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Building a Better Future: FINRA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Program

June 14, 2022

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate, but it's also a day to reflect upon the hardships that African Americans endured and the forces that continue to undermine the freedoms of Black Americans. One of the places that these forces are most clear is in the U.S. financial system, in which Black Americans and other people of color have been historically underrepresented.

On this episode, we invite you to join us in this reflection as we hear from FINRA’s Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Chief Diversity Officer Audria Lee and from Ritta McLaughlin, Director of Community Outreach, about how FINRA has been working to build equitable solutions and a better future within our organization, our communities and the financial industry.

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Resources mentioned in this episode:

2021 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Report

Dissertation Completion Fellowship Program

Board of Governor’s Diversity Statement

Racial Justice Task Force

Listen and subscribe to our podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human editors and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. 


00:01 – 20:04

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Juneteenth is a day to celebrate, but it's also a day to reflect upon the hardships that African Americans endured and the forces that continue to undermine the freedoms of Black Americans. One of the places that these forces are most clear is in the U.S. financial system, in which Black Americans and other people of color have been historically underrepresented. On this episode, we invite you to join us in this reflection as we hear about how FINRA has been working to build equitable solutions and a better future within our organization, our communities and the financial industry.


Welcome to FINRA Unscripted. I'm your host, Kaitlyn Kiernan. I'm excited for today's conversation about all the great work FINRA has been doing around diversity, equity and inclusion. Not just within our organization, but also in our communities and the industry as well. Here to talk to us on this important topic today are returning guest Audria Lee, Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Chief Diversity Officer within FINRA's People Solutions group. And we also have a new guest with us today, Ritta McLaughlin, Director of Community Outreach within the Investor Education team. Ritta and Audria, welcome to the show.

01:20 - 01:21

Audria Lee: Thanks, Kaitlyn.

01:21 - 01:22

Ritta McLaughlin: Thank you for having us.

01:22 - 01:33

Kaitlyn Kiernan: So, before we really dig into the topic at hand today, can you both introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your background and your role within FINRA? Ritta, do you want to kick things off?

01:33 - 02:38

Ritta McLaughlin: Sure. Thanks, Kaitlyn. Well, as Kaitlyn mentioned, I am Ritta McLaughlin, the Director of Investor Education Community Outreach within the Investor Education and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, and I lead the foundation's efforts to advance financial inclusion. And what that includes is informing audiences about saving and investing, cultivating and managing strategic partnerships with organizations to provide financial capability programming, engaging diverse communities and collaborating with our team of researchers on studies that advance understanding of diverse communities, financial capabilities, their circumstances and their well-being. Throughout my career, I've served in roles committed to empowering others to make a difference in making financial decisions, be that when I was a chief education officer, a municipal securities issuer, an investment banker and a research analyst. And fundamentally, at heart, I'm an idea architect. And I strive to generate solutions that achieve desired outcomes and that really make a difference. At the heart, I want people to have lives that they love.

02:39 - 02:42

Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's great. Thank you, Ritta. And Audria, how about you?

02:43 - 03:15

Audria Lee: So, I've been with FINRA for 13 years now. I was brought on to build out the formal diversity and inclusion program back in 2009. And I'll tell anybody, I am a program and project manager that just happens to specialize in diversity, equity and inclusion. I have been very grateful to have been a part of FINRA’s journey as they matured through their diversity, equity and inclusion, philosophy and approach and formal program implementation.

03:16 -03:20

Kaitlyn Kiernan: And how did you first get started in the DEI space?

03:21 – 04:56

Audria Lee: Yeah, for me it's a little bit of a funny serendipitous story. Again, my background had been in program and project management and back in December of 2006 I had a little bitty person. My daughter was born December 5th, and my husband and I had agreed that I'd take a year off and really do this mommy thing. And my daughter was four months old when she looked at me and said, “Mommy, we got to see other people because I was a project manager, my child.” And so, I applied for a temporary contract role at U.S. Food Service, which is a large food distributor.

