Women In Finance: “Talk to your kids at the dinner table about finance, from the basics of running a checking account to how quickly interest compounds on credit cards” with Brooke Akins

An Interview With Jason Hartman

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Talk to your kids at the dinner table about finance, from the basics of running a checking account to how quickly interest compounds on credit cards. You don’t have to divulge everything about your personal finances but giving them a few examples that are on their level and having them do the math really drives home the impact.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooke Akins, Director of Investor Relations and ESG Committee Chair at Virtus Real Estate Capital. Brooke is responsible for the firm’s communication, reporting, public relations, and brand management, as well as leading the client relations team. She plays a crucial role in supporting fundraising and marketing efforts across both the HNW and Institutional channels. She also leads the firm’s ESG initiative, including designing policies and implementing monitoring tools across the portfolio. Mrs. Akins is well versed in delivering reporting that incorporates ILPA standards as well as integration across various custodial, wire house and banking platforms. Prior to joining Virtus, Mrs. Akins spent eight years at PTV Healthcare Capital, a venture capital firm focused on expansion-stage medical device companies, in various fund administration and marketing support roles. Mrs. Akins holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.B.A. from The University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you so much for joining us, Brooke! Can you tell us the backstory about what brought you to the finance field?

Can you believe producing runway shows led me to run investor relations and marketing for a private equity real estate firm? While working on a bachelor of arts in sociology, I interned for a regional Aveda distributor who used educational outreach to build brand loyalty with salon owners. We regularly produced runway shows and trainings when Aveda would launch new seasonal collections or when they would launch a new product line. I loved producing events so much that after I graduated, I came across an opportunity to work for a venture capital firm, PTV Healthcare Capital, producing their annual meetings. While they sound like they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, at the end of the day, the objective is the same — to connect on a personal, emotional level with your audience.

While at PTV, I was exposed to communications and reporting, and found I enjoyed telling the stories behind our startup companies. Later, I led rebranding efforts to better align the firm’s digital presence with its investment strategy, co-producing a variety of content, including SXSW panels, podcasts, and leadership roundtables.

I moved into private equity real estate, joining Virtus Real Estate Capital, for the opportunity to build my own investor relations and marketing team. Around that same time, I started pursuing an MBA from Texas McCombs, and while juggling both is not for the faint of heart, I am a much better leader and team member for the experience. Since graduating, I play a more significant role in our fundraising efforts and have been enhancing our reporting standards around our ESG efforts.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away from that story?

While this didn’t occur in my career, it was pivotal in understanding my value. As a college student, I really wanted to take a certain political science course with a well-regarded professor. His classes were hard to get into because the student demand was so great. After previously trying to register for two consecutive semesters, I got a seat on my third attempt. The course was great, and the professor was engaging and brilliant — everything I had hoped. On one of the last days of class, the professor wanted to show an interview he had recorded on a DVD. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how to work the DVD player, and he refused to ask any of the students for help. That’s when I realized, just because someone is an expert in one area doesn’t mean they are stellar at everything. He practiced a lot at one thing and became good at it. For a young woman, who felt inadequate at times, this changed my outlook. I knew, over time, I would become an expert at the subject I chose to focus on, and I didn’t have to be good at everything to be well-respected.

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

Besides running ESG initiatives for Virtus, I recently became involved in improving communications and outreach for the PTSA of the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, an all-girls public school serving grades 6–12 in the Austin Independent School District. The diverse student body represents some of the best and brightest in Austin’s community, and the school’s mission is to prepare these girls to not only attend college but graduate and lead successful careers. The challenge, as I’ve learned since joining, is creating a community for the families that stand behind the daughters who will one day change the world. As a new member, my goal is to facilitate open communication and understanding among the parents, staff, and students to enhance the educational experience.

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

For me, the first time I heard our Chief Investment Officer, Rob Schweizer, tell his story, I was hooked. As is often the case for fund managers, leadership starts their career at the who’s who of investment banks (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan), and gain experience before starting their own firms. As Rob explained, he joined Virtus to build a team that wasn’t pressured to deploy billions into real estate rapidly. He wanted his team to get in the weeds, go into the communities we were targeting, and create in-depth market studies, leading to better due diligence and more informed underwriting. Perhaps the most innovative feedback loop he created at Virtus was requiring our asset management team to complete their own due diligence and approvals before a property could be acquired, which really mitigates any “grenades” from going off once the deal is done. I think that type of hands-on teamwork makes our approach thoughtful and encourages short and persistent feedback loops, which ultimately make us better at what we do.

Wall Street and finance used to be an “all white boys club.” This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

I think the answer is twofold, depending on whether you are looking at more inclusive hiring along the lines of gender or along the lines of race and ethnicity. Regarding changes in gender, I think we had some brave and driven women who, over time, stepped into more and more senior roles and have proven their work quality and work ethic to the point of breaking down some of the “ingroup” thinking that tends to occur among groups exhibiting homogeneity. The tendency for ingroup bias is also present along the lines of race and ethnicity, but I think that tends to be less about certain stereotypes about women and more to do with the “otherness” that we can feel when we don’t share similar life experiences. Admittedly, much of finance is a relationship-driven business, and all sides must be open to building relationships with people that appear different.

Secondly, particularly with gender, I know more studies have been done that support diversity in gender, whether it’s at the board level or senior management. During a recent diversity training at Virtus, I presented an IFC/World Bank study that found private equity and venture capital funds with gender-balanced senior investment teams generated 10 percent to 20 percent higher returns than funds dominated by leadership that is either decidedly male or female. The fact is, diversity of ideas and the process of creative abrasion are powerful tools that foster innovation. Furthermore, the IFC’s study found that part of what led to high returns was the fact that women networked with other women, and by extension invested in those women and their companies, which also tended to perform better, helping to boost the overall returns achieved.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity, and according to this report in CNBC, less than 17% of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by individuals, companies and/or society to support this movement going forward?

First and foremost, we need men to champion the inclusion of women in senior roles and take steps to ensure that happens at their firms. The IFC study I mentioned earlier was presented at a women’s private equity summit. That study, while reaffirming when I heard it, needs to also be presented to those who run the companies women work for. When our male peers openly support this cause and take action, then their peer-base is also more likely to be receptive to it because they see it being done by those similar to them.

Secondly, we have to expose more girls growing up today to financial education, in order to ensure that they have a place in the finance sector tomorrow. The tech sector has undoubtedly leaned into this, and schools are currently building out STEM-based curricula that are very tech-friendly. The Ann Richards school is a good example. While also STEM-focused, they expose their high-school students to the concept of entrepreneurship and provide opportunities for them to participate in pitch competitions. Teaching a high school student to understand what a term sheet is and why it’s important does a lot to demystify what finance is all about.

Third, women have to network and mentor, and not just with other women. One of my favorite quotes that sums this up nicely is by Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund. She said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” So, when a co-worker in a junior role can see herself in my position, it reaffirms that she can have a successful career in a male-dominated industry. Secondly, as I mentioned before, relationships drive the finance industry. When men see women in their networking circles, it starts to become normalized and accepted.

According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience, what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

First, talk to your kids at the dinner table about finance, from the basics of running a checking account to how quickly interest compounds on credit cards. You don’t have to divulge everything about your personal finances but giving them a few examples that are on their level and having them do the math really drives home the impact.

On the flip side, I recognize that many parents don’t feel comfortable advising their kids, either because it’s too personal or they don’t feel educated enough to speak on the matter. There are a lot of great podcasts and even some games that serve as effective educational tools for adults and children alike, and can encourage the discussions in a more comfortable setting.

Lastly, schools are seeing the need for this and are creating fun and approachable ways for children of all ages to learn. My fourth grader has a class job, and he’s paid a wage that he gets to spend in the class store once every six weeks. Some of the jobs pay more than others, and each of his classmates had to apply for their jobs. As the class police officer, he’s paid about average, but not as much as the banker. He’s come home from the class store upset that he spent his money on poor-quality toys that broke or that he wore out quickly. From that, he learned to make better buying decisions and even save his money to purchase a big-ticket item he really wanted. I’d encourage anyone working in finance to engage with their local schools, either by supporting these types of initiatives or being a speaker and exposing students to the jobs available in the industry.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive essentials for smart investing what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

My ideas are admittedly intuitive and more like tips:

1) Pay your savings account first. It doesn’t have to be much, but treat it like a bill to be paid.

2) Pay your credit card off in full every month. Credit cards are not inherently bad, and they are excellent tools for building credit history for when you truly need it, but don’t carry a balance.

3) Be okay living in a small space. Small spaces mean less stuff you can buy to fill that space. Instead, spend time and money on experiences with friends and family. That will bring you more enjoyment.

4) Likewise, don’t worry about buying a fancy car. Let your Uber driver buy the fancy car and enjoy the ride from the back seat.

5) Invest in a good espresso machine and “pay yourself” what you’d spend buying lattes and americanos at a coffee shop. You’re likely to be surprised at how much you were spending, and you can instead pay that into your savings.

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? Can you share a story about that?

While I have had some great mentors and sponsors along the way, my husband is hands down my biggest cheerleader, and I wouldn’t have built the confidence I have today without his steadfast belief that I was better than I gave myself credit for. He watched me jump into the finance sector when I didn’t have a clue what venture capital was. He told me I’d learn it along the way, and I did. When I decided to get my MBA, I knew I’d need his help with taking care of our kids, and he didn’t hesitate to jump in. Knowing I have a partner in my corner, who will shoot me straight when I need to bounce business questions off of him, has been one of the greatest gifts I could receive.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Love him or hate him; I’m particularly fond of a quote by Woody Allen: “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” That mentality has kept me going many times in my career. When I was tired and didn’t want to attend a networking event after working a full day, I’d talk myself into going by saying I just needed to show up. Most of the time, I’d be energized by the conversations, and by the end of the session, I achieved or learned something I wouldn’t have otherwise. Likewise, when I was younger and sat in meetings where I was sometimes the only female in the room, it could be intimating. What gave me courage was knowing that by showing up, even if I didn’t speak much, I was helping to change perceptions and normalize my participation in the future.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d be honored to inspire more young women to seek out careers in finance. Not only would we expect to see major changes in how investment banks, fund managers, and institutional investors would structure their work cultures to be more reflective of their employee base, but, based on the research, these companies should perform better too. It’s a win-win situation for every stakeholder!

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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