Ethiopian Immigrant And UBS Top Advisor Hopes To Blaze Trail For More Diversity In Wealth Management

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Name: Araya Mesfin

Firm: UBS Wealth Management

Location: Atlanta, Georgia

AUM: $763 million

Forbes Rankings: Best-In-State Wealth Advisors

Background: Mesfin, 45, grew up in Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States at age 14. After getting a degree in biology and physics from Berry College in Rome, Georgia he spent time as a tutor for private school students and working on fundraising with his alma mater. In his late 20s he decided he wanted a career change.

An interview with an advisor from Merrill Lynch, where he never end up working, piqued his interest in the wealth management field. In 2008, he started at Morgan Stanley in a rookie program before heading to UBS five years later.

Competitive Edge: For Mesfin his biggest advantage is his resourcefulness, built upon joining the industry with no resources.

Early in his career, without a large network, he started cold calling corporations. One on of those calls, a prospect said that many of the his colleagues were close to retirement and could use financial advice. In order to try to capture that potential client base, Mesfin created a spreadsheet, and in the evenings called every extension to get client names from voicemails. He would then follow up on this homemade lead list in the morning. In his first few years of work, he estimates he was working up to 200 hours a week.

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Biggest Challenge: The biggest challenges in Mesfin’s career came early on when he faced lots of rejection, some he believes as a result of his race. With so much discussion around representation coming in the last year, he says many large firms have good intentions. However, the problem is that these conglomerates do not determine who is successful in wealth management.

“If you’re IBM and want to diversify your workforce, you hire more people of color and women, but an advisors success isn’t dependent upon their employer, it is dependent upon Mr. and Mrs. Smith hiring them as an advisor,” Mesfin says. “People only like to work with those they trust so they look to those in their network for recommendations and that’s how the cycle works. That’s why, in my personal experience, women and minorities have a harder time.” 

Mentors: Edward Williams, the president of Baltimore-based RIA DEW Financial Management was the training manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney when Mesfin first met him. Mesfin credits his mentorship for setting an example that a Black man could be successful as a financial advisor.

Lessons Learned: While acknowledging that the United States in 2021 is far from perfect, Mesfin says that hard work and perseverance can still lead to success in this country. 

“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when your back is against the wall,” he adds. “I had to learn English. Then I had to learn how to get clients because it was a matter of survival. I don’t know that my story is possible anywhere else in the world.”

Biggest Misunderstanding: The biggest misunderstanding Mesfin has with clients is around politics, with many people falling into the trap of allowing their political leanings to color how they view their portfolio. 

Many of his progressive clients saw scary information on MSNBC over the last four years and spent the Trump presidency worried about the market and the same thing is happening with conservative clients watching Fox News under President Biden. Mesfin says this is all a product of outsize polarization.

Investment Outlook: Mesfin is extremely bullish on the markets, highlighting the accommodative actions of the Federal Reserve as well as pent up demand that reminds him the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918 which led directly into the roaring twenties.

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