Vanessa Okwuraiwe of ‘Edward Jones’: “Culture should be woven into the fabric of every business”

Culture should be woven into the fabric of every business. Creating a culture that allows an organization to reach its peak potential — while also providing an environment where associates feel free to bring their best selves to work doesn’t happen by chance. It’s an evolving landscape, and the work is never done. If a company’s organizational […]

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Culture should be woven into the fabric of every business. Creating a culture that allows an organization to reach its peak potential — while also providing an environment where associates feel free to bring their best selves to work doesn’t happen by chance. It’s an evolving landscape, and the work is never done. If a company’s organizational structure, systems and processes make up its hardware, its culture and behaviors are the software. Both elements have to work together as a single system for the company to achieve its purpose.


As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Okwuraiwe.

Edward Jones Principal Vanessa Okwuraiwe is part of the strategic leadership team that helps the firm achieve its goal of being a place of belonging for all and to fulfill its purpose of making a meaningful impact in the lives of clients, associates and communities. She is responsible for helping the firm increase its representation of different groups and foster engagement and inclusion. Vanessa earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Edo State University in Nigeria, a master’s degree in development economics from the University of Kent,Canterbury and an executive MBA from Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School. An advocate for economic and educational development, she is active on the board of the St. Louis Community College Foundation and actively engaged in the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into the main part of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share a bit of your “backstory” with us?

I’m currently part of the Edward Jones strategic leadership team helping the firm increase its representation of different groups, fostering inclusion. Looking back, there are a number of reasons and experiences that got me to where I am today. I began my professional career in banking at the Halilfax in Reading, England in 1996. In 2001, I joined Edward Jones’ former United Kingdom affiliate, Edward Jones Limited, as an academic training leader and later took on the responsibility of leading academic training leaders within the Training department. In 2007, I transitioned to join Financial Advisor Recruiting and Hiring, overseeing the growth and retention of financial advisors in the United Kingdom. I was named an Edward Jones principal in 2008.

In February 2010, I relocated to the firm’s St. Louis headquarters to assume responsibility for the hiring and training support of the new branch office administrators. They are part of our branch teams and partner with our financial advisors to serve our 7 million clients. Five years later, I moved to lead Financial Advisor Career Development. That brings us to today where I’m part of the strategic leadership team that helps the firm achieve its goal of being a place of belonging for all and to fulfil the firm’s guiding purpose of making a meaningful impact in the lives of clients, associates and communities.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I remember talking to one of my leaders early in my career about difficult performance conversations I needed to have with some members of the team. I was still a new leader and while these were crucial to do, I was concerned about how best to have them. The leader said to me “ Vanessa, when you have a tough conversation, always leave people with their dignity intact”. I absorbed this lesson because it aligned so well with my purpose. We know how valuable feedback is when done the right way. It helps people develop into their best selves which is not just good for them as individuals, it’s good for business. His wise counsel all those years ago has guided me in how I have led and enabled others to grow — being thoughtful, candid and respectful. This is also important for creating a place of belonging where people can engage authentically knowing that they will have the support and resources they need to effectively contribute to an organization.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you tell us a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

I have quite a few! One of my favorites was made famous by Nelson Mandela. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.”

I have found these to be helpful when I embark upon something brand new — whether that was bringing my first child home from the hospital, taking on a new challenge at work, presenting to hundreds of people for the first time. It has always been important to “feel the fear or discomfort” that comes with trying because that’s how I’ll develop new skills and be a continuous learner.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I’ll always be grateful for my parents because they laid the right foundation for me. I have benefited from a village both personally and professionally. At Edward Jones, our culture has played such a great role in how we develop leaders and associates. I have had many opportunities to “sharpen the saw” and develop the right mindset to help others and ensure we always put our clients’ best interest first.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Edward Jones is a purpose-driven organization. Our purpose is to partner for positive impact — to improve the lives of our clients and colleagues, and together, better our communities and society. Our culture is an amalgamation of our purpose and values brought to life through our thoughts and our actions. Having that clear sense of purpose and a set of guiding principles allows for quick decision making — particularly in times of crisis like we’ve just been through with the pandemic — and helps us to clearly understand what is most important to us — taking care of our clients, working in partnership and valuing the contributions of every individual.

Edward Jones is a place of belonging for all, where our associates come together to live out our purpose and help clients achieve what matters most to them. Our firm has seen tremendous growth over time as we continue to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our clients, colleagues and communities will all be better off because of what we do, together, right now and in the years ahead.

In June of last year, we announced our Five-Point Commitment to support diversity, equity and inclusion. We committed to real change and progress in diverse recruitment, hiring and advancement and to make a “meaningful increase” in the diversity of our home office leaders and financial advisors. Currently, our financial advisors are 8 percent people of color and 21 percent women. Our home office general partners are 10 percent people of color and 29 percent women. We’ve now defined what and by when we strive to achieve a meaningful increase in diversity among our financial advisors, home office general partners and home office leadership. Our commitment as a firm is that by the end of 2025:

  • We’ll achieve 20 percent people of color and maintain gender parity among our home office leaders of leaders and leaders of associates.
  • Home office General Partners will be 15 percent people of color and 40 percent women.
  • Financial advisors will be 15 percent people of color and 30 percent women.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

This is the one-year anniversary of our Five-point Commitment to address racism and positively impact opportunities for people of color. We are holding ourselves accountable for meaningful progress and are committed to creating a path to greater diversity and equity as well as economic opportunity for people of color in our communities.

