Courtesy: Kamila Elliott
When Kamila Elliott started her career in the financial services industry, she felt like an outsider. That feeling hasn’t changed much.
Elliott, 44, started working at Vanguard in member services in 2000 and remembers being the only black woman in her hiring class.
“Even then, I understood the lack of diversity in our profession,” she said.
She would go on to work with high net worth clients and endowments at the investment management firm, and is now president of Grid 202 Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. In 2013, Elliott earned her Certified Financial Planner designation.
Yet in 2022, less than 2% of CFPs in the United States are black.
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Elliott hopes to change that now that she has been named chair of the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards, making her the first black person to lead the nonprofit.
The CFP Board of Directors, which serves the public by promoting professional standards in personal financial planning, sets and enforces the standards for the CFP designation coveted by advisors.
Although the role of CFP Board Chair is only a one-year term, Elliott plans to bring lasting change to the field by bringing in more people of color, as well as expanding the pool of those who can afford to get professional help with their money. .
CNBC spoke with Elliott this month about those ambitions and his historic position.
(Editor’s note: The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Annie Nova: I would like to know a bit more about how you grew up.
Kamila Elliot: I’m originally from Philadelphia. My mother is an accountant. And it’s funny, I never wanted to be an accountant. I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do anything you do.’ Now I support clients who do tax planning, which is ironic. My mother jokes: ‘You probably chose the profession closest to an accountant, being a financial adviser.’ And my father was in the army. He traveled around the world, so he left a lot.
AN: How did you become interested in becoming a financial advisor?
KE: In college, I worked at the PNC Bank. Up the street were the financial advisers of American Express. The guys came to cash their checks. And I was like 18, right? They had nice cars and nice suits, their hair was cut nicely. So I started asking them what they were doing and I learned a bit more, and I started getting more into money and investing. Then when I graduated from college, Vanguard was hiring. I met someone and the next day they called me for an interview. The rest is history.
AN: How does it feel to be one of the few blacks on the pitch?
KE: I hate to say it, but if one of us doesn’t do well, the pressure we often feel is that there’s going to be hesitation to hire the next black woman. I felt a lot of pressure.
AN: Were you treated differently?
KE: One time I was standing with two colleagues who were white men at an event, and an older white woman walked up to me and said, “How did you get that job?” When you’re the only black person, you feel different. Some people think I’m here only because I’m a black woman, not because, you know, I have my undergraduate degree, I have my MBA, I have bachelor’s degrees and I have my PSC.
AN: How does it feel to be the first black person to lead the CFP board?
KE: I’m really excited about this. I just met the first black CFP professional. He got his grades in 1978. So I had lunch with him, and he was so proud. It took 43 years to go from the first Black CFP to the first Black CFP board chair. To be able to play this role and be the face of this organization is great. I want to do my best to improve access to the profession and increase diversity.
AN: How do you plan to do that?
KE: We go to high schools and colleges to promote this profession. I meet a colleague of mine who is a black financial advisor who went to an HBCU [historically black colleges and universities]. I talk to him about how we get into HBCUs and talk to students.
AN: Why is it so important to have more diversity on the board?
KE: Most of my clients are around my age. Most of my clients come from cities. Most of my clients are not wealthy. So when we talk about their goals and their history with money, they know I can relate to them. People tend to want to work with someone like them.
AN: There was reports of consumers looking for CFPs are unable to tell when certain professionals with the designation have been fined by regulators. As Chairman of the Board of CFPs, what will you do to ensure that consumers can entrust their money to CFPs?
KE: We now have over 92,000 CFP professionals and we have simply had to expand our process to ensure that we are able to identify and investigate any irregularities. We no longer rely solely on self-disclosure. The CFP Board has created an Enforcement Division. There has also been a significant investment in technology, working with organizations like FINRA (The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) and other rating agencies to quickly identify if there are any ethical issues. And then, every year, every CFP professional who recertifies gets a background check.
AN: What enforcement actions can the board take against a problematic advisor?
KE: We have several ways to deal with irregularities from a CFP professional, including suspension.
Join CNBC for a special LinkedIn Live event on February 24 as Kamila Elliott and other finance executives chat with Sharon Epperson. For more information and to register, go to cnbc.com/facesofchange