Rachel J. Robasciotti on Building a Diverse Firm, Wealth Redistribution, and Adasina Social Capital

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WHO: Rachel J. Robasciotti

WHAT: Founder and CEO at Adasina Social Capital

WHAT’S ON HER MIND:  “I didn’t just want to learn about money for myself, but it was something I wanted to do to help my family and other women and people of color.”

Rachel J. Robasciotti grew up in a Bay Area family that primarily consisted of Black women. Her family didn’t have the same financial means as other families.

“I figured everything seems to come down to money, and maybe if I can understand better how money works, I could help us get more of it and have a different life,” she told the Journal.

So she started learning about money after graduating from high school at the age of 15 and later when she enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley.

“In college, I realized I didn’t just want to learn about money for myself, but it was something I wanted to do to help other women and people of color,” she said.

What drew you to the financial planning profession?

Growing up in a poor Black community, I was born with certain privileges that other members of my family didn’t have. I had above-average intelligence and graduated from high school when I was 15. I was the lightest-skinned person in my family with the most Anglo-Saxon features. All of these things helped me as a Black person who lived in a segregated community and wanted a better life for myself and my family. So, when considering a career, I thought, “If I can figure out some of this stuff around money—like how to make more of it, how to manage it, how to grow it—I want to bring that back to the communities I came from.”

You founded your firm Robasciotti & Philipson at age 25; what inspired you to start your own firm and what were some of the challenges in doing so at a young age?

When I was 25, I’d already had five years of experience in the industry. I realized if I was going to have a firm that felt inclusive and supported the communities I wanted to serve, I was going to have to create it because it didn’t exist. I wanted to work with a very specific set of people—women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks—and the firms where I started out didn’t understand the populations that I wanted to work with and didn’t think that there was really a successful future in serving that market. I also was very interested in meeting my clients’ desires for values-aligned investing early on—back in the stone ages, when people just thought that was a losing strategy, unlike today.

One of the challenges was that if you’re going to advise people on their wealth and financial planning, there’s an assumption that you’ve already “made it” financially. But this work can also be a career and business that someone has chosen, so they may be good at the work but start out on a tight budget like every other type of business.

It became very difficult for me because I advised people and I knew what needed to be done, but I then, and still, support my extended family. I had to borrow quite a bit early on because I didn’t already have assets or anyone who was going to help me get a start, but I needed to have the office and the tools to do the work—and they are expensive.

So it was an interesting catch-22 because if you’re going to hold yourself out as someone who knows about money in a meritocratic society, the idea is that you already have a lot of money. But I didn’t have a lot of money because of the circumstances I was coming from and working with.

You’ve been intentional about building a diverse team. What is your advice to firms that want to do the same?

First, it’s important for firms to create an environment where people are not only going to be attracted, but they’re going to stay. The number one thing that will help us do that is looking very deeply at how the default culture may or may not be inclusive for people of color, for women, for young people, for queer people.

Our industry is predominantly white, male, straight, and older and that’s just what it is. I’m not saying that you need to be something other than that to build a diverse team, but you do need to see the ways in which being part of those historically dominant social groups may create an environment that doesn’t feel inclusive to people from other groups.

Hire a consulting firm that does this specific work that’s run by people in those populations to help you understand your current firm culture and how it might need to be different for diverse talent who need to feel like you “get it” and have a great place for them to work. Until you create a welcoming and inclusive environment, I don’t think you should be out there recruiting just yet because you may get people, but they won’t stay, and you may actually create harm.

The second thing you can do is expand the network of people you know. Seek out people from the populations that you’re trying to recruit. Also, extend your network beyond the financial sector because if we’re going to really diversify, we’re going to have to go outside of our sector given who’s already here.

You talked once in an interview about stepping outside of your “wealth management box” to incorporate social justice values into your company. How has that made you successful?

There’s this underlying meritocratic idea that if you have money, it’s because you deserve it and our industry should help you keep and grow the money. But the reality we’re living in—with the pandemic, historic wealth and income inequality, racial justice uprisings, and climate change—is showing us that we are not individual actors and those who have what they need to thrive don’t always have that based on merit. A lot is based on structural inequities in our society.

The idea of wealthy people just accumulating more and more for themselves and passing it down, generation after generation, isn’t actually giving us the world that we want. No matter how wealthy you are, I don’t imagine most people are super happy with the world we’re living in where you can’t breathe the air outside in California. That’s the result of a society where we look out for ourselves as individuals and amass ever-increasing wealth by indirectly or directly extracting resources from other people and the planet.

