From the March 2013 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

February 22, 2013

Leading With Flair

Academic-turned-FA Angela Graham-West carves out her own career destiny.

Don’t even think of typecasting or pigeonholing Angela Graham-West. The university professor-turned-financial advisor fits no mold whatsoever.

An FA since 1998, she joined Raymond James & Associates five years ago in the firm’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., branch and manages client assets of more than $30 million in partnership with FA Leon Rehak.

As an African-American female advisor, Graham-West is a rarity. It would therefore be naïve to expect that gender and race have presented no issues for her working in the predominantly white-male financial services industry.

“We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think we have to prove ourselves a bit more. People immediately assume that the older Caucasian male with white hair, before he even opens his mouth, knows what he’s talking about—as opposed to me, a black woman with natural hair. I might even be a little wiser, but that’s not the first thing that comes to mind,” says Graham-West, who is outspoken but chatty, too, in a way that promotes easy rapport.

Her book of business is a mix of clients, both high net worth and middle income. At the upper end, Caucasian individuals predominate. 

She aspires to add more affluent African-Americans to her client list and has some promising prospects. But with the population of Broward County—where Fort Lauderdale is located—low in blacks and heavy in Democrats, that’s a challenge for this African-American conservative libertarian.

“I do my own prospecting within my own circles. I attract people I have a lot in common with; but I don’t know a large number of African-American conservatives,” she says. Broward County’s population is 20% black, according to Broward.org.

Reflected in Graham-West’s client base as well is “the way African-Americans view the Republican Party right now,” she notes. “Some clients want to come to an advisor just for their expertise, but others want to identify with you on every level—they view the whole package.”

And Graham-West’s personal life surely plays a role in prospects’ perception of her. She is married to Allen B. West, former Florida congressman and prominent, controversial Tea Party spark who last year lost a bid for re-election. The battle was rancorous on both sides, with West’s confrontational—some charge, inflammatory—style fueling detractors.

“My husband and I have some of the same political [philosophy]. We’re both conservatives—that’s the main thing. But,” insists the FA, wed to West for 23 years and by whom she has two teenage daughters, “Allen isn’t the conservative dragon the media paints him as. That isn’t who he is.”

A former Army lieutenant colonel, West, notes his wife, with a laugh, does not win every argument at their Palm Beach Gardens home.

“He’s a powerful speaker, but I speak as well. My husband is a very logical speaker, though, which can be frustrating. He’ll say: ‘Let’s remove all emotion and look at this rationally.’ As if I wasn’t looking at it rationally before!”

Indeed, smarts and sound judgment have gone far to propel Graham-West professionally. 

“Angela … has made a significant impact at Raymond James. She’s become a role model for women who aspire to a career as a successful financial advisor,” says Todd Mackler, senior vice president-investments and branch manager of RJA’s Fort Lauderdale office. “She puts the interests of her clients ahead of her own in her conservative, pragmatic approach to investing for their futures.”

 Yet, because she is a woman and black, achieving that success has come neither swiftly nor easily.

As she told Caucasian teammate Rehak, a Raymond James advisor for nine years, when they began working together a year ago: “It will take time for us to cultivate clients. It won’t be just one meeting. We’re going to have to do a little more,” she recalls.

One of six children—and the only girl—she was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in Schweinfurt, Germany, where her father, Irish-Jamaican, was in the military. Her mother’s mixed-race forebears had moved to Jamaica from Cuba.

Relocating to the U.S. to attend college, Graham-West earned a bachelor’s in finance at Kansas State University in 1985 and four years later, an MBA in finance at Long Island University. A yen “to explore,” as she calls it, led to working in finance, IT, marketing and advertising at several big corporations, including Clairol and Seagram’s in New York City.

In 1994, her career took a sharp turn, when, after completing a Ph.D. in education at Kansas State, she opted to join the faculty as an assistant professor. At KSU, she taught international business and consumer behavior.

But four years later, university life had become boring; she deeply missed the dynamic world of business.

“I found myself envying my students who were getting hired by brokerage firms,” Graham-West says. That was when she decided to go the FA route too.

“Being a financial advisor involves a lot of teaching, and that was very natural to me,” she says.

At the moment, she is relishing the break after her spouse’s grueling, failed re-election campaign. Should he seek political office again, he won’t change his direct, candid approach; but his wife plans to change hers:

“I would be a little bit more direct. I’m probably not ever going to be as moderate as I’ve been in the past. I think that as a rule,” Graham-West says, “people take advantage of that.” 

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