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Northeast Ohio’s Black finance professionals invest in diverse talent

A Black man in jeans and a blazer sits on a tree stump in a wooded area.
Matthew Chasney
/
Ideastream Public Media
“The biggest hurdle (for minorities in finance) is underrepresentation,” says Marvin Davies, an Ohio State University graduate.

LaRese Purnell grew up in an impoverished single-parent home that lacked a true financial compass. Multiple moves and an unstable environment didn’t stop his mother from volunteering at shelters, or insisting that college was the only true path to self-reliance for her children.

“Even with all of that (struggle) going on, my mom was such a loving person.” Purnell said. “She would always lift us up. When I look back at it now, I think about how courageous she was. Because even as she was struggling to take care of us, she was always trying to make us understand that you can be the best, that you should not be average. She knew that she wanted us to be better than our circumstances.”

Purnell said the foundational tenet his mother instilled, giving back, informs everything he does today, including his work to bring financial literacy to marginalized populations. In his role as managing partner of CLE Consulting Firm, Purnell provides accounting, bookkeeping and tax services to families and small businesses and brings the message of financial savvy to young minority students.

Purnell is the entrepreneur in residence at Cuyahoga Community College, where he has counseled hundreds of small business owners, many of them minorities, on the keys to success.

He is also founder of The Real Black Friday, an initiative launched in 2015 to raise awareness for Greater Cleveland’s Black entrepreneurs. As part of this effort, he showcased over 100 startups during the 2022 NBA All-Star Weekend in downtown Cleveland.

He tirelessly advocates for his message, from City Club of Cleveland forums to classrooms and community centers, where he advises minority students about the power of generational wