Build the Next Generation of Female Leaders

When Amy Williams started her own branch of Edward Jones in 1993 in Lubbock, Texas, all of her mentors in the financial sector were men. Much has changed in the last two decades, thanks in part to programs like Women’s Initiative for New Growth Strategies, which has grown the number of female financial advisers at Edward Jones by 25 percent.

Williams, a principal responsible for financial adviser recruiting, knows that women are interested in becoming entrepreneurs like her. Still, a recent study by Edward Jones showed that only 11 percent of females think they’re ready to start their own business. Williams discusses the ways in which companies can help foster more females to become entrepreneurs.

Can you give us a little background on your career?
My professional experience was really pretty limited before I joined Edward Jones. I paid my way through college by working different jobs in sales, and back in 1991, when I started at Edward Jones as a branch office administrator at the ripe old age of 22, I really viewed it as a great opportunity to learn about the industry from the ground up. In 1993, I launched a branch in Lubbock, Texas. The whole thing was an amazing experience. It challenged me on a lot of levels.

How does Edward Jones attract a diverse workforce?
We think the business model we offer is very attractive. It is attractive for women and minority candidates as well because you really get to dictate your environment. You get to build your client base, you get to determine where you want to go out and build your practice. That’s an opportunity that’s unique in the industry.

Can you explain the Women’s Initiative for New Growth Strategies (WINGS) program?
The program is in its fifth year. In its first four years, we have grown our female financial adviser base by over 25 percent. When I came into the home office in 2009, it was largely my responsibility to build this program. We had a great launch, the vision was cast and then my job was to put structure into the program. We really are continuing to grow and develop the program to support women as financial advisers all across the country. We’ve also launched the BRIDGE program. BRIDGE stands for Building Results through Inclusion Driven and Guided Efforts. The BRIDGE program is focused on diverse advisers. So we launched it [in] October of last year and we are just finishing out our third round of the program.

What are the goals of the BRIDGE program?
We’re broken down into about 240 regions, and each region kind of operates like a mid-size company. They determine what their contract objectives are or what their growth objectives are and they do have specific growth objectives for women and minority advisers. The WINGS and BRIDGE programs help provide support for the regions in achieving their objectives.

A recent study by Edward Jones found that 66 percent of female respondents crave more entrepreneurial experiences at work. What was the experience like of starting out on your own as a female entrepreneur?
When I started as a financial adviser, one of the first organizations I joined in my community, in Lubbock, Texas, was a women’s entrepreneurs group. We had male mentors within the industry, but what I found was female entrepreneurs or small business owners in the community became my other mentors. They provided tremendous support to me. I really viewed my launching a practice very entrepreneurially, and they provided great wisdom and support in that.

The study also found that only 11 percent of females think they are ready to start their own businesses. What do you think accounts for such a low number?
First of all, women tend to underestimate themselves. A lot of the women entrepreneurs I met never planned it that way. I also think sometimes that the concept of starting from scratch feels a little isolating. That’s the really interesting dimension of how our business model works at Edward Jones. While I had the capacity and opportunity to work like an entrepreneur, go out and develop a market, develop my client base, I was never more than a phone call away from a mentor, who had been there and done it before. Interestingly enough, I had a male mentor because when I started, there were no women where I was. My male mentor, he was my lifeline. I literally called him once a week for over two years. I got to feel like an entrepreneur, but I always had that lifeline available to me.

What are ways that a business like Edward Jones can help empower female employers who are interested in entrepreneurial activities?
When we bring new female financial adviser trainees in, we get them connected in a program that we call the WINGS early success coach program. We have a veteran female adviser lead one conference call a week where all of the women who are going to show up to the same training class get to know each other. They’re all at the same stage of the process. They’re all studying for their licensing exams. And it’s really neat to hear how they begin to develop a relationship, so when they show up for training in St. Louis or in Tempe, they know each other. We found that 30-minute phone call is very empowering to them.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.