And they were setting up a diversity equity and inclusion program and needed somebody to be a project manager. And I was there for about a week, and they said, "Oh, this is no longer a contractor role. We want you to build this program for us." So, I was there for a couple of years and then I learned about an opportunity that literally looked like somebody took my job description and just plotted on another company's letterhead. And so, I came to FINRA in 2009 and have not looked backwards.

I will tell you that I feel like, though, that this is the work that I was put on the earth to do. I have always, from a structure standpoint, from my own personal infrastructure, everything is built on fairness. Everything, the decisions I make, the way that I approach problem solving, and so to be able to help create environments where there were fair and equitable processes and practices and policies so that everyone has opportunity, brings me joy every day.

04:58 - 05:06

Kaitlyn Kiernan: I love that story. And I'm sure your little one, though, not so little anymore, I'm sure she's very proud of the work you do. Ritta, how about you?

05:06 – 06:05

Ritta McLaughlin: Part of my background is I started working in public policy and in working with state and local governments. It's all about inclusion and equity. And I think through my experience that when I started out working at the New York City Council right out of college, through working in the New York State Assembly, through being an investment banker in public finance, to being a municipal issuer here in the District of Columbia, and through all of my work, it's always been about how to make sure that there is access, there is inclusion, there is fairness.

And so, it's not either one or the other, DEI is part of who I am, what I do. It's part of everything. It's not like I made a conscious decision - I want to do DEI. It is just by circumstance of what it means to be in this country and to be in the financial markets that dictate being inclusive and identifying with other individuals and ensuring that the markets work for everybody.

06:06 - 06:32

Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's great. And I will dig into this more later. But your background in investment banking and municipal government and securities, I'm sure that's very helpful when it comes to thinking about how do we increase DEI both in the industry and our communities? Now, Audria, before we transition, so you've been with FINRA 13 years with FINRA formal DEI programming. Is there anything that sticks out to you in those 13 years that you're really most proud of?

06:33 -09:44

Audria Lee: I tell people all the time, while FINRA didn't have a formal program until 2009 around diversity and inclusion, what it had and has is two of the most forward thinking CEOs that I've ever worked with and who have made it very easy to actually stand up for diversity, equity and inclusion as a core part of the way that we do business. And so, I am very proud of the fact that because it started at the top, because Rick Ketchum and Robert Cook both had just a keen awareness of the business imperative for diversity, equity, inclusion, but also happen to be kind  and decent human beings who understand that humans need to have environments where they're respected and feel valued.

I can tell you that I'm just very proud that we've been able to stand up a program that we hope serves as a beacon for others in our industry. We have a mature Diversity Leadership Council that's been in place for the past 13 years that take a lot of pride in providing recommendations to the organization initially to build out what we think of as best in class program structure. But more importantly, to support emerging issues, raise opportunities for increased engagement across the organization at all stops.

I'm very proud that we have ten employee resource groups representing affinities and cross-sectional affinity that have unique perspectives to share with the organization. And in 2021, they led over 100 professional development events outside of our formal training and development program here in the organization. I'm also very proud that we built this program structure not in a time of crisis, so that when a time of crisis arose, we're recording this on the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the two-year anniversary, and we're recording this two years into COVID, a global pandemic, and when we built our structure, it wasn't because somebody made us. But when we had a time of crisis, we had the people and the processes in place to help the organization quickly understand the landscape in which they were working, to quickly connect to people in ways that were meaningful for them around parenting during a global pandemic, around processing feelings of grief and of loss, during the summer of 2020, when the world stopped for the issues of violence in our communities. That was able to help us from our Asian and Asian-American community and that resource group, really to helped us really think about a return to office policy and how the violence in those communities should really inform how we're asking people to come back into the work environment in cities. And so, I'm just very proud that once the organization was built it rose to the occasion when the organization needed it most.

09:45 – 10:09

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yeah, there's been some truly tremendous programming over the past couple of years. I've taken advantage of it, and I know a lot of my coworkers have too, so it is great that it was there to support during the crisis, rather being a reaction to the crisis. Now, as we dig in, I want to make sure that we're all speaking the same language. So, to start, can we just say, what do we mean by diversity, equity and inclusion?

