Bloomberg Markets|August - September 2020

On Wall Street, being Black often means being alone, held back, deprived of the best opportunities. On these pages, Black men and women tell their stories

IT MIGHT SEEM IMPOSSIBLE to tell the history of Black people on Wall Street. That’s because the finance industry shut African Americans out of its executive suites and banking partnerships and off trading floors for decades. Even now, despite diversity programs and pledges to do better, Wall Street’s highest echelons lack Black faces, with rare exceptions. Another challenge to telling the story of African Americans in finance is that the people who’ve lived it blazed wildly different paths. There is no one definitive experience. But all their stories matter. What happens inside this industry ripples out into American wallets, homes, neighborhoods, corporations, and government. Outright racism and institutional failings on Wall Street have limited Black wealth and dreams. But African-American bankers have also sometimes helped pave the way for others to succeed. This year’s corporate avowals, workplace statistics, and diversity benchmarks have risen in a cacophony that risks drowning out the very voices they’re meant to spotlight. Some of those voices, edited for brevity and clarity, speak out on these pages. They reflect decades of a Black presence on Wall Street, from just a few years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to today, amid fury over George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Some made it to the top, some left disenchanted. Some became rich, some were so marginalized they had to sue. Some think Wall Street is hopeless, some are more optimistic than ever. —Kelsey Butler and Max Abelson

I. Getting There

Racquel Oden, 47, is northeast divisional director for the consumer bank and wealth management business at JPMorgan Chase & Co., overseeing 10,000 employees. She began her career in 1997 as an equity trader at Morgan Stanley and has also held roles at Merrill Lynch and UBS Group AG.

I didn’t have any family who ever worked on Wall Street, so it wasn’t anything I knew. I had an unusual career in that I graduated with my MBA from Hampton University, an HBCU [historically Black college or university], which is very different, and was recruited to Morgan Stanley and joined the equity division, which started my career on Wall Street.

You’re going to be in a room with people from different walks of life. And when you find yourself in that analyst class with kids from colleges all over the country, don’t worry. You’ve worked hard. You’ve earned your spot. You are enough. You are enough.

Curtis Johnson, 53

Managing director in Carlyle Group Inc.’s investor relations team

I think there’s a lot more pressure on people of color to hit the first pitch out of the park, to put it in a baseball analogy.

Chris Lee, 42

KKR & Co. head of real estate in the Americas

Both my parents were immigrants to this country, and I was the first to attend college and experience life here in the United States. With that, I was definitely taught to have a strong work ethic: Focus on your education. Did I ever feel [I had] to be twice as good? A hundred percent. I was a Black woman on Wall Street, so I knew that was par for the course.

Tessie Petion was an intern at Citigroup Inc. before she took a job at Deutsche Bank AG following graduation. After heading environmental, social, and governance (ESG) research at HSBC Holdings Plc, she left in May to join Inc. as head of ESG engagement.

I was a junior in college [in the late 1990s]. I did an internship with Sponsors for Educational Opportunity [a nonprofit that offers educational and career support to young people from underserved communities]. I went down to New York for the interview. I had interviewed before but had never had a very corporate job before. I expressed a preference for consulting. SEO actually gave me an offer for investment banking. The great thing about SEO is that you had essentially 200 interns who were people of color—Asian, Black, Latino, East Asian, and South Asian, a bunch of kids who were from all over the place.

I never, ever thought that I would be in banking, never considered it. I had an information systems background. Banking seemed very much like, you know, the movie Wall Street. I didn’t see a lot of me in the movie Wall Street.

And so when I got the internship [at Citi] I was like, OK, well, let’s give this a shot. Definitely not a world I considered.

Jared Johnson, 30, is the co-founder of the apparel brand Season Three Inc. He became a JPMorgan Chase & Co. associate in 2015 but decided to leave in 2017. This year he graduated with master’s degrees from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

I’m originally from St. Louis. I went to college at Purdue. I was paying a ton of money to go there, and I was going to have a ton of debt. I took this accounting class that was notorious for being the weed-out class. I did incredibly well in it. And afterward, I felt, maybe this just comes naturally to me. I was hyperdetermined and hyperfocused in a way that I’d be shocked if I could ever get back there again in life. I made everything about landing that job. I read every book. I did everything. So when I finally was placed [through SEO] in JPMorgan, I was very excited. I was like, This is my opportunity.

I had a few suits at the time. I remember having this gray suit, a light gray suit, and then I probably had this black suit. And I remember showing up to JPMorgan, and everyone wears a dark blue suit. I didn’t know that was the Wall Street look. Dark blue suit, white shirt, black shoes.

I’m remembering a room, 10 to 12 people, all the Black interns. This one [older Black colleague] would invite everybody to this meeting. He basically would explain the fact that you were highly visible as a Black employee in the bank. And everything you did, good or bad, would be magnified: “So if you’re really good here, and you shine during the summer, a lot of people will notice it. And if you’re really bad, or you mess up here and there, a lot of people will take notice of that.”

