From EA to CEO, how this female founder kick-started her new venture

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Sonya Dreizler at SRK Headshot DayAn interview with Sonya Dreizler, founder of Solutions with Sonya and former financial services CEO

It’s a fact that women in finance show slim representation, and at the executive level, even more so. The Financial Times gathered data from 50 of the world’s largest banks, insurers and asset managers revealing that ‘the share of women plunges dramatically as employees move up through the ranks at their institutions.’ Through sheer drive and dedication, Sonya Dreizler was one of the few to make it to the C-Suite, successfully running a broker-dealer and RIA while sharing her passion for impact investing. InvestmentNews recognized her success by naming her in their Top 40 under 40 list in 2015. She’s now taken this experience and built her own company to help financial services firms streamline their business operations to grow their business. I had the opportunity to speak with Sonya to find out how she did this and get her best tips for RIAs looking to scale their business while spending quality time with clients and connect more deeply with clients using impact investing. She also shares how men and women can help get more balance in the C-Suite. 

Tell me about your company – what led you to start this new venture and what is your differentiator?

Before starting my company, I was the CEO of Protected Investors, a broker-dealer and RIA hybrid. Before taking the CEO role, I was the COO for five years. A larger firm acquired the company and I helped manage the acquisition of the acquiree side. After that, I knew that I wanted to, well, first take a little break because it had been a busy couple of years – and then I wanted to take the perspective I had from my experience as the CEO and expertise from my role as COO and start helping other financial services firms. The knowledge I gained in those positions allows me to help firms to improve their operations efficiency so they can spend more time with clients.  I also assist firms that want to add impact investing to their practice. Impact investing is something I’ve been personally immersed in almost my entire life and for about the last 15 years as part of my career.
I’ve sat in the chair that most of my clients are sitting in. I’ve been in the position of trying to balance the business needs and the budget. I understand what it’s like to want to make a better client experience while also balancing the needs of regulations, compliance, employees, client service, and changing technology. I’ve been through those challenges and can come in with practical approaches to help other folks dealing with similar issues of growth and scale.

You mentioned that impact investing is important to you – how did this passion begin?

It’s been an interest of mine since I was a kid. For two reasons; first being my Dad was doing what was then called SRI (socially responsible investing.); he was one of the first financial advisors in the country to practice SRI.
Sonya and Her DadBut before I even understood what he did, the environment was a huge topic in my life growing up. It was a time when smog and oil spills were in the news all the time, and it was something we talked about at school. It was something for which I felt we needed a solution.
When I was eight, I wrote a book about a woman who invented a car that ran on smog and cleaned the pollution out of the air at the same time. The car was wildly popular. The inventor made lots of money, put the gas guzzling car companies out of business, and cleaned the Earth while she did it. So I have been a believer in impact investing since I was a little kid, since before it was called impact investing.
Now as an adult, as I’ve grown in my career I’ve seen the social well being and corporate governance aspects as well as the environmental concerns play out in the business setting. I know that it is good for business to treat people justly, be forward looking about environmental concerns, and make smart and thoughtful decisions in corporate governance. The issue I spend the most time talking about is how it’s good for business to bring a wide variety of experiences and opinions to the decision making table. Having C-Suites and board rooms that have a diversity of opinions from gender, racial, social and class upbringing leads to better long term decision-making for the business. Boards and corporate leadership should reflect both their constituents and the broader communities in which the businesses operate. Bringing those viewpoints to the table creates thoughtful and sustainable businesses.

Some people feel that impact investing has become more popular due to the millennial generation – what are your thoughts?

A recent article, Why Millennials Care About Social Impact Investing states that millennials are investing in organizations that prioritize the greater good more than any previous generation. I think that for millennials, there’s a different mindset; people of that generation don’t see a difference between how you spend your money and doing good. To them, those two things go hand in hand. It’s the same for those now looking for a job – they want to be work for a company that is doing good by their employees, doing good by the world, and doing good by society.
The dichotomy of doing financially well and then doing charitable work is going away. Recent research shows that adding impact investing and using ESG factors in investing reduces risk and is either correlated with higher alpha, or at least not negatively correlated. Here’s the research: ESG and Financial Performance: Aggregated Evidence From More Than 2,000 Empirical Studies.