10:09 - 12:13

Audria Lee: One of the first things we did when we set up our program was define what we mean so that everybody could be on the same sheet of music. And so, the diversity of FINRA isn't just about visible characteristics. It's everything that makes you uniquely you. And inclusion is creating an environment where you feel comfortable bringing everything that's uniquely you to problem solving exercises here in the organization. Because what we know is that the business case for diversity is the more perspectives you bring to a problem, the faster, more innovative, high quality the solutions will be.

And so, we need to have diversity of thought, perspective, experience, skills, but we also need to create an environment where people are engaged and want to and feel safe to share their perspectives so that we have better outcomes. We started our journey thinking about diversity as diversity and inclusion and who you are in the environment we built, but we were very intentional in the past year about introducing the concept of equity as well. Because while it feels like it was the underpinning that fairness around the way that we looked at practices and policies in the organization, we really didn't have the language for people to be able to express it in that way.

And equity really is about meeting people where they are and understanding that talent comes in many different packages. And what that means is sometimes there will be talent that needs to be met with some sort of opportunity and/or tool that they may not have had in the past, but still recognizes their opportunity and their need to realize great outcomes for the organization.

So, when you think about equity, it really is the fairness piece. It's the fair treatment. It's the equality access to all the tools necessary for you to be able to engage really productively in those problem-solving exercises that moves our mission forward.

12:14 - 12:20

Kaitlyn Kiernan: We didn't all start on the same starting line, so we got to kind of get to the same place as we move forward.

12:20 - 12:32

Audria Lee: Kaitlin It sounds like you did a great job in taking advantage of our latest Diversity Education series. That's exactly the language that we use to help people understand that concept.

12:33 - 13:07

Kaitlyn Kiernan: I think it sits with me as a runner. Audria, you mentioned before that we have great support at FINRA from the very top of the organization, and that's not just our CEO Robert Cook, but also our Board of Governors. In the summer of 2020, they released a statement on diversity, equity and inclusion, and they mentioned that we wanted to support as an organization DEI, not just within FINRA, but also in our communities and within the industry. Ritta, how does FINRA see its role when it comes to supporting DEI outside of FINRA as well?

13:07 - 14:26

Ritta McLaughlin: I think, actually, what's interesting, is when we view FINRA’s mission and actually I think we view expanding access to the markets as part of who we are as an organization and then our mission of investor protection and market integrity. And I would also say it's not just a tag line. A vibrant market is best when it really works for everybody. And fulfilling our mission means that for all investors, regardless of their socioeconomic status, their gender, their ethnicity or race, really have the ability to participate in our capital markets.

And when you think about the capital markets, participating is really all about community. People shape the markets. People are in the markets. And people are, in fact, the life force that drives the markets forward in bear markets and bull markets, it's really about people. And so. when we talk about FINRA and our role in communities, all the work that we do enhances and encompasses what it means to be in community. We know that there's a lot more work to be done to broaden access to the financial markets and financial services.

But one of the things that we definitely are committed to is ensuring that we have participation that is full and that protects all people that are interested and willing to participate in the capital markets.

14:27 - 14:55

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yeah. We know there are issues in terms of access. We know there's issues and disparities in terms of generational wealth, which contributes to whether or not you have access to capital markets. So, it's great that this is a focus for FINRA, not just within our organization, but in our communities as well. Audria, FINRA recently published its 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Year in Review. Can you start by telling us what this report is?

14:56 -17:21

Audria Lee: So, about ten years ago, we started looking for ways to share with our internal stakeholders, our employees, but also our external stakeholders, our member firms and other interested parties in the financial services industry. The progress that we've been making in diversity, equity and inclusion here at FINRA. We've been told on many occasions in firms large and small, that when FINRA talks about the work that they're doing in this space, it makes it easier for them to go back to their organizations and say. "Hey, you know, our regulator is doing this work."

I will say this very clearly. Firms have been doing this work for a long time and have been doing it well. But sometimes there are firms that are small, that don't have diversity programs or that don't have the personnel to dedicate to diversity and inclusion. And so, when they're able to see some of the programs that we've put on, it makes it actionable and real. And they can take incremental steps to building out an inclusive environment at the firms. We talk about our four pillars of work that we do in the diversity equity inclusion space in this report. We talk about our diversity education. We talk about engagement and how our programs help to make sure that our workforce has opportunities to be more engaged in meaningful ways, whether it be through our ERG program or through our community service initiatives or volunteer day initiatives that we do through team building. We talk about representation. Last year was the first year that we started publishing our demographics in this report externally so that we could show that we want to be transparent about the race and gender makeup of our organization.

And then we talk about the spaces where we continue to lean into this notion of thought leadership, and we share with stakeholders the work that we do to bring together as a convening body, the industry to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, both through our annual conference diversity segment, as well as our Diversity Leadership Summit that happens annually at no charge for anyone in the financial industry that wants to come and have 8 hours of professional development in diversity, equity, inclusion.

17:21 - 17:46

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thanks, Audria, and we will link to the report and I don't think we have a date set for the diversity summit this year yet, but you can keep an eye out in the events and conferences section of the website to register for that when we have that available. Another thing that FINRA stood up in 2020 was the Racial Justice Task Force. Audria, you're very involved with that. Can you tell us what that is?

00:17:48:01 - 21:11

Audria Lee: Sure. Actually, Ritta and I both were very involved in it. We spoke earlier about this being the two -year anniversary of the George Floyd incident. And at that time, we were in the midst of a global pandemic. Everybody was sitting at home. They had much more access to social media than they probably would have liked at the time. And we as a nation saw the murder of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police. And at that time, we immediately had the sense to just stop, to pause and be thoughtful about what we could do as an organization to help positively impact in our industry, our workforce and our communities.

Equity with respect to race and our board put out a statement about the police violence. Our African American network, our employee resource group was ready immediately to have a conversation with our leaders around some actionable steps that they recommend that we take to help move the needle within the scope of the work that we do around these issues. And that was the genesis of pulling together a task force that for 18 months focused on collecting and receiving recommendations from the organization around the work that we should be doing and the efforts we should be taking as a mission focused organization who really looks to ensure full participation in the markets. You can't have full participation if your communities are not safe. You can't have full participation if the industry isn't inclusive. You can't have full participation if your workforce is not engaged. And so, we had over 80 recommendations that came in across the organization that the Racial Justice Task Force mobilized to evaluate the recommendations and to put into action in a three- to five- year plan those recommendations that were viable and within the scope of our mission here at FINRA.

20:04 - 20:27

Kaitlyn Kiernan: I think one example is we expanded our Voting Leave Policy to not just apply to national elections, but all elections. So, any time our employees need to vote in school board elections, anything up and down from local to national, they can take that time off as much as they need to do that civic duty.

20:27 - 21:11

Audria Lee: Yeah, and Kaitlin, you're exactly right. We had Election Leave Policy already, and it was 2 hours, which is kind of an arbitrary number. And imagine we're in the middle of a global pandemic and you're saying, "Hey, the lines are already going to be out the door because of social distancing and all this other stuff. And you're only going to give me 2 hours to go out and help positively impact my communities." So, I think it was raising awareness that we even had this policy, but then taking out the arbitrariness, making it not be hard to go out and participate in the election process.

So very proud. That was actually the very first recommendation that rolled out very quickly after the standing up of the task force.

21:11 - 22:12

Kaitlyn Kiernan: So, Ritta, when FINRA thinks that DEI isn't just within our organization. How does FINRA see its role when it comes to supporting DEI within our communities?

22:12- 22:13

Ritta McLaughlin

We are expanding access to the markets as part of our mission of investor protection and market integrity. A vibrant market is best when it works for everybody. That's just not a tagline with any organization. Fulfilling our mission means that all investors, regardless of their socioeconomic status, their gender, their ethnicity, their race, have the ability to participate in the U.S. capital markets.

And participating in the capital markets is really all about communities. People shape the markets. People are the life force of the markets. Without people, you don't have a market. We recognize that there is so much more that we can do not only to broaden access to financial services, but also to ensure that those that are participating in the markets are sufficiently protected.

