Developing Emotional Connections to Issues of DE&I

In the last episode of Part I of SIFMA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Podcast series, SIFMA EVP and Head of DE&I, Cheryl Crispen sits down with John Taft, Vice Chair of Baird to discuss what it takes to be a committed DE&I advocate and how having an emotional connection is critical when it comes to doing the work that is necessary to make a difference.

A Conversation with John Taft of Baird

In the last episode of Part I of SIFMA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Podcast series, SIFMA EVP and Head of DE&I, Cheryl Crispen sits down with John Taft, Vice Chair of Baird to discuss what it takes to be a committed DE&I advocate and how having an emotional connection is critical when it comes to doing the work that is necessary to make a difference.

They dive into defining DE&I in financial services and the systemic challenges that require organizational commitment at all levels across different types of initiatives. Taft highlights that the most important lesson when it comes to organizational commitment and effectiveness in the diversity and inclusion arena is consistent, committed execution over long periods of time.

For more information on fostering and expanding workforce, client, and supplier diversity equity and inclusion, please visit

Edited for clarity

Cheryl Crispen: Thanks for joining us for the latest episode in SIFMA’s DEI podcast series. I’m Cheryl Crispen, Executive Vice President and Head of DEI at SIFMA. Today I’m speaking with John Taft, Vice Chair of Baird, who serves on SIFMA’s Board of Directors and was on SIFMA’s Chair of our Board in 2011. John also currently serves on our Board Diversity Committee. We’ll talk about the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, efforts to recruit and retain diverse colleagues in the financial services industry, and some of John’s personal commitment to diversity. So thank you so much and welcome, John.

John Taft: My pleasure, Cheryl.

Cheryl Crispen: Before we dive into our conversation, I wanted to start with your career path, as well as what sparked your passion for advancing D&I at Baird.

John Taft: Career path, 40+ years in financial services. I think I’ve done just about everything you can do- investment banking, asset management, wealth management, and a little bit of private equity and it’s been a fabulous career for me. SIFMA has been a big part of that. The advocacy that SIFMA provides for our industry has been incredibly important to me and to all the firms I’ve worked with in finance. I was an aspiring journalist and worked as a print journalist for six years. I also spent a couple of years in City Hall. I used to joke I was the only person at a financial services firm that had worked as an aide to a mayor. I worked for the mayor of St. Paul, but there were many things that sparked my passion for diversity and inclusion.

The most important is the fact that I have two gay daughters. My oldest, Mary Allison came out in the 1990s. At the time I was president of her school, and the school was headed by a headmaster who was a committed early advocate for what he called ‘doing diversity well.’ My stepdaughter, Gabby, came out in a less than tolerant environment at her school and my daughter’s experiences helped me develop an emotional connection to the challenges of being different, and I learned just how powerful and impactful being an ally can be. That led to many years as an LGBTQ advocate. I was named Executive of the Year by the National Chamber of Commerce, LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce. I also spearheaded a successful campaign in Minnesota to legalize same-sex marriage. I’ve served on the boards of foundations and not-for-profits that have been grappling in one way or another with race-based disparities.

At Baird, I am now chair special task force, which is committed to taking our inclusion and diversity efforts to a new level. My work in that has improved my understanding of insensitivity to issues of history and race in America.

Cheryl Crispen: John, that personal story really is, I think, important, and folks can, I think, embrace the fact that a personal situation can be brought into also a work situation and vice versa. So thank you for sharing that.

John Taft: One of the things you go through on your own personal diversity journey is connecting with the importance of diversity and inclusion at an intellectual level. The important thing is to see if you can develop an emotional connection to issues of diversity and inclusion. Having family members or loved ones living out those challenges is one way to get there. But I think being a committed advocate personally for issues of diversity and inclusion requires an emotional connection.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s a great insight, and I completely agree. And part of the overall education is to understand and be able to enter this journey from multiple different vantage points. So that’s a good segue, John. As an industry, we talk about our D&I efforts and our commitment to improving diversity within our firms, but how do we really do that, whether it’s through recruitment strategies or striving for more diversity in senior leadership? How would you first even define diversity within financial services and specifically, what does it mean to have an inclusive environment and culture, which is so important to retaining and matriculating diverse talent through the organization? What are some of the things you’re doing at Baird?

John Taft: Defining diversity is really, diversity is different, difference. It’s all about difference. It can be many different types of differences. Inclusion is having everybody of all different types of people feel engaged and committed to the mission of the organization, so everybody feels like the organization belongs to them and they have a personal stake in its outcome. The most important lesson when it comes to organizational commitment and effectiveness in the diversity and inclusion arena is consistent, committed execution over long periods of time. We are talking about systemic challenges that weren’t created overnight and won’t be addressed overnight either. It requires organizational commitment at all levels and across many different types of initiatives. There’s no one silver bullet for successfully addressing diversity and inclusion efforts.

At Baird, we’ve been at this for decades. If you bracket our efforts into different categories, they would be around inclusion, i.e., making sure the employees who are at the firm are fully engaged in everything the firm’s doing, that’s inclusion. It’s not good to recruit to a firm if people go out the back door because they don’t feel like the working environment works for them. Inclusion is one bucket, having the firm be a place for everyone. Representation is walking through the door and seeing people who look and think like you. Lastly, there are things you have to put into place to create an organization that has diversity and inclusion woven into every single aspect of its business undertakings, and that’s the hardest part.  It’s important to embed diversity and inclusion in the operations of the business rather than leaving all the responsibility to the head of diversity and inclusion.

Cheryl Crispen: Why don’t we go through some of the specifics for our listeners that you all are doing at Baird so that they have some learning tools as well? That would be terrific.

John Taft: In 2009, we established associate resource groups and these were to promote associate engagement and retention. Spectrum, which is LGBTQ, ASCEND, which is women, Prism, multicultural, Pulse, next-generation associates, and Patriot, veterans. They’re all focused on making diverse segments of our population feel engaged and included at Baird. Then we established Baird Women Advisors Group in 2008, and that’s networking and best practices sharing among women advisors to help them feel like they are part of the future of the firm. Those are a couple of things we’ve done in the inclusion area.

Representation, an internship is now an incredible driver of new talent into the firm. It’s grown substantially at Baird since 2005. We have 280 this year, 30% are ethnically diverse, and 46% are women. We’ve got partnerships with dozens of organizations who source those interns, all in Milwaukee, for example, where our firm is headquartered for college students and Cristo Rey schools across the country for high school students. Incredibly, 51% of the graduating interns from the class of 2022 are joining Baird full-time in roles that they’re suited for. So that’s one thing.

We also have a very innovative program and it’s gotten lots of press in our private wealth management area. One of the themes about recruiting and diversity and building representation is if you’re looking for diverse talent you have to go earlier, you can’t just wait for college seniors or graduate schools. You have to go earlier into high school and provide a longer runway for them to get up to speed in our industry, earlier and longer. That’s the theme behind something we call a private wealth management foundations program, which we launched in 2012 and it’s designed to make it possible for younger more culturally diverse recruits to come into wealth management. I know my stepdaughter was one of those, lesbian, French-speaking, Montreal, transplants to the United States who majored in sustainability at George Washington University. Not exactly the top of the list when it comes to someone who would go into wealth management. But today, she is in her second year being a full financial advisor. This program basically adds a couple of years to the normal advisor training program during which the foundation program associates are rotated 360 degrees and are exposed to all the different functions, marketing, research, supervision of wealth management, and then given a chance to be a part of teams in the field.

In 2022, 83% of these foundation program associates were women or ethnically diverse, so it’s working when it comes to bringing in diverse talent. We’ve got all manner of partnerships with the University of Colleges, as many of our peer firms do. The largest of those is with the Wisconsin School of Business, where we’ve had partnerships since 2014. We now endow a professorship in finance, and we have 10 four-year scholarships for students from underrepresented populations. They also get a summer internship with Baird, a relationship with a Baird Mentor, and housing assistance when they come to do their internship and we sponsor them to sit for the securities industry essential entrance exam. That’s an example of something we’re doing to increase representation.

Right after George Floyd was killed, we felt we needed to step back as a firm and look at, whether are we doing enough. Is there more we need to do to take our long-standing diversity and inclusion efforts to a new level? We formed a special task force. I mentioned I co-chaired that at Baird and looked at all of that. We had a retreat of our executive committee and came up with a series of top-down, firm-wide initiatives that we said have the full firepower to support the executive committee and our CEO behind it, which included things like embedding cultural awareness into our annual firm-wide required training. We established a reverse mentoring program called the Bridge Builders Program, which is a six-month interaction between executive committee members and mentors of racial or ethnic minorities.

We held our first multicultural community conference, with 350 associates, most of them diverse in Nashville in 2021, and we’re doing that again in Atlanta in 2023. This is now part of the biannual cadence of events at Baird. We created an internship program for women in our global investment banking business. One of the most important things we did was we, recognize that hiring diverse associates was a very different undertaking across each of our five businesses. Different in asset management from venture capital and private equity, different in asset management than public finance and fixed income, and certainly different in wealth management. We established advisory and implementation councils in each of those businesses, and specific strategies to enhance the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring of diverse associates. This has been a long-term effort and it’s occurring across multiple initiatives at all levels of the firm.

Cheryl Crispen: That’s an impressive list of initiatives. I think some excellent examples of where our listeners can learn from what you’re doing and ideally maybe even take some of that and implement it within their firms. Before we move on to our next and sort of last topic, you touched on a lot of work that the firm’s doing about internships and reaching out to students and making sure we capture them as they’re coming up in their education. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that SIFMA, in partnership with our members, has what we call SIFMA Invest! which is aimed at educating college-age students and seniors in high school on the capital markets generally. We believe that a diverse group of individuals might not understand or know all the different opportunities that are available to them in the capital markets, so we have education on the capital markets, and then we partner with our member firms to provide internships and entry-level positions. For any of our listeners who are interested in that, please feel free to go to and SIFMA Invest! for more information. I figured I’d be opportunistic there. John and make sure our listeners were aware of that.

A common reality is that some of our industry leaders really do want to put DE&I as a top priority, and they want it to be something that they’re involved in and driving, but perhaps they maybe feel as though they’re either unqualified or uncomfortable even discussing the topic, or just don’t even know where to start. How can we maybe provide some tools to these individuals in leadership positions to empower them to utilize either research or data or internal resources to help get them involved in and spark change?

John Taft: If you put your hand in the air and say you’re interested in being involved, there are lots of different ways that our firms and financial services will reach out and engage you and offer you opportunities to be involved. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it can be scary and uncomfortable, and strange for many people. That’s a true barrier. I know that one way is to intentionally search for ways to interact professionally and personally with people who are different from ourselves and encourage others to do that but start with yourself. That can happen inside the work environment, it can happen on a personal level, and it can happen through community service and not-for-profits.

I just finished an eight-year stint on the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Now, to say that I look at the world differently than the people on the board of that foundation is an understatement. I did it specifically to put myself in contact with people who look at the world differently from me, and that’s where it starts. Diversity means difference. And doing diversity well means ultimately moving along a continuum from recognizing difference to accepting it to embracing it to celebrating it, and ultimately to leveraging it because let’s face it, ultimately that’s what our businesses are doing. We want to leverage a more diverse organization that reflects our clients in an increasingly diverse world and if you put people together who have different points of view, it leads to better client outcomes and it leads to higher performance. That’s what the diversity journey is all about.

I think it’s easy to intellectualize the benefits of diversity. It’s harder to find an emotional connection to it, but an emotional connection is critical when it comes to doing the things necessary to really make a difference. One of the ways people who look like mainstream culture, white males, born to privilege, middle-aged, one of the things you can contribute to inclusion and diversity is to think of themselves as an ally to their colleagues. What can you do, given who you are to help people who aren’t like you? That’s allyship. We had a speaker at our multicultural conference two years ago, Emmanuel Acho. He’s famous for the book, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man and a former NFL player and author. He told us all about the importance of using privilege for the benefit of those who don’t have it- that’s allyship and for many people, is the best door to go through to of committed engagement with diversity and inclusion.

Cheryl Crispen: Thank you for that insight. It was such a pleasure to speak with you today, and I am so happy that you were able to share the great initiatives of your firm and your personal story and journey. Thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you’re interested in more information regarding SIFMA’s diversity initiatives, please visit and we’ll look forward to you joining us at a future podcast. Thank you, John. 

John Taft: My pleasure.

John Taft is Vice Chair Robert W. Baird & Co. Incorporated. John also serves on SIFMA’s Board of Directors and on SIFMA’s Board Diversity Committee

Cheryl Crispen is Executive Vice President and Head of DE&I for SIFMA.