Grenada, Mississippi, Summer 1966.
Malcolm Gissen, founder and CEO of financial advisory firm Malcolm H. Gissen and Co., will never forget that time. Gissen, then a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, volunteered to venture into the deepest part of the southern United States as part of a committee set up by President John F. Kennedy to provide legal assistance to blacks who had no access to it otherwise.
He got to Grenada on a Sunday night and immediately, was thrown into the flaming cauldron that was Mississippi. By day, he listened to their tales of horror and pleaded for jailed black men and women; by night, he and several others in Mississippi for the same purpose, joined rallies and marches and dodged KKK bullets. Every morning, they faced fresh threats from the Klan. “I was so affected by everything I saw and experienced, that when I left Mississippi and went back to law school, I was very uncomfortable around Whites,” Gissen says. “I lived with blacks for a long time after that.”
Many years have gone by since that time and while race relations will always be an issue in a country where slavery was institutionalized, great progress has been made. Yet Gissen–who’s extremely sensitive to race and is “always looking around me, whether it be at financial advisory conferences or at the symphony to see whether people of all colors are represented”–is disappointed at how few blacks there are in the financial planning world, both on the client and on the advisor side.
This, he says, is mostly because advisors–himself included–are “chasing the big bucks.” The profession "serves affluent people well but it really doesn’t serve anyone else,” Gissen says. “The reality, sadly, is that our profession will only truly serve blacks and Hispanics when they become affluent. Until that time, that segment won’t really be served as it should be served.”
A growing number of advisors are making a great effort to reach out to minority populations regardless of their wealth levels, Gissen says, but many are not doing anything. They can, though, take it upon themselves to reach out in other ways, the most important being through education.
Gissen believes that financial education is the key to improving livelihoods in minority communities, which will then translate to a greater need for services like financial planning. “I’m an old, white guy, but I go into low income elementary schools on a regular basis and I talk to kids about saving and investing money and why it is important,” he says. “Whether it is a message that they will retain, I don’t know, but I think it’s important for me to try and get it across. I think there are many young financial planners out there who can and should be doing the same thing.”