Podcast: D&I Initiatives – Opportunities for Positive Impact


Our industry is transforming in many ways – and at a rapid pace.

In this first podcast of our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) series, SIFMA’s Amena Ross, Managing Director of Advocacy, sat down with Edward Jones’ Vanessa Okwuraiwe, Principal of Diversity and Inclusion, to talk about the future of the financial services industry and the innovative D&I programs that Edward Jones is implementing including Courageous Conversations – a dialogue about creating change – and programs that foster cultural awareness and empathy among associates. The conversation also highlights the importance of creating a positive and meaningful impact in the communities we serve as well as for our clients and colleagues.

SIFMA and our members have long prioritized diversity and inclusion across the industry, and we recognize there is much more to do. Diversity and inclusion means building a workforce that represents our entire society. For more information on fostering and expanding workforce, client, and supplier diversity and inclusion, please visit www.sifma.org/diversity.


Edited for clarity

[Amena Ross] Thank you for joining us for the first episode in SIFMA’s D&I podcast series. I’m Amena Ross, Managing Director of Advocacy at SIFMA. I’m here today to discuss diversity and inclusion in the financial services industry, the opportunities and challenges we face, and some of the innovative work currently being done at our member firms. I’m joined by Vanessa Okwuraiwe, Principal, Diversity and Inclusion at Edward Jones. Welcome Vanessa!

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] Thank you, Amena! A pleasure to be here.

[Amena Ross] Vanessa, let’s start with Edward Jones’ vision of the future. What does the future of the industry look like and how does Edward Jones fit into that vision?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] Amena, our industry is transforming in many ways, as you know, and it’s transforming rapidly. Consumers are now accustomed to getting services that are fully tailored to them; they’re getting more and paying less for it – so the bar has been raised for every industry. And, there’s a demand for more hyper-personalization. Technology will always play a big role – it will continue to play an even bigger role in the future of finance – but it’s important to remember that people are looking to technology to complement, not replace, a human-centered approach.

That’s the approach we’re taking at Edward Jones. We’re rolling out a great deal of tech-based services that augment that deep, meaningful relationship that we have with our clients. Our purpose is to improve the lives of our clients, our colleagues and our communities, and when we think about growth, it’s in terms of growing the positive impact we can have.

[Amena Ross] As you look at the initiatives that Edward Jones is implementing in the D&I space, which do you view as the most innovative and why?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] We’re taking a five-point approach to address racism and issues of inclusion and diversity. Those efforts include:

  • Giving everyone a voice by elevating and deepening our Courageous Conversations program, through which we’re engaging thousands of associates in dialogue about creating change.
  • Secondly, we’re enhancing our recruitment, hiring and advancement practices in order to increase diversity among our financial advisors and senior leadership.
  • We’re also conducting an analysis of pay and will take any necessary actions to achieve pay equity.
  • We’re continuing our racial-equity training and, through that, we’re expanding our unconscious bias curriculum. We’ve also got a new year-round program to foster cultural awareness and empathy among our associates.
  • And we’re continuing to support organizations and programs that are important to our clients, our colleagues and our communities.

But, Amena, some of the most impactful feedback we’ve received has been from our Courageous Conversations. These sessions are all about fostering that sense of belonging and creating environments in which people feel safe about sharing their experiences and learning from others and making meaningful contributions. We’ve heard so many stories from our associates, so many personal testimonials. They feel they’ve got an opportunity to ask questions and they’re now motivated to learn more about what it means to walk in other people’s shoes, people who are different to them. That’s motivated people to be allies or to be even better allies.

Those steps we’ve taken to address racism and positively impact opportunities for people of color are in line with our firm’s deeply held values and it reflects our culture of empathy for others.

[Amena Ross] Vanessa, pivoting for a moment, given the overarching impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the globe, has it also affected the way you approach D&I during this time?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] COVID-19’s impact on our world has been devastating – lives have been lost, livelihoods have disappeared, and women and minorities have been disproportionately affected.

The pandemic has certainly changed how we work, and it’s had a huge impact on our business. As a firm built on having deep relationships with clients, we’re accustomed to having a lot of in-person communication with them. And our financial advisors are still talking to clients face-to-face – but now it’s through virtual tools. As a result, we’ve had to be more intentional about accelerating the use of tools and technology that elevate and maintain our inclusive environment.

We did not put any of our inclusion and diversity programs on hold. So, we’re still doing everything virtually, much like the rest of our business. We know that diverse teams are more innovative and, in this crisis, it’s been critical for us to continue to listen with empathy to our clients, financial advisors and associates and understand what matters most to them. It’s equally important that we, as a firm, provide what is needed to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

[Amena Ross] Many of our firms responded to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in May by committing to serious investments in social justice and racial equity. Edward Jones responded to that moment with a $1.2 million investment in the National Urban League and specifically, the St. Louis Urban League. Can you walk me through this plan to address racism and positively impact opportunities for people of color? Why did you choose to invest locally to achieve these goals?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] In June, we announced our five-point approach to address racism and issues of inclusion and diversity, as I mentioned earlier. And, as you noted, Amena, we did invest $1.2 million in the National Urban League and the St. Louis Urban League. We invested locally because we’ve always had deep ties to the St. Louis community and with that being the location of one of our home offices, we have been involved with the Urban league for more than 40 years. Making a positive impact in our communities is a critical part of our purpose, and the St. Louis Urban League, specially, has excellent programs, like Save our Sons, to help economically disadvantaged Black men find jobs and earn livable wages.

It’s important to note that our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are designed to create a positive impact in the communities we serve – they strengthen our ability to create financial wellbeing, create access, and act with cultural sensitivity and competency. We create these opportunities and possibilities for our people and communities, through these very important partnerships.

[Amena Ross] Thank you, Vanessa, we can all learn from your leadership. What have you found to be the difficulties you’ve had to overcome to move the ball forward for diversity and inclusion at Edward Jones? How have you overcome those difficulties?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] Amena, I think continuing to raise awareness about what diversity and inclusion truly means is an important opportunity for us. There is a tendency for some groups to feel excluded. And a lack of understanding about the true meaning of inclusion could slow down our work.

Unfortunately, some see this as a zero-sum situation, and it absolutely is not. By creating the right environment for all to thrive, our business grows and that creates more opportunity for everyone – and that’s a win-win. DEI is about having everyone’s voices heard. We have equitable practices and outcomes for all – under-represented and majority groups included – and having an intentional and business-led approach to inclusion and diversity is key.

Having representation throughout our firm is important. When you create that sense of belonging, you’re ensuring equity within our meritocracy and that is critical to overcoming any challenges that arise as we elevate DEI. I would say inclusive leadership is about getting the best out of everyone, getting the best out of a variety of people and that means competitive advantage too. We know what the data sets say about diversity and innovation – it correlates. The more we can create that type of environment, the better for us as an organization as well as the industry.

[Amena Ross] Finally, what is an area of diversity and inclusion that you believe is commonly overlooked? How have you addressed those disparities at Edward Jones?

[Vanessa Okwuraiwe] Diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be approached just like any other strategic priority of an organization. With the right plan and actions, business can be a force for good and help to bring about social change. At Edward Jones, this is exactly what we are doing. We are putting the right plans in place. We are leveraging our culture, values and partnership to have a meaningful impact in the lives of our clients, associates and communities. We have a lot of work to do, and we embrace the opportunity to make a difference.

[Amena Ross] With that, thanks so much Vanessa for joining me today. It was a real pleasure chatting with you. To learn more about the industry’s D&I efforts, visit www.sifma.org and to learn more about D&I at Edward Jones, visit www.edwardjones.com

Amena Ross is Managing Director of Advocacy at SIFMA. Vanessa Okwuraiwe is Principal, Diversity and Inclusion at Edward Jones.