SOCAP Investing SonyaI saw on Twitter you were just at the 10th annual SOCAP event. What were some of the most prominent trends you saw? How has it changed from previous years?

I was happy to see a lot of the program on racial equity in funding, management, and the board room; in fact, some of those topics were so popular, the sessions were standing room only. I hope the connections and conversations at SOCAP help to advance racial equality. In addition to it being the just thing to do, diverse groups of people make better business decisions – it’s the best way to run our companies and the economy. 

What are some of the key digital tools a team needs to be successful?

A well used CRM. Success comes when clients are pleased with the work, products, and service you’re offering as well as advisor’s personal relationship with the clients. A CRM is a vital part of that success. But, everyone on the team has to actually use it – they need to take the time to input all their touchpoints with clients and prospects. Whether they performed a business service for a client, tracked social issues that are important to the client or find out about a life event such as adopting a new dog, it should all be entered into the CRM. Then the next team member that speaks to the client is well aware of any pending business items AND they have an opportunity to congratulate the client on the adoption of their dog (or whatever the life event might be) or shoot over an article that they happen to see about a social issue that matters to the client. This helps the team to form a stronger personal connection with the client. Our clients are people, we’re people, and clients want and deserve authentic personal contact.
A relatable online presence is key as well. Depending what your compliance regulations are, post to LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, wherever your clients are. Write posts in a human voice, and occasionally talk about things that are not explicitly business related. Humanize your brand, your company.

How do you keep up with the rapidly changing FinTech landscape?

Primarily through LinkedIn and Twitter.  I also read trade magazines and go to conferences.  Now that I’m in a consulting role instead of a CEO role, I’m able to pick my head up and see what’s happening around me, more than I used to. I used to be so caught up in the day to day, that sometimes it was difficult to see what was going on outside of my unique space.

Sonya and CourtneyWho do you consider to be some of the ‘digital leaders’ in the asset management industry?

OpenInvest is bringing together impact investing and technology in a way that makes it more accessible and engaging for the end investor. Envestnet is also a technology player making significant investments and moves in the impact investing space. Riskalyze has been putting out really interesting products in the area of client risk evaluation and portfolio assessment for the last few years.

What are your views on traditional fund fact sheets? Are they crying out for disruption or still an essential tool for investors?

I might get in trouble here, but for me, the traditional fund sheets are a little boring. Of course, it’s nice to get the essentials like returns, duration, manager tenure, etc., all in one place, but they aren’t exactly compelling reading material. I think people like stories about the investments and they want the information to be easy to access digitally.

What are some of the most significant digital pain points you see in financial services?

So many RIAs I work with are juggling various pieces of technology; CRM, performance reporting, data aggregation, paperless workflow, financial planning tool, feel billing, etc. and then trying to put all of the client facing output together in a useful, 2-way client portal. Many of the existing tools have client portals, but the programs don’t integrate well with each other. 10 years ago, I thought we would have this solved in 10 years. But here we are with more programs and no single solution. If someone reads this who has the answer, I’m all ears!

As President & CEO of Protected Investors, did you encounter any challenges that may have been because you are a woman?

Protected Investors was an extraordinary place and for the most part, I was insulated from much of the gender based discrimination. Half of our advisors were female, half the board was female, and the CEO that hired me was female as were some of the other officers of the firm. But when I left the protective bubble of my office to go to a conference or an industry event, I definitely ran into the challenges faced by most women in finance.

After you left Protected Investors, what has your experience been in this notoriously male-dominated industry?

Sonya Speaking EventWell, mixed. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did in this business without the first woman who hired me, pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and had more faith in my ability to learn than I had in myself at the time. I’ve also had a fantastic male mentor who has pushed me forward in my career and advocated for me to others. Outside of those personal relationships, it’s been hard. When I had been in this industry for just a year, I went to a conference; one night at dinner, some of the other (male) conference attendees event were going to a strip club and invited me to come with them. I was young, and my mind was boggled that this was a reasonable thing to suggest.
I have thicker skin now, but that kind of stuff (and worse) has happened throughout my career. Just earlier this year, a man, who I’ve worked with for a long time, someone who presumably knows all of my achievements, suggested I work the check-in desk at a conference in exchange for a speaking spot. Can you imagine that happening to a male industry leader? I cannot.
The upside to being in a male-dominated industry – there’s no line for the lady’s room at events. Ha!

