Startup ‘Choir’ Aims to Diversify Finance Conferences With Certification

The technology platform and consultancy has also created a certification that conferences can earn.

Bigstock photos

Bigstock photos

Two women tired of the slow-changing business of finance conferences have started a company designed to help event organizers line up speakers who better reflect the U.S. population. Choir, a consultancy and technology platform that also creates a certification that conferences can earn, launched Tuesday with a short list of clients that it hopes to grow in the coming year.

Choir was founded a year ago by Liv Gagnon, the founder of brand messaging and strategic communications firm Portaga, and Sonya Dreizler, a consultant and speaker. Both previously spent years working for financial services companies. Gagnon worked at public relations firms representing wealth managers, while Dreizler was formerly the president and CEO of Protected Investors of America, a San Francisco-based wealth manager with more than $1.8 billion in client assets at the time.

“We’ve seen what it looks like behind the scenes, what it looks like when conference organizers are planning who they want to speak at events,” Gagnon told RIA Intel. “From my standpoint, almost a decade working in financial services, everyone is talking about how representation matters. And on the other hand, I’m not really seeing much improvement or seeing these brilliant voices on stage [or] in the media.”

Women, Black and other groups of professionals are underrepresented in the financial services, including in wealth management. Women account for more than half of the U.S. population but represented 18.1 percent of financial advisors in 2019, up from 17.2 percent in 2018, according to Cerulli Associates, a Boston-based research and consulting firm. Similar disconnects exist for other groups. Only 2.9 percent of advisors identify as Black or African American, 5.1 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and 4.3 percent as Asian, according to Cerulli.

Choir does a few things. It created an algorithm that analyzes hundreds of data points and determines how prominent and visible women, people of color, and non-binary people were on stages at a conference. It then grades the conference and gives it a Choir Score on a scale of one to 100. The score is determined by comparing conference speakers to their representation in the U.S. population, as well as other factors, like whether someone is a keynote speaker or part of a panel of speakers, the founders said.

Conferences that score 60 or more points can display a Bronze, Silver, or Gold Choir Certification badge. They are also publicly listed on Choir’s website.

Once a conference has a Choir Score, Gagnon and Dreizler meet with organizers to help them plan the next iteration of the event and improve its diversity. The founders are currently using their own networks to help clients find speakers, but it plans to launch an online directory of people interested in speaking at events accessible to Choir clients. (Choir also plans to make a version of the directory available to journalists interested in diversifying their sources as soon as the second quarter of this year.)

Choir, a for-profit business, charges $15,000 or more per conference each year, depending on the number of speakers. The company is offering discounts to new clients who sign up before July 2022, Gagnon said.

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On Tuesday, the startup also revealed the Choir Pledge, a free, public way for conference attendees to show their dedication to only attending events with a diverse group of speakers. More specifically, the pledge is to only attend conferences if one in three keynote speakers is a woman; every panel with four or more people includes a woman or person of color who is not the moderator; women of color are represented throughout the agenda; and there is an enforced policy against harassment of all kinds.

The goal of the pledge is to encourage conferences to be more thoughtful about their speakers, or risk losing attendees.

Women, people of color, and non-binary people are underrepresented groups that Choir is focusing on right now, in the hope that this will create a roadmap for others, such as the LGBTQ communities, Dreizler said.

The founders said some conferences are already using Choir, but they declined to say which ones at the time. Those conferences will be revealed soon, they said.

Robert Sofia, co-founder and CEO of Snappy Kraken, a digital marketing platform that advisors use to manage email, advertising, and other efforts directed at clients and prospects, said it was challenging to line up a diverse group of speakers for this company’s upcoming Jolt! Conference in May, which focuses on financial advisor marketing. If Choir was already in business when he started planning Jolt!, Sofia said he might have asked them for help.

“I believe anything that draws attention to the broad spectrum of experts and thought leaders who should be featured, but often are overlooked, is a positive thing,” Sofia said. “I think audiences benefit from broader diversity, specifically, and I think underrepresented groups need advocates.”

Choir’s current advisory board includes Theodora Lau, co-founder of the startup consultancy Unconventional Ventures; Tyrone Ross, CEO of startup cryptocurrency platform Onramp Invest; and Lisa Liu, a senior partner at The Mitzel Group, a law firm. More advisory board members are expected to be announced soon.

Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is a reporter at RIA Intel based in New York City.

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