22:13 - 22:17

Kaitlyn Kiernan: And Ritta, can you tell us about the FINRA Foundation's Financial Inclusion Framework?

22:18 - 23:45

Ritta McLaughlin: In September of 2020, the Board of Directors at the Foundation approved revisions to the strategic plan to embrace the efforts of the Racial Justice Task Force and really reexamine fundamentally the priorities taking on the lens of diversity, inclusion and economic justice. And in 2021, the Foundation Board adopted the Financial Inclusion Framework. And that framework aims at creating an understanding and a relationship that addresses some of the systemic wealth and disparities and looking at leading to better outcomes for communities of color and underserved communities around FINRA, as well as that the foundation serves.

The Financial Inclusion Framework embodies the foundation's values and beliefs and defines financial capability not only by knowledge and skill, but also opportunities and access. And we believe that advancing financial capability really requires a strong commitment to racial justice, to ethnicity, to gender and economic justice in all communities, and recognizing that investing in financial security, in the economic mobility of people, we really are having an opportunity to be effective in providing financial education that can be achieved through collaboration, through innovation, through expertise, and a commitment to all people having financial well-being.

23:46 - 23:54

Kaitlyn Kiernan: One of the foundation's primary focuses is research. What does some of the research show in this space?

23:55 - 27:43:

Ritta McLaughlin: Well, let me reference two major pieces. We conducted a report Investing 2020, which really focused on new accounts and the people who opened them. And what that report shows is that there was a surge of new retail investors entering the market via online brokerages. And the study found that new investors are more diverse. They're young. They come from lower incomes, and they also have smaller balances in their taxable accounts than investors do open accounts prior to 2020.

Some would actually assert that that's really good news. However, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare that there have been significant resource gaps in underserved communities, and also the heightened awareness of the systemic racial and gender inequities that have impacted communities all across the country. And that impact has continued to reverberate in nearly every industry and every age group. The other report Bounce Back the Financial Resiliency of Americans identified that there were patterns of resiliency or their lack of resiliency in the population, and that's really exposing the differences and racial makeup from those segments.

And let me just break that down a little bit more. The largest percentage of Americans, so that's 37%, fall into the most financially vulnerable category, and that's living on the edge. And both of these reports are available on the foundation's website for those who are interested in delving into a bit more of the statistics. But when you look at both of these reports, you see that people of color, low- income individuals and individuals with comparatively low educational attainment make up substantial portions of the Living on the Edge segment.

Even under normal circumstances, or I would like to say in the before times, groups face major barriers for financial well-being and the pandemic, the barriers have been higher. The consequences to overcome them have been even greater and more severe. And one of the other points, particularly in the Bounce Back report, is also notably that women have been particularly hard hit in the pandemic economy, accounting for approximately 55% of the job losses since February of 2020.

The research that has been undertaken by the foundation also revealed that people of color, particularly those identifying as Black and African American or Hispanic or Latino, are underrepresented among investing account holders. And when compared to white adults, Black and African American and Hispanic and Latino adults are 20% and 45% respectively, less likely to own taxable accounts. And for women of color, the representation is even lower.

And so, this is highly problematic on many levels. Because as many that are listening may be aware that investing is one of the most important vehicles for accumulating wealth in this country, and it's been well documented. The wealth gap actually hinders economic growth and opportunities for people of color. And the question continues to remain, how is it that we are going to best expand investor participation in the markets and how do we broaden access to financial services? And, also, in doing that, how do we ensure that the participation of those who participate are sufficiently protected in that process? As a part of what we have to begin to really delve into is how do we increase resources, how do we increase access to processes, to products and knowledge that is actually going to help bridge the divide between and among all investors?

27:44- 28:05

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yeah. Those are some substantial barriers that you mentioned. And obviously they have major impacts not just on the current generation but future generations to come. But how is the foundation now using this research to reach out to communities and change knowledge and research into action?

