Tyrone Ross Jr. “What’s forced down advisors’ throats is that success is how much money we manage — not how many lives we touch,” Ross says. “That’s disgusting.”

One of the most visible young African American influencers in financial services predicts that in 10 to 15 years this business will be “the most beloved industry in the world.”

That would be some huge change. But in an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Tyrone Ross Jr. argues it will happen as soon as advisors transform from “takers” into “givers.”

Director of community at Altruist, a platform with software designed to let FAs charge less, and host of the firm’s “The Human Advisor” podcast, Ross, 40, spent five years as a Merrill Lynch advisor.

Within the last year, he has popped up on industry hot lists as a mover pegged to help change the wealth management industry. The frequent speaker has recently addressed Etsy, Spotify and Uber, among other companies.

Ross is passionate about what he believes is the need for FAs to change focus from asset-gathering to serving the underserved and helping that demographic become financially literate.

Indeed, he wants to break the “traditional” advisor “mold,” which he contends is “selfish,” “racist” and “bigoted.” That view is at least partly based on his own years as a wirehouse FA. In the interview, he says he experienced “racism” and “bigotry” at Merrill.

After leaving there in 2017 for NobleBridge Wealth & Asset Management Services, where he was managing partner, he opted, two years ago, to give up his Series 7 license.

On April 1, he launched a business consulting company called 401. Targeting young professionals and startup founders, the focus is on technology, with cryptocurrency his specialty. He considers it “perfect” for those who are unbanked.

Ross grew up poor in Edison, New Jersey, and environs. His father worked for the sanitation department; his mother drove a bus and was a home health aide. He attended college on an athletics scholarship, graduating with a B.A. from Seton Hall University in 2006. To pay for grad school, he took a job as a probation officer.

Today, one of several hats he wears is director of financial education at Exponential ETFs, leading the Detroit-based firm’s “Detroit Invests in You” program for financial literacy, which is in fundraising mode. Detroit’s median income is less than half that of the national average, according to Exponential.

ThinkAdvisor interviewed Ross in early March, on the phone from his office in Edison. He bemoaned COVID-19’s crushing impact on his calendar of speaking engagements, at the same time predicting that more industry conferences will be held online as a result of coronavirus.

The new normal for doing business, he forecasts, will be doing it virtually.

Here are highlights of our interview:

THINKADVISOR: What do you believe the impact of coronavirus will be on the job of financial advisor?

TYRONE ROSS: I’m not certain about long-term, but I believe a few things will change: Financial services will become more virtual — no more in-person meetings with clients, wholesalers and the like; and lots of conferences will go that way, too. Also, advisor [contact info] needs to be in their clients’ phones. And because we’ll be working remotely [more than in past], industry compliance and regulations will have to change and catch up.

You’ve said your aim is “to break the traditional mold of the advisor.” What is that mold, and why do you want to break it?

The traditional mold is selfish. The traditional mold is racist. The traditional mold is bigoted. The traditional mold is expensive. The traditional mold is exclusive. But this is changing, and I’d like to be part of that change. What’s forced down advisors’ throats is that success is how much money we manage — not how many lives we touch. That’s disgusting. 

Will COVID-19 change industry attitudes about advisors’ race and gender?

No. I don’t think it will have any impact on that at all.

You called the traditional advisor mold “selfish.” Do you mean that advisors are in the profession just for the money?

Yes, the money they can make. That’s why some advisors don’t offer their services to people who can’t pay. We’re taught [by the industry] to be selfish: We never put anything back into the community. That’s a shame because there are hungry children, and poor and homeless people all over. Meanwhile, we’re patting each other on the back, giving congratulations for making the Barron’s 100. That’s unacceptable.

So what needs to be done?

We have to move from a business that’s taught to take to a business that’s taught to give.

In what way are you personally giving?

It’s very important for me to use my experience of growing up in an unbanked home, someone who didn’t know what the stock market was until the age of 26 and someone who has worked with young black and brown kids that have been raped, been gang members, abused, neglected and unsheltered.

But what does financial services have to do with that?

As an industry, we touch what everybody in the world needs: money. We’re complicit in the income inequality in this country. And as an industry, we don’t do enough to combat it.

What are you doing along those lines?

I don’t agree to speak or take part in conferences [whose sponsors] don’t give back to the community. Those of us who are black and brown — especially those of us who are black men — have to start using the leverage and platform we have to let [the industry] know we’re no longer your “diversity-and-inclusion hires.” I’m OK with you checking [that] box — but if you use me, I will use you.

What’s your hope for financial services regarding the issues you’ve mentioned?