One of the things he would say is that on the private-banking side “your career trajectory was limited as a Black person. And the reason why was at a certain point it becomes about who you know. It’s all personal relationships that matter. If you grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and you just happen to know a lot of people who have money, you could be successful, because you could call on your friends’ parents and hopefully get some of them to become clients.”

His argument was, you don’t have that. You don’t have that luxury. So you probably won’t be able to generate business. You basically have a ceiling on your career in the private bank [and should] find roles in investment management.

I get a phone call from someone in HR. If you were doing a movie, it was one of those highlights. You get the call, and you jump with joy. I made my entire college experience about getting this job. Now I had it.

I invested in a closet full of dark blue suits and white shirts.

Anré Williams, 55, is group president of American Express Co.’s global merchant and network services unit, which handles relationships with banks and merchants that accept AmEx around the world. Williams joined AmEx’s marketing division full time in 1990 after interning at the company.

I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I kind of learned as I went. [At Stanford,] I majored in economics, and I decided when I was an undergrad I wanted to work in business in some capacity. I wasn’t sure what industry. I didn’t know if it would be in accounting or in finance or in marketing or in sales or manufacturing. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted to work in business.

I knew that at some point I may have to get an MBA if I wanted to be able to be equipped to excel at the highest levels of business.

At the time, I would often look for information, for inspiration, or for role models or people who had charted a path. I would look for books, or biographies, or newspaper articles, or magazine articles. One magazine I used to read often—cover to cover—was Black Enterprise, because it highlighted African-American executives or entrepreneurs who were successful in business.

I read about Reginald Lewis, an entrepreneur who did one of the largest leveraged buyouts of the time. Or Barry Rand, who was an executive at Xerox in the late ’80s and ’90s. Or Ken Chenault, who was at American Express. Reading about people to inspire me, to see what their paths were. Where did they go to school? Where did they work before? What industries were they in? What did they major in? Those types of things. To get a sense of how they charted their path.

I ended up working for a couple of years after undergrad and went to business school at Wharton. I majored in marketing when I was there and [minored in] real estate finance. I wasn’t sure what company to join or what industry, but I knew [Wharton] would be great training. I wanted to work in product management and marketing for the summer, and American Express was one of the companies that offered me a summer internship. I joined for the summer and had a fantastic experience and ended up coming back to American Express full time, and I’ve been in the company ever since.

Chris White, 45, has worked for Salomon Smith Barney, MarketAxess, Barclays, and Goldman Sachs Group. He is the chief executive officer of advisory firm Viable Mkts LLC and BondCliQ , a centralized bond trading platform. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, competes with BondCliQ in providing bond-price information.)

I often say to people, “I’m the least-educated person in my family.” My parents both have master’s degrees. My father had an MBA from Columbia that he got in the early ’70s, and my mother has probably about four master’s degrees in childhood education and in special education. So really, really well-educated.

I went to [Phillips Academy] Andover for high school, and then I went to Brown University. I played basketball there. I didn’t pursue graduate school or anything like that. I found my way to Wall Street because, you know, there’s sort of a steady pipeline of Wall Street executives who played sports. I [took] the traditional Ivy League route: One of the basketball-playing alumni got me a job at Bear Stearns the summer after my freshman year. I was a horrible employee because I’d never worked in an office before.

Then my junior year, I got a summer job at Smith Barney. And it was just a magical summer. I really enjoyed the work. I was working in mortgage-backed support. The head of fixed income at that time was a Brown alumnus who’d played basketball and actually remains one of my mentors.

One of the things at the time—it was a huge thing: There was a Black trader working on the trading desk, a guy named Mike Baker. And so to me, it was like, well, if he can become a mortgage trader, then I can. You have to imagine going into an industry where you are so often the only one. That already sends a signal as to what’s possible.

There’s not a person today on Wall Street that is successful because they just came in and rocked it. It’s not the way Wall Street works. You come into Wall Street, and then someone takes a vested interest in your success, and they help you.

‘My Son Is a Star Banker, But He’s Relatively Lonely’

W. Don Cornwell, 72, joined Goldman Sachs & Co.’s investment banking department in 1971 from Harvard Business School before leaving in 1988 to found Granite Broadcasting Corp. Today he’s on the boards of American International Group Inc. and Natura & Co. He is scheduled to leave the Pfizer Inc. board soon.

His son, K. Don Cornwell, 49, joined investment bank PJT Partners Inc. as a partner in 2015 after an 18-year career at Morgan Stanley, where he was head of global sports investment banking. He previously worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. and in corporate development for the NFL.

W. Don: I’m pretty sure I was the first African American that they hired into the investment banking area. I learned about a year after I joined the firm that Goldman had been sued for discrimination by an African-American student at Stanford, an MBA student. About a year after I joined, he reached out to me. He wanted to make sure that I knew what had happened. And in the same time period, the hiring partner at Goldman Sachs also reached out to me and invited me out for drinks. He wanted to tell me what had happened. Interestingly enough, both individuals pretty much had the same story. The facts weren’t really in dispute. It was not a good or lawful interview, I think is the best way to put it, that this young man had with the hiring partner.