28:05 - 31:38

Ritta McLaughlin: Well, there are a couple of things. As I mentioned in the creation of the Financial Inclusion Framework, we've developed and are actually guided by five principles. Learning by doing, building relationships by building trust -and that's really having cultural competency, collaborating, taking the long view and prioritizing relationships and strategies. And that also is encompassing looking at the COVID pandemic impacts and particularly looking at issues of financial inclusion and closing the wealth gap. In developing the financial inclusion framework is looking at establishing sustainable, long- term participation and partnerships with national and community- based organizations that share the foundation's mission.

And that our position to advance financial capability in communities all across the country, and particularly focusing on underserved communities and communities of color. I have a few examples of initiatives supported by the Foundation to advance financial inclusion in our communities. The first was the Access to Impact Conference that the Foundation hosted in collaboration with FINRA's Chief Economist and work at the University of Chicago. We had this virtual conference to bring together leaders in academia, the industry and policy to explore the academic and the industry research on diversity, equity, inclusion, and really began to have conversations of how we can advance inclusion in the capital markets, leveraging the research that's been conducted.

The second area has been in the foundation's development of a dissertation completion fellowship, and the dissertation completion fellowship seeks to expand the pipeline of researchers from racial and ethnic backgrounds whose underrepresentation in the US history has been severe and longstanding. And inside of that, this fellowship program, we are providing $40,000 fellowships to support doctoral candidates that are within their last year of their Ph.D. dissertation writing.

And we're pursuing research on topics specifically related to financial capability and investor protection, expanding access to financial services as well as the capital markets. Applications are available on the foundation's website.

Thirdly, the foundation has taken on programs that address the needs of investors, military servicemembers, low- income workers and families and underserved communities to build financial stability, invest for life goals, and guard against fraud.

Much of the work has been accomplished in partnerships with organizations that share a deep commitment to the foundation's mission. And the foundation participates in a combination of professional trainings and outreach activities with its partners and its networks that reach consumers, victim advocates, nonprofits, service providers, law enforcement and members of the military community, including military spouses. And these partnerships were able to reach where they are and where they learn. And we are offering in-depth programming on money management, investing in fraud and scam prevention. And so those are a few of the efforts that the foundation has taken on, recognizing that there is much more to do. But this is a place to start.

31:39 - 32:03

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thanks so much for sharing those. I love the diversity of efforts. Just to wrap up today, I want to leave our listeners with some actionable tips. So, Audria, what is one thing our listeners can do to support DEI in their organizations. Wherever they work, no matter their position or level of seniority?

32:04 - 33:15

Audria Lee: I always have 15 things that people can go do, and so I do think just given where we are. This has been a tough couple of weeks around, racially inspired violence. We actually woke up this week learning about the children who will never go home. And so, I would say, given where we are during this time, the most important thing that any person can do is be kind and have empathy and really show respect in ways that will be meaningful to your team members.

There is just so much going on in this world and we work because we need to make sure that our families have what they need. And it's really tough to do that when there is so much going on in our communities that keep us from being able to focus. So, I would just ask my one thing be kind, have empathy, and know that there are resources available to you and/or others if you need to have someone to talk to during this time.

33:16:11 - 33:25

Kaitlyn Kiernan: I think that's a great reminder. Thank you, Andrea. And Rita, what is one thing our listeners can do to support DEI in their communities?

33:26 - 34:00

Ritta McLaughlin: Pick one of the three Ts- time, talent and treasure -and understanding that by taking part, you can actually transform your community. You can make the difference. We all have something to offer. We all can make a contribution. Time. Treasure. Talent. Give your time. Provide your knowledge, your expertise, your resources, and many organizations. Treasure comes in lots of different ways. Be that writing a check or making a donation of some sort. Many organizations will appreciate that. Three Ts.

34:01 - - 35:20

Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thank you, Audria and Ritta, so much for joining me today to talk about this important work. I know I speak for many FINRA employees when I say it makes such a difference to work for an organization that cares so deeply about this topic and is committed to doing more than just talk about it. So, I really appreciate you taking the time to update us on all the great stuff you and your teams are doing.

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And if you have any thoughts to share about today's episode or ideas for future episodes, you can email us at FINRAUnscripted @FINRA.Org. Today's episode was produced by me, Kaitlin Kiernan, and engineered by John Williams. Until next time.

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