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She Built a Virtual Planning Firm for Millennials Before It Was Cool

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It takes guts to be a pioneer. Youth helps, too. Here’s a financial planner who has proven that argument.  

At 29, Sophia Bera became one of the industry’s first planners to focus on younger clients and charge them a monthly retainer. 

“Other planners thought I was crazy to start a firm working with Gen Y,” because “they didn’t have any money,” colleagues sniffed in 2013. But Bera wouldn’t listen: She had learned that millennials needed advice about money and were willing to pay for it. 

Eight years ago, the certified financial planner opened Gen Y Planning with no clients and no assets to manage. Today, she has some 105 clients nationwide and is on track to gross about $400,000 this year.

In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, she talks about how doing it her way has led to success and, safe to say, a fair number of imitators.

“What’s been helpful for me is creating my own ecosystem and being in control,” Bera, 37, says of her practice, virtual from the start and operating from her home in Austin, Texas.

A member of the CNBC Financial Advisors Council, she has been honored as a top young advisor by industry publications and was named one of Investopedia’s Top 10 Financial Advisors.

The Minneapolis native and her all-female team of three work exclusively with young professionals who are hungry for advice about spending, saving and investing.

Her approach is helping millennials, under age 40, and some Gen Xers, in their 40s, learn how to use the money they have to “match their vales so they can have a great life,” says Bera, author of “What You Should Have Learned about Money, but Never Did” (2015).

Gen Y Planning was born not only because Bera spotted an underserved market but because of her deep dissatisfaction as a staff employee at two financial firms: She felt blocked from opportunities to move up to become a full-fledged FA mainly because she was a woman.

So here’s where the guts came in: “I really didn’t feel like helping a bunch of rich, white, old guys get richer,” she says half-jokingly. That’s when she launched a firm of her own.

Bera entered the industry in 2007 at Berger Financial Group, then moved to Cahill Financial Advisors, both in Minnesota. Next: After working remotely for New York-based LearnVest, she opened Gen Y Planning in 2013.

In the interview, the FA talks about what she perceives as “a huge need” for female financial advisors and broadly, more advisor diversity and inclusion industrywide.

Citing few women at the top, she contends that “when women are in power, they can empower more women.”

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Bera, who was on the phone from Austin. With an ever-mounting stack of prospects at hand, she has had to create a summer wait list.

“I’m, kind of, at capacity right now. I have too many leads. That,” she enthuses, “is a good problem to have!”

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: What prompted you to start your own firm?

SOPHIA BERA: I kept hearing really good questions from my peers about what to do with their money. But at the time, there was nothing geared toward young clients — my generation. 

A lot of firms had $500,000 or $1 million minimums. No advisors were working on a monthly retainer model. I didn’t know where to send my peers.

So you decided to start a practice to reach that clientele?

Yes. I thought I’d try to build a virtual firm geared toward the younger demographic. I wanted it to be virtual so that I could travel more and live where I wanted. I’d charge a planning fee followed by a monthly retainer.

When you told colleagues about your idea, what was their reaction?

Other planners thought I was crazy to start a firm working with Gen Y. They said: “Why would you want to do that? They don’t have any money.”

But for me, it was: They have good questions, and they’re willing to pay for advice. So why wouldn’t we help them? 

I thought that because things like paying down debt and getting on track for retirement were important to me, they were important to my peers, too. So, why aren’t we talking to young people about their money?

I started with zero clients and zero assets. Now I Have about 105 clients across the country.

Today, there are a number of financial planners using your type of business model. What’s your main differentiator in the marketplace?

I have a lot of experience: I’ve talked with probably over a thousand young people on the phone or on Zoom to help them with their money. 

I’ve really been able to home in on how I can produce a lot of value for my clients in a short amount of time.

What are your thoughts about more women becoming financial advisors?

There’s a huge need — there’s a huge need for diversity [overall] in the profession. We need a lot more Black, Latino and Asian CFPs.

I can name on one hand all the CFPs that speak Spanish. There’s an enormous need for Spanish-speaking CFPs because a quarter of our country speaks Spanish at home. 

The best people to help their communities are the people that are representing it.

Any specific ideas for how firms can encourage more women to become advisors?

A firm can be really progressive; but if it’s still controlled by people with less progressive ideas, the change is a lot slower to happen. Those at the top control a lot of the hiring.

Many firms want more women advisors, but they don’t have any women in their C-suite. It’s hard to promote women’s voices within a firm when the management team doesn’t consist of any women. When you have women in power, they can empower more women.

Have you personally had to deal with any obstacles on your career path because you’re a woman?

It’s challenging to be a young female in this industry. It’s hard to gain a voice when there’s a bunch of rich old white guys at the top [laughs].

That’s why I launched my firm as well — I didn’t really feel like helping a bunch of rich old white guys get richer.

Did you encounter sexism while you were employed by firms?

When I worked in Minnesota, the advisors were all male, and the staff was all female. It was hard to get a seat at the table. They didn’t see me as being able to take on clients and have an equal voice. 

I was considered more support staff. That could have been an ageism thing, though, more than a sexism thing. 

How did you empower yourself?

What’s been helpful for me is creating my own ecosystem and being in control.

When a client comes to you for help, do you do a financial plan?

We never do a big full plan. We don’t use financial planning software. 

Instead of doing laborious 50-page financial plans, we have [post-] meeting [recaps] with an action checklist that comes out immediately after each meeting. During the year, as we work through [various financial issues], we touch on every area of financial planning. So we’re always doing financial planning.

How are you compensated?

We charge a setup fee that starts at $1,500. Then clients usually pay $400 or $600 a month to work with me and the team. 

Where does the investing piece come in?

Only 10% or 20% of my time is spent with investments. And usually that’s with an employer retirement account.

Often, it’s making sure we’re maximizing company benefits and figuring out how we can take advantage of everything the company is offering, like a 401(k) plan or how the company stock works, before we start to invest outside that plan. 

It’s making sure we’re on track for retirement … do we need to set up a Roth IRA? Sometimes the priority is paying off student loans or saving for a down payment on a house.

You offer digital investing. Why do you have that option?

About three-quarters of my clients use Betterment. Partnering with Betterment for Advisors has meant that I’m able to better automate things for clients and not have to spend as much of my time doing investment research and investment management. 

Instead, I’m able to utilize Betterment’s portfolios and help clients save money on fees with the funds that [Betterment] has chosen or get them set up with a Roth IRA.

That frees more of my time to focus on other areas of clients’ financial life — like refinancing student loans or refinancing mortgages.

Why did you aspire to become an FA? 

I like helping people. Before I was hired by a [small financial firm], my first job in the industry, I was [already] waiting tables during the day and taking CFP classes in the evenings. The firm paid for my CFP exam.

You were born and bred in Minneapolis. What sort of work did your parents do when you were a child?

My dad was a psychologist and family therapist. My parents ran a mental health clinic together. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree! Sometimes what I do is a lot of financial therapy, in a sense.

I understand that you and your husband Bryan, an executive coach, welcomed a baby boy, Theo, during the pandemic. How was that experience?

Busy! We found out [I was pregnant] in February. In March [coronavirus was declared] a pandemic. So we knew we weren’t going on a big vacation. It was a great time to grow a human!