You began your career as an executive assistant – how did you work your way up to CEO, at the same company?

I heard about the executive assistant position at Protected Investors and decided to take an interview as I wasn’t really happy with my existing job. The interview turned out to be with the then CEO of Protected Investors. I told her I wasn’t quite sure the financial services industry was for me, so she asked me to make at least a one-year commitment and I did, and then I stayed for 13 years.
CUESA SonyaRight out of the gate she tasked me to do things I didn’t know how to do; she had a lot of faith that I would just figure things out. She gave me Advent portfolio reporting when I didn’t even know what a dividend was. I had to get up to speed quickly. I asked people questions, did a lot of research and fortunately, she was there to help if I stumbled. She threw me into the deep end because she knew I could swim – and I did. Once I figured it out, I was able to streamline things and make the systems work better. She moved me from department to department, re-organizing and streamlining everything we did.
After improving and reorganizing systems and procedures for many years, and with a few title changes in between, I eventually became Chief Operating Officer – a natural fit after streamlining the operations in all the different areas of the business. I love operations and making systems work together. I like making sure you have the right people in the right roles and coaching employees to grow and develop.
In 2014, our CEO (not the one who hired me) ended up leaving unexpectedly. I threw my hat into the ring and got the job. It was an always-changing and always-interesting wild ride, and I loved every minute of it.  Well, almost every minute! And bringing the COO experience to the CEO role was really helpful when it came to pragmatic business decision making.

What advice do you have for other women interested in making financial services a career?

Don’t be afraid to go after opportunities you think you are only partially qualified to do. Men do it ALL THE TIME. Go ahead and take credit – loudly, publicly, and in front of senior leadership – for good work you’ve done. You have to toot your own horn; nobody else is going to do it for you. Find a few good mentors; they don’t have to all be women, though at least one or two should be. The mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be formal, just someone you meet for lunch or talk to on the phone a few times a year to keep up, get general advice, and check in. If you have a handful of these people, you can call or email them when you get in a tricky spot or need advice. Shoutout to Kathleen McQuiggan who continues to be one of those people for me and who just helped me when I was in a frustrating situation last week. Also, try to cultivate relationships with other women in your field, that are your peers in terms of experience and ambition. It’s really nice to be able to be able to grab a drink with a friend and be able to chat about work as well as have an understanding person with whom to discuss the unique challenges we face as women in a male dominated business.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to be outside! Outside playing with my kids, working in my garden, or going to the farmer’s market and tasting all the samples. I’m the board chair for CUESA, so I’m deeply involved in all of the good work we do including the farmers markets. I enjoy traveling with my family, and feel very fortunate that we are able to do that. I have two young kids- 7 and 2 years old- and they enjoy the travel as much as my husband and I do. Earlier this year we took a big trip to Fiji and it was wonderful! I like to try, see, and do new things. About a year ago I started practicing Tae Kwon Do and have really been enjoying it. It’s great to be learning something new and to do something so physical that demands my full attention and focus. Being present and enjoying the current moment is something I’m always striving for – I even have a tattoo to remind myself. Getting out of my own head and just enjoying the moment is both very hard and very rewarding.

Thank you, Sonya.

Sonya-Jeff-Paxon-and-Leon-in-FijiSonya Dreizler, founder of Solutions With Sonya, is a former financial services CEO with 15 years of industry experience. She enjoys helping financial services executives and financial advisors grow their businesses and tackle complex business issues. She is also an expert in the rapidly growing field of Impact Investing.
Sonya is a respected leader, practical thinker, and consensus-builder with excellent communication skills and deep experience in Independent Broker Dealer and Investment Adviser management. Her areas of expertise include sustainable and impact investing, streamlining operations, business development & oversight, BD/RIA regulation & financial reporting, and contract negotiation. She is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and holds the Series 7, 66, 24, and 28 securities licenses.
She is the board chair of CUESA, a sustainable agriculture and education non-profit and also volunteers with Friends of the Urban Forest and JVS. Sonya earned a BA from UCLA in English Literature and speaks fluent Spanish and some Portuguese. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two sons and enjoys travelling with her family, learning martial arts, and fruit and vegetable gardening.
Be sure to connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.

courtney mcquade

courtney mcquade