I’m very grateful to that student for having the courage to call out an act of discrimination. It frankly probably cost him any opportunity to work on Wall Street, which he presumably wanted, and it likely got me my opportunity, even though I didn’t know it when I got hired.

K. Don: Both my parents were in finance. I was a big math person, so I thought finance was a real career possibility.

By the time I got to Morgan Stanley in 1998, there were actually quite a few Black people that I could look to as role models. There were a decent number of Black professionals who were in the prime of their careers that seemed to be thriving. I just assumed that things would continue to get better, but that didn’t happen.

The Black bankers that started on Wall Street around my time period and thereafter have not stayed around. Thus, you don’t have as robust a group of senior Black people on the Street compared to when I started in 1998.

W. Don: I got a boss who was personally invested in my professional development and in my career, his name was Peter Sacerdote. He became the head of the corporate finance department when I was, by coincidence, about to leave the firm, because I had become a co-single parent of my son. Peter asked me to consider taking a managerial role which he thought would help him a lot but would also provide me with much greater scheduling flexibility. So I took the job. And what really struck me was that Peter immediately began to treat me like someone he wanted to succeed. When I left in 1988, there were a decent number of young African Americans who had been recruited into the firm on my watch in different parts of investment banking. As I looked back later, I realized that virtually all of them were gone. And it really brought home to me that unless you do something that’s either structural or intentional, you’re just going to keep getting the same results.

I had good relationships with many of my peers at Goldman as I left the firm, but I fault them for not having done such a great job in building a diverse talent pipeline. I also fault myself, let’s be candid. Maybe I could have been even more active and impactful during the years when I was a part of managing the corporate finance department.

K. Don: When you look at African-American managing directors on Wall Street, the vast majority have come from product groups—capital markets, sales and trading, and M&A. You very rarely see any that have made it up through the system in a coverage area. Why? My theory is that there can be bias in how clients pick their banker, and generally clients make decisions based on their relationship with their coverage banker.

One thing I always joke about is that working in the sports world I have the advantage that when I walk into a room with a team owner, I’m generally not the first person of color they’ve done real business with. They deal with Black players and agents all of the time, so they’re very comfortable doing business with somebody of color. That’s not necessarily the case in most industries.

I sat in the M&A group of Morgan Stanley, and for my associate years I got to work on great things with great people. In my early vice president years, I stopped getting premier staffings. So I had to get entrepreneurial. The business of sports was becoming more relevant to Wall Street, and I knew that I had a unique network and set of experiences. I made the decision to make that a bigger part of my portfolio. It wasn’t as if there was a sports group at Morgan Stanley that I joined. I just created it. I did it, because I wasn’t getting put on the best accounts and projects and there were people who had the same skill set that were getting better projects to work on. While it was unfair, it was the best thing that ever happened, because I put myself in a position where I get to work on things that I really love and enjoy.

W. Don: I’m incredibly disappointed with where Wall Street is today. As a proud father, I can say that I think my son is a star banker, but he’s relatively lonely as an African American in his field, which I think is sad.

K. Don: I’ve come across very few people in my career who I actually think are blatant racists. There’s just so many people who are naive. One of the questions I like to ask people—especially over the past couple of months when people come to talk to me about the topic of racial equality—is, “How many Black people do you have in your cellphone, other than just because your corporate directory has Black people in it?” Reflecting on that is a good start to making some progress. —Gillian Tan

One of the New York Stock Exchange archivists came up to me and said, “You are the second African-American woman in history to sign this book.” And this was in 225 years.

Lauren Simmons, who turns 26 in August

Became the youngest full-time female trader at the New York Stock Exchange in 2017

II. At Work

Racquel Oden:

Women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel like they have every qualification. Being a Black woman, I was committed to ensure there was no box I didn’t check. I could do asset management, I could do wealth management, I could do investment banking, I could do retail, I could lead large organizations, I could run strategy, I could handle a P&L [profit and loss statement], I could focus on product distribution. I was going to have all the licenses, I was going to have all the degrees. And I think that was important to me to feel like I could be successful on Wall Street.

I became chief of staff to the president of a pretty large organization at UBS. It happened based on me presenting at a meeting and someone seeing the work that I did and asking me if I would join their team.

It was just a normal executive update, and that day the president showed up—no one even knew he was going to be in the meeting. So it was never intentionally planned that way. But [I] was prepared for my topic, asked three or four very pointed questions, knew my numbers, knew how to respond, and he had heard about the reputation that I had and got to see it in action based on that meeting.

So does that happen often? No. But I think what’s critical and important was that you had a senior person—a White male—who saw something in some way that said, “I want that person on my team.”

You need to be prepared at all moments because you never know when “that moment” is. I wouldn’t have known that that meeting was going to be “the moment.” I always bring 110%. I’m always overprepared, and I always want to make sure it’s that level of quality at all times.

[That job] gave me exposure at a very senior level to understanding large organizations and running them at the executive committee level. Today, leading an organization of 10,000 people, I obviously get to leverage [that].

Tessie Petion:


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August - September 2020