Lori Van Dusen Thought This Women’s History Month Would Be Different

The venerable advisor reflects on women in wealth management and what they can do to help others pursuing a career in the industry.

Lori Van Dusen (LinkedIn)

Lori Van Dusen

(LinkedIn)

Lori Van Dusen, the founder and CEO of LVW Advisors, an RIA based in Rochester, New York, walked into Shearson Lehman’s World Trade Center office three decades ago and saw few women. Even then, she thought there would have been more. Today, many years later, she still has that feeling.

“I’m always surprised the percentage of women is so small. I would have thought it would be very different by now,” she said.

Women account for just over half the U.S. population and control a third of total household financial assets — more than $10 trillion. But they are a minority in wealth management. In 2021, only 31 percent of financial advisors in the U.S. were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In recent years, the number of women who hold the Certified Financial Planner designation has remained flat, at about 23 percent.

Van Dusen, who founded LVW Advisors 10 years ago and made it onto lists of the top advisors (and is a member of Barron’s Financial Advisor Hall of Fame) still believes that can change. There could be many more women in wealth management — and extraordinarily successful ones by any measure — if people focused on the right things.

After almost two years (when she recalled once stopping Jamie Dimon in his tracks), RIA Intel reconnected with Van Dusen and she explained what must be done to get more women in wealth management, and on the industry’s lists of achievement.

In an industry dominated by men, you stand out not only as a leading advisor but as a leader for the industry — and a trailblazer when it comes to women being recognized for their good work. Why is important to share the wealth when it comes to awards, rankings, and the like?

When our industry began singling advisors out for recognition, there were very few women in it. Based purely on numbers, males dominated these lists and rankings, and I was often one of just a handful of women named. As such, I was a proponent of having gender-based recognitions toward which women could aspire.

Wealth management has perhaps the most significant disparity between the number of men and women leaders in all of asset management. Is it getting better?

I think it is, but I’m always surprised the percentage of women is so small. I would have thought it would be very different by now. That makes the existence of role models even more crucial — they demonstrate there is a successful path. It’s a great career path, but it’s not easy. It involves choices and priorities, but women can do it.

For example, I can speak to being a professional, and establishing and running a business — but every step of the way I was a mom first. It’s difficult to be a mom and be present and run a business at a high level in any industry. Many women are responsible for their own parents, too. It’s immeasurably important for those of us who have achieved work-life balance to be out there as a role model or mentor.

Even if it’s not easy today, is it easier than it was, say, two decades ago?

From the standpoint that it’s more accepted, yes. But to be clear, I had no idea when entering a training program [with Shearson Lehman] at the World Trade Center that I was different than anybody else. I had no expectations, and no clue I was entering an industry dominated by men. To some extent, that was a big advantage because I didn’t think in terms of limitations or possible constraints. I’d also studied music as a kid, and you must be composed and disciplined to do that. Discipline, composure, and not knowing I was supposed to be something other than who I was all added up to me being confident.

Certainly, there were times when the environment wasn’t very welcoming, but I never let that get to me.

When I had my children, there wasn’t a maternity benefit — it was considered a short-term disability.

It’s easier for women across the board now that we are much more present in male-dominated industries — but we still have a long way to go.

What drew you to wealth management in the first place?

It wasn’t a straight path. My education wasn’t focused on finance, and I didn’t get a degree in any of the usual suspect majors. But I had a great family and mentor. My mom was a single mother, but my grandfather was a Renaissance man. He exposed my twin brother and me to ways of thinking and ideas that he perhaps couldn’t do with his own children. He had an eighth-grade education, but he was enlightened. It wasn’t about having money or resources. He kind of tapped into our aptitudes and showed us things. The number one thing for children from all kinds of circumstances is to be exposed early to the idea that you can achieve things.

Did you have a mentor once you entered the industry?

Quite the opposite. But I realized early I could embrace and create my own groups of people whom I aspired to be like. We created a lot of peer-to-peer groups to share ideas which, again, was uncommon at the time. When we first started sharing ideas it was kind of radical because everybody was so competitive. It was an eat-what-you-kill environment, and that felt upside-down to me. Doing what we did set an example for the industry.

So, you have some rebel in you?

Oh yeah! Ask some of the people from my early days at Smith Barney/Shearson Lehman. I was quite direct about being against the conflicts of interest in financial services.

Regarding the firm that you’ve co-founded and built, was there a pivotal moment when it went from being one of the many to one of the top firms?

It’s pivotal that I have failed epically at things that led me to understand more about building a better business and being more empathetic with clients. LVW Advisors was formed out of failure.

When I left Smith Barney in 2008 it was at the top of the market just prior to the financial crisis. I thought I was late in forming an independent company — that’s one of my fatal flaws, thinking I’m late when I’m early. But I learned a lot because I didn’t just go and hang a shingle out.

I wanted to go to where I thought the industry was going: independent fiduciary. I joined a firm I thought I had done a tremendous amount of due diligence on. Then the financial crisis hit, [Smith Barney owner] Citigroup sued me, and the firm I joined did not navigate the financial crisis well. Eighteen months later, I won the Citi lawsuit and negotiated our exit from the firm we joined. But it cost me a lot emotionally and financially. I wouldn’t have known how to build LVW Advisors without these experiences.

If you had a daughter who wanted to go into wealth management what advice would you give her?

I have two sons, no daughters — but I would tell them the same thing. From the beginning I had a vision for what I was trying to do, and I knew my strengths and played to them. I looked around and thought: All these people are probably smarter than me, and they certainly know a lot more about finance. But I understand people really well.

How did that manifest itself in your own career?

Over time, I built a team that is much smarter around my weak points. You must make an objective assessment of yourself, understand the gaps and what can you learn, and what you don’t want to learn. It’s also a necessity for a mom to build and cultivate a support team.

Surely, you’d have more advice?

You cannot have it all at the same time. You can have a great career, a great family, travel with your friends, and be involved in wonderful causes — but not all at once. You must prioritize. It’s important to make choices and sacrifices — and know that you can’t have true success and self-confidence without some failure.

With all the success you’ve had, at this point, what gets you out of bed in the morning: fear or greed?

Neither. What gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that I’m here for a greater purpose than my material success and the recognition. I’m a lifelong learner, both with my craft but also in continually learning about myself and my journey of personal growth.

Steven Olson is the Global Head of the Access Business within the Asset Management division of Euromoney Institutional Investor. Before joining the company, he was an executive at Krusen Capital Management. He’s based in New York City.

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