As one of the first signatories of the CEO Action for Diversity pledge in 2017, we committed to engage associates in honest dialogue as a tool for creating change. Since June 2020, more than 11,500 of our associates have participated in these Courageous Conversations on topics like race, to build understanding and create empathy among our colleagues. When we issued our Five-point Commitment last year, we committed to taking these conversations into our communities and have done so in St. Louis and Kansas City, with two more in Raleigh-Durham and again in St. Louis this year.

We are currently conducting an analysis of pay in our home offices — equal pay for equal work — and will share results and take any necessary actions when data is available.

We’re continuing racial-equity training and anti-racism personnel policies. We enhanced our learning program, which is called Inclusion and Diversity 365 to provide training and development opportunities for all. And we’ve strengthened our array of racial-equity unconscious bias and allyship courses.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There are a couple of recent initiatives that I’m particularly proud of. When we made our Five-point Commitment, we committed $1.2 million to continue fostering our 40-year partnership with the National Urban League and the St. Louis Urban League. This investment in the Save Our Sons program helped 300 African-American men find jobs and careers lost during the pandemic.

I’m also excited about expanding our Financial Fitness program, which provides financial literacy education and greater economic inclusion for 20,000 high school students in 575 schools — more than 50 percent in high-need schools.

Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. In order to innovate and grow with impact, you need to bring diverse perspectives to the table. Along with this, increasing diversity brings unique experiences and creative ideas to a firm, ultimately, lending to its bottom line.
  2. Creating a place of belonging for all, provides all employees the ability to bring their full selves to work each and every day.
  3. For us at Edward Jones, purpose has always been a central component of what we do. When purpose authentically aligns with a company’s actions, the outcomes can be tremendous: clients engage; colleagues are inspired; and companies can make a deep impact in people’s lives.
  4. Diverse leadership directly influences the composition of the rest of the firm and also mirrors it. This further contributes towards the happiness and retention of employees, increasing productivity and proactivity.
  5. Transparently communicating your company’s diverse makeup along with its values and standing on topics such as equity and inclusion elevates the firm as a whole.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive?

Culture should be woven into the fabric of every business. Creating a culture that allows an organization to reach its peak potential — while also providing an environment where associates feel free to bring their best selves to work doesn’t happen by chance. It’s an evolving landscape, and the work is never done. If a company’s organizational structure, systems and processes make up its hardware, its culture and behaviors are the software. Both elements have to work together as a single system for the company to achieve its purpose.

Companies succeed when they have a people-focused strategy because it fosters a sense of belonging among employees. This involves more than a policy statement; it necessitates candid dialogues and true concern for employees’ needs.

Diverse mindsets are also essential for any organization that wishes to develop and succeed. If you want your firm to expand, you need to be innovative. Different points of view challenge the status quo, resulting in a greater forward-looking approach. Those points of view are usually packed into a variety of genders, races, interests, experiences, backgrounds, and other factors.

What advice would you give to other business leaders about how to manage a large team?

To successfully manage any large team, employees should feel included and informed. This boils down to having an open, inclusive culture. Firm culture manifests itself in the way we show up, think and act. In many ways, it’s like a tree. Our history, core values, and purpose are the roots of that tree; these elements are constant and position us for strength. Above ground is the way we work, think and act — and these things will evolve over time as we bring our purpose and value to life in service of our clients, colleagues and communities.

The purpose of an organization must be clear and clearly conveyed to all employees. Leaders must also be deliberate about inclusion and belonging in order to create an engaged and productive workforce that feels accountable and enthusiastic about the organization’s future, and motivated to achieve objectives. As a leader, be visible, demonstrate those ideals, make yourself available and celebrate small and big successes.

One example of how Edward Jones managed a large team of associates is at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the world changed, seemingly all at once, the leadership team had to make a series of big decisions with wide-ranging ramifications, and quickly. The firm also had to wade through information (and disinformation) that was evolving by the minute. We had to lead without a playbook, and without the luxury of time. Keeping our clients, associates and key stakeholders at the center of every decision helped us navigate this unforeseen situation.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

David Oyelowo: A Nigerian British actor who has starred in many films such as Selma, A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe. I admire his intentionality in the roles he has chosen to portray — powerful and purposeful characters. He started a company to have a voice and create an avenue for other voices to be heard. I would love to chat about his background as I think we have some similarities, the challenges he has overcome and why he is so intent on making a positive difference in our world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website: https://www.edwardjones.com/us-en/why-edward-jones/about-us/corporate-citizenship/inclusion-diversity-equity-commitments

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vanessa-okwuraiwe-3028922b/

Thank you for these excellent insights. We wish you continued success in your great work.

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