Op-Ed: What Helped Me Become an Allocator as an African American Woman

Steps you can take to make teams diverse and inclusive.


Art by William McPhail


Kelli Washington is a managing director at the Cleveland Clinic Investment Office and named to the 2019 class of CIO NextGens.

Unfortunately, I am an anomaly in our industry. I am an African American woman in finance focused on investing assets on behalf of nonprofit institutions. 

For much of my 25-year career, I have been one of three to five Black/African American people in my cohort and, as I have moved into more senior roles, I am regularly the only one. Many of the days of my professional life have looked like the picture above by Will McPhail, and I wonder, “Why are there not more people who look like me seated at this table?” When I sat for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was typically the only Black person in a room of 50 to 100 people. Before I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast to pursue my master’s, I had not met another Black person who held the CFA designation, let alone another Black woman who held the designation.

How did I get here and why aren’t there more Black/African American professionals doing what I do? Much of my success is attributed to mentorship and support. I am blessed to have had the support of parents and extended family who requested hard work and excellence in everything my siblings and I have done. I have been blessed to have had amazing mentors and advisers throughout my life to guide me and to act as sounding boards as I considered new opportunities. They were willing to share, develop, encourage, and advocate without any strings attached. As I was entering my final semester of business school, a mentor sent my resume to 10 of his endowment/foundation peers recommending me. I received four initial interviews and two job offers from a single email sent by someone with influence who was willing to advocate on my behalf.  

To be clear, it has not all been easy, nor have I only had success. I have made mistakes along the way. Specifically, I recall back-to-back trade errors when I was a portfolio manager that could have cost me my job. I have been rejected for many opportunities for which I have applied and regularly questioned about my qualifications, experience, intelligence, and ability to do a job. While none of these things have stopped me, they do often leave me wondering, “Why wasn’t I a good fit?” What does a good fit look like?

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain, combined with the protests against police brutality, encouraged me to speak out about racial bias. I want to ensure no one who knows me would take my silence as being in agreement with and/or complicit in the power structures that allow systematic racism to continue. This applies to ALL power structures, and our field of institutional asset management is tied to one of the longest-standing power structures in the world: finance.  

Why are there so few Black/African American women in analyst, director, managing director, and/or CIO roles to mentor a woman like me and to mentor the women coming behind me? Why is it that in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s, I was often “the first Black woman” to make some achievement? How can I help to bring more people from underrepresented populations into finance broadly and institutional asset management specifically?

In his June 18 op-ed in this publication, Tony Waskiewicz said, “Tell us what we can and should do as allocators to correct social injustices. As allocators, what can we do to help raise up all people in our country? What can we do from our seat to ensure that winners in capitalistic competition achieve success in fair and unbiased frameworks versus ones in which one race or class of participants is disadvantaged?”

You may be saying, “I just hired a new director and I do not expect to have openings any time in the future. There’s nothing I can do on my team right now.” I would then ask, are you proactively talking with your investment managers about diversity within their shops and requesting they take proactive steps to create a diverse workforce broadly and diverse investment team specifically? Are you asking them about their approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion?  When they respond, “Well, we use our networks to find potential new hires,” are you asking clarifying questions about their hiring networks in the same manner you would ask them about sourcing ideas for the portfolio?  Are you working with your service providers (auditors, external legal counsel, custodian, consultants, bankers, etc.) to request they build a diverse team to work with your organization? Have you thought to require your human resources (HR)/recruiting team to implement an approach similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule that seeks to require underrepresented populations be included in your candidate pool as it relates to hiring for your team? Ask your managers and service providers to implement the Rooney Rule and hold them accountable.

Some of you are saying, “I have looked but I can’t find qualified candidates.” Are you familiar with organizations such as the Robert Toigo Foundation, Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), the National Black MBA Association , Prospanica (previously The National Association of Hispanic MBAs), The Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management, the Forte Foundation or Reaching Out? While many of these organizations focus on traditional corporate career tracks, they have alumni organizations that could be a great source of experienced candidates who may be looking for a new opportunity. Seek out these organizations and share them with your managers and service providers as sources of diverse talent.

Offer your time as a panelist or speaker for programs designed to promote diversity and ask your service providers to participate in the programs as well. Offer your experience and talents as a mentor to students in one of the programs mentioned above. While they may not have an immediate interest in what we do, they might have an interest in your career on Wall Street or as a management consultant prior to moving to institutional asset management, and it’s an opportunity for you to help them navigate that field.

Partner with one of the historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs) to teach a series of classes on institutional investing to undergraduates in the business or economics department. In this era of Zoom and distance learning, it could be a unique opportunity to encourage a young mind. I first learned about the purpose of an endowment and endowment management as an undergraduate. If you work for a college or university, have you thought about reaching out to the Black Student Association on your campus when you have an internship need? My four summers as an INROADS intern during my college years were crucial to giving me a leg up relative to most of my peers, who typically had one or two summers of internship experience.

While recruiting and hiring are important to getting people in the door, development and mentoring is crucial. Are you giving constructive feedback on a regular basis that allows underrepresented team members to grow and develop? Are you ensuring underrepresented team members have growth opportunities and the support/tools needed to learn from those opportunities and to execute well? Are you giving underrepresented team members feedback in the same manner you would of any of your other team members? All of these things are important to keeping underrepresented team members in the door. Without development and mentoring, they can and will seek out new opportunities. To be clear, when I say “in the door,” that may not always mean within your door. It is important to be supportive of those who want to work for you long-term as well as those who want to “go out on their own,” because their success becomes your success if you trained them well. There cannot be Black/African American-run investment firms and institutional asset management shops if we don’t help to develop the skills necessary to be successful and support underrepresented employees if/when they say, “I have decided to go out on my own.”

Black Lives Matter is the call to action and I ask you to think about it more broadly. Today, I am asking YOU to use your influence and power to recreate the existing power structure into one that provides opportunities and a level playing field for people from underrepresented populations. Think about the impact of your action or inaction on the lives of the Black and African American people you meet or interact with. The next time you sit in a conference room reviewing a series of resumes, ask your recruiter if there are resumes from Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx or Indian/Native American candidates. The next time you sit in a conference room following a series of interviews with an underrepresented person and someone says “they’re not a good fit,” question that comment, tease out what “fit” means and what evidence is presented regarding the candidate’s qualifications and fit.

This is not about politics, it is about humanity. It is about people in power sharing it with Black/African American people as they would any other human and ensuring we have access to the same opportunities.

The views expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

Kelli Washington is a managing director at the Cleveland Clinic Investment Office and was named to the 2019 class of CIO NextGens.

This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal or tax advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the stance of Institutional Shareholder Services or its affiliates.

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