Choir, a startup focused on improving the diversity of speakers at financial services conferences — and in the industry broadly — is getting the traction that it hoped for and could push events to rethink their presenters and panelists in the future.
Since Choir launched one month ago, more than 200 attendees and speakers, including some notable regulars on the finance conference circuit, have already signed the Choir pledge and promised they will only attend events that meet four guidelines: at least one of every three keynote speakers is a woman or person of color; every panel with four or more people includes at least one woman or a person of color (they cannot be the moderator); women of color are represented throughout the agenda in expert sessions, not only sessions about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); and events must also have a policy against harassment of any kind and enforce it.
Nine companies, including some wealth management software firms, consultants and asset managers, have also signed the pledge indicating they will not sponsor any conferences that don’t meet the criteria.
A group of 200 attendees is a fraction of the population of advisors who attend conferences virtually or in person every year. To a few large conferences, with thousands of attendees, the absence of a couple hundred advisors and other professionals might not be materially impactful. Depending on the event, smaller conferences might not be impacted either.
But the 66 speakers who signed the pledge could have an immediate impact on conferences. Some who signed regularly speak at events and or plan to in the future.
Dave Nadig, a prolific speaker and chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends, has spent much of his career on the conference circuit. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Nadig said he was speaking at events, large and small, once every other week.
“I've been to hundreds of conferences where there hasn't been a single woman or person of color anywhere in the building much less on the stage,” Nadig told RIA Intel.
Signing the pledge was an obvious choice for Nadig, who said he wanted to leverage his powerful position as an in-demand speaker. “If I get asked to speak, I can just [direct the conference] over to Choir and say, ‘check the boxes, and then I'm happy to show up,’” he said.
The standards Choir is asking conferences to meet shouldn’t be hard to adhere to, according to Nadig. Although, he added that for some very specific fields it might be hard to find an expert in a super niche area because the industry has been so closed to women and other groups. “I could not tell you the name of a single woman of color who is a volatility trader at a hedge fund,” he said.
Kelsey Mowrey, the president of Motley Fool Asset Management, an Alexandria, Virginia-based ETF manager with $1.6 billion in assets under management, first heard about Choir’s pledge during a free event Choir co-founder Sonya Dreizler holds every month for industry colleagues to pick her brain. Mowrey became a signatory as soon as she could. “It's incredibly intimidating to not have women up on the stage or to see people who look like you presenting to you in the expert field,” she said.
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To Mowrey, the pledge is a way to show support and it gives her another advocacy talking point to share with Motley Fool’s custodian, transfer agency, and other partners.
The pledge is intended to be both a minimum diversity standard for conferences and a tool that speakers and sponsors can use to advocate for greater diversity and leverage their position.
Financial services, and the wealth management industry, have struggled to become more diverse and inclusive. Progress has been made in recent years; the total number of women and Black CFPs recently reached record highs. But out of more than 92,000 CFPs, only 1.8 percent of designees are Black and only 23 percent are women.
Nadig and Matt Middleton, co-founder of events business Advisor Circle, are producing a new ETF conference called “Exchange” set to debut in April that they expect thousands of attendees, advisors, and sponsors will participate in. (In addition to Exchange, Advisor Circle is also organizing Future Proof, a new four-day festival-conference hybrid taking place in September focused on the intersection between tech, wealth management, and culture.)
Middleton, who also signed Choir’s pledge, said that historically conferences have a pay-to-play model, meaning companies pay to sponsor the event and can choose whoever they want to speak at it. “[Conference organizers] don’t control who from that firm is sent, and I think for the longest it was people who were speaker and media-trained [and] tend[ed] to be middle-aged white men,” he said.
Conference organizers who want to increase diversity have a few options, Middleton said. They can do away with the pay-to-play conference model, like he said his Future Proof conference has, or they can put restrictions on the sponsors.
Exchange required every sponsor with multiple speaking roles to send at least one person that fit the diversity and inclusion criteria. That requirement helped Exchange meet the Choir’s pledge criteria. Advisor Circle is also working with Choir to make both its conferences more diverse and inclusive and hopefully earn Choir’s certification once the conference has passed, Middleton said.
Choir evaluates and scores conference speaking roles based on seven factors, such as the types of panelists they have, the length of their presentations, and whether someone is a moderator or keynote speaker. To get a “Choir Score,” a conference would need to meet a high standard of commitment to diversity on behalf of the conference, the company says. The certification is based on a conference's previous performance and it must be recertified each year.
In March, Choir plans to announce about five conferences that will either be the first ones certified by the company and or working with Choir on an inaugural conference.
The startup, co-founded by Dreizler and Liv Gagnon, also plans to debut a new tool this spring called “Voices” that journalists and event organizers can use to find verified sources and speakers who are members of underrepresented groups.
Holly Deaton (@HollyLDeaton) is a staff writer at RIA Intel and based in New York City.