This is going to explode. We’ll see it all change. It seems like there’s been a shift. I think that in 10 to 15 years, financial services will be the most beloved industry in the world.

Really! How does it get from here to there?

It’s the exponential [factor], as we’re seeing now with coronavirus — and with the compound interest that we all pontificate about. You’re seeing people on a lower level starting to look at giving back. Some are becoming thoughtful givers. Conferences have started to change. And this attitude will become a part of the conversation with clients. Then it will become industrywide. You’re already starting to see ripple effects.

What’s a “thoughtful giver”?

Someone who, perhaps, gives money to you but who also touches your spirit. A lot of advisors actually are thoughtful givers. They just aren’t conditioned to show it because the industry says the important thing about this business is assets under management — the more assets you have, the smarter and more connected you must be. That’s not true.

How should advisors be evaluated, then? And when would the shift you see take place?

When assets under management changes to: Are you merciful? Then the industry will really start to change. The problem, as I’ve said, is that in this business, we’re taught to take. But even if you’re the most hardened, cold salesman of an advisor, at some point you’re doing what you’re doing because you care about people.

As director of community at Altruist, what are your responsibilities?

The purpose of Altruist is to make it cheaper for advisors to work with clients and [thereby enable them to] take on households they normally wouldn’t take on. I care passionately about giving back to communities. So we’re going to put a lot of time and effort into making sure we’re doing things with schools and educating everyday people. The focus is financial literacy and education for all.

What’s one of your initiatives?

Our first was at the [2020] T3 [Advisor Conference], where we raised a lot of money for the San Diego Conservancy, which provides shelters, food and resources for the homeless youth of San Diego.

As director of financial education of Exponential ETFs, you’re leading their program to promote financial education in Detroit. What does that involve?

“Detroit Invests in You” is for lower-income people: [potential] entrepreneurs, CEOs and people in prison. It’s really outside the box. Detroit is probably still the most impoverished large city in the country. But financial literacy and education is for everybody. So we have to let everybody know we speak to their condition no matter who they are and that we understand their plight. That’s my commitment to every inner city.

Financial literacy is of course necessary, but what about folks’ lack of money in Detroit?

Ultimately it will be about the money, but what’s most important now is getting into the communities and hearing the cries of the people — and saying, “We have resources to give back that will be most effective to you and your family.”

You specialize in cryptocurrency. How can crypto help the demographic you’re trying to reach?

Crypto is the perfect solution for people who are unbanked and for those who have been left out of the financial system. I know what it means when people can’t get loans or an advisor at [firms such as] JPMorgan. Cryptocurrency is the answer to that.

Do you see crypto expanding significantly? 

Just like everything else in financial services that’s a solution for pain, if it’s not for the uber-wealthy, no one wants to hear it. Crypto isn’t being marketed properly, but that will change.

You were a Merrill Lynch advisor for five years, from 2012 to 2017. How was that experience?

My mother would say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t think it.” My experience there was very mixed. I’m grateful for my time at Merrill because my first mentor was a white 30-year advisor who managed about a billion dollars. He literally changed the trajectory of my life — he poured a lot into me.

Your experience was “mixed.” What’s the other side?

I experienced horrible racism and bigotry from the firm and sometimes from clients. That was part of the reason I left.

Please elaborate.

Merrill Lynch didn’t want a 30-year-old black man — or any [African American FAs], for that matter. When I left, there were 14,000 advisors, and 100 were black. It’s laughable. That firm has been around for 100 years — so, one per year? Thank you! [At press time, a Merrill spokesperson said she was unable to provide current figures.]

Tell me about the environment in which you were raised.

It was very tumultuous. My dad came to this country from Guyana; so it was a struggle for my parents because he had to learn to read and write. They both worked, but I didn’t have a permanent address growing up. We [parents, Tyrone and sister] lived in a bunch of places because we were forced to move due to evictions and lack of funds. Our car was repossessed, the lights and gas were turned off. No lunch money. But there was a lot of love and a lot of life lessons.

What’s the biggest challenge facing financial advisors right now?

Today, it’s the market going to hell! The biggest [long-term] challenge for advisors is the demographic shift that’s happening, with $13 trillion that will transfer to the next two generations. They’re going to want financial advice. But how are millennials and Gen Z going to pay for it?

So do you think it’s incumbent upon firms and FAs to change their ways and business models?

I don’t think our profession is ready for this shift and to serve these people. One reason is the demographic of financial advisors [mainly older Caucasian males]. It’s going to be a very hard shift when it actually happens.