. The GAO’s 2017 trend report found unconscious biases in promotions, a reluctance to recruit from more than a handful of elite universities and lack of leadership commitment to diversity as the main barriers to increasing diversity in the finance industry.

Another possible explanation is that the industry places an especially heavy emphasis on networking as a part of the recruiting process. This can be disadvantageous for people of color through stereotyping during mentorship and having far less access to social networks. Graves said this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in which a “lack of diversity breeds more lack of diversity.”

She also noted that the perception of the finance industry as a “stodgy industry for older white guys” can deter young college students — especially those from underrepresented minority backgrounds — from applying to positions in financial services in the first place.

Graves compared this image with major tech companies like Google and Facebook, which brand themselves as “cool, diverse and socially conscious” workplaces, suggesting that large finance firms may benefit from a remarketing strategy.

Rethinking traditional recruitment pools and shifting more toward local talent can also improve the lack of racial diversity in the finance industry. For smaller finance firms and start-ups, Graves suggested that they “look into communities in which they serve.”

She recommended recruiting in local high schools with diverse populations, Boys & Girls clubs and even houses of worship.

“Companies keep going to the same well, and that well may not have the diversity that they’re looking for,” Graves said.

Graves also highlighted the value of programs and organizations such as Management Leadership for Tomorrow, Real Estate Executive Council for the Real Estate Exchange and Leadership, Education and Development Summer Business Institute — which introduces students of color to careers in business.

“Some of the groundwork has already been laid in terms of finding diverse talent,” she said, explaining how finance firms can more easily tap into these organizations’ resources.

Many finance services companies have realized that increasing their surface-level diversity numbers is not sufficient enough to solve deeper issues like discrimination, unconscious bias and microaggressions in the workplace. In addition to diversity, inclusion is also a huge component of making employees of color feel welcome and comfortable.

Graves explained what a lack of inclusion can look like in the workplace: “You look at the floor, and it looks diverse. But there’s really no interaction with diverse team members — [they] aren’t going to lunch together, they aren’t collaborating together, they are not called on in team meetings …They’re kind of isolated.”

To increase a person of color’s sense of belonging in the workplace, Graves emphasized the social dimension of inclusion. She advised finance firms to create more dialogues in the workplace.

“Hav[e] more dialogue and more discussions at the office…white managers and C-suite executives will learn more from ongoing dialogue than they will from a one-time workshop or unconscious bias training every year,” Graves said. “I really think people learn more through casual interactions.”

Key studies in recent years have shown that greater diversity and inclusion not only creates a bigger pool of talent and offers fresh perspectives to stagnant workplaces, but can also increase a business’ profitability. A 2015 McKinsey & Co. report found that firms in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

Numerous large finance firms have recognized these advantages, introducing diversity and inclusion initiatives and employing staff to further these goals. From 2007 to 2015, the representation of minorities in management positions in financial services increased from 17 to 21 percent. However, recent calls to fight racism on a systemic level have prompted companies to do more.

In one response to the calls to action, Goldman Sachs announced June 3 its creation of a $10 million fund to support the work of organizations addressing racial justice, structural inequity and economic disparity. However, this only amounts to 0.63 percent of the company’s total budget — $1.6 billion in grants — for philanthropy.

This isn’t the first time that people have called for change to racial discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. — some companies have faced backlash for making performative statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement despite track records of workplace discrimination. However, Graves felt hopeful that the current times are different, believing that “we can make significant inroads but there is no quick fix.”

As to what the Cornell community could do to increase opportunities for people of color, Graves urged alumni in the finance industry interested in recruiting to “be aware of unconscious bias in terms of how you’re evaluating the students.” She also encouraged alumni to help students prepare for interviews.

“If alumni see students of color, offer it up,” Graves said. “Use CUeLinks to make yourself available. Be present, and make an investment — particularly towards students who express a high level of interest but may lack access…Go the extra mile.”