We are creatures in relationship to one another and in relationship to the world that we live in and understanding that means that I am doing well when we’re all doing well. Coming to this understanding meant that I had to stop being an adviser who only helps amass  wealth; I became willing to do wealth redistribution planning as well.

Wealth redistribution planning is for people who have more than they need and want to feel like they’re dedicating their wealth to the more equitable world they deeply desire. It involves figuring out what is enough, what’s reasonable, and creating an accelerated plan for giving away the rest. This is not simply philanthropy and legacy giving near the end of life. It’s living a modest lifestyle and giving away the excess, not only to help others but also to address structural inequities.

There’s a whole generation of people who understand that their personal amassing of wealth will not ultimately create the world that they want to live in and they’re looking for advisers who get that. I think that the younger generation is more attuned to social justice and they are the ones who are inheriting the wealth, so we have to pay attention to what they care about.

What have been some of your challenges as an out, Black woman in this profession?

The number one challenge is that a queer Black woman is not what people imagine when you hear the term “financial planner” or “wealth manager,” so that can be an impediment to people seeing you as the best choice for them.

Being a person who doesn’t look like what one would expect meant I had to work harder, but coming from outside of the traditional financial services success model gave me a different perspective and clearer view of the field. It allowed me to see certain things like, wow, advisers aren’t doing the wealth redistribution planning that the next generation wants. And there’s this record interest and values-aligned investing, yet the world that we’re living in still looks like it does today, with so many unresolved social issues. And there’s this massive disconnect between what social justice movements are asking for and what values-aligned investment managers are actually working on.

This perspective has certainly given me a competitive advantage because I can, in some ways, more clearly see what others don’t and that is a crucial part of what allowed us to create a different way of approaching financial planning and also a different set of investment products to meet the needs of our clients.

When you want to create a true structural change, it’s best to start by looking to those who sit the farthest away from the existing power structure.

Talk to us about your public equities strategy, formerly RISE (Return on Investment and Social Equity), how it benefits your clients, and how it’s led to Adasina Social Capital.

We had a lot of clients who are women, people of color, and queer people who were looking for a different kind of planning. Many of them were looking for wealth redistribution planning and also a different way of investing.

When the SRI [socially responsible investing] industry coming out of the Great Recession started to transform into what we now see as ESG [environmental, social, and governance] investing, our clients weren’t happy because the metrics that were being chosen and the way the very definition of socially responsible investing evolved wasn’t actually aligned with what our clients wanted and what we believed in. So we created RISE.

The RISE strategy was based entirely on moving the locus of decision-making about the impact of an investment portfolio to those who are most impacted by the investment decisions we make. This resulted in building an investment strategy designed to bridge the gap between social justice movements and the financial markets. That means developing relationships with impacted communities and their social justice organizations and understanding what metrics we should be working on as investors that would advance their goals.

The RISE strategy has been so incredibly popular that new client interest skyrocketed. Most of the growth in our firm over the past three years has primarily come from people who are interested in this new way of investing. It’s prompted such tremendous growth that we really needed to create some distinction between the wealth management side of the firm and the side of our firm that was really becoming an asset management company. So we took the RISE strategy and transformed it into Adasina Social Capital, which is an investment and financial activism firm dedicated to doing just that.

We understand from a recent SEC filing that Adasina Social Capital is establishing its own ETF. Tell us about that.

As you can see from the SEC filing, the ETF is intended to track the Adasina Social Justice Index, which is the first social justice index for public equities. It’s designed to focus specifically on four major areas: racial, gender, economic, and climate justice. The index is on Bloomberg with the index ticker symbol JUSTICE and is specifically focused on the objective measures of corporate social responsibility that social justice organizations tell us will advance their goals.

It’s a very exciting opportunity for us to make this strategy that we’ve already been using more widely available to investors and other investment managers.

Who are you grateful for in this profession?

The education that Sonya Dreizler is providing on racial and gender justice to the financial services community is invaluable. She is a White woman who has done her own learning about racial justice and can talk to other White financial services professionals about it. This relieves a huge burden of emotional labor from advisers of color who would otherwise be asked to do this work. She has also been outspoken about her experience as a woman in financial services and in lifting up the voices of other women and their experiences. She works with other firms to help them understand how to be more diverse and inclusive.

I really feel very thankful for her and for her work. It’s education that’s sorely needed and she’s out there providing it. That is the education that we need in order to stay relevant as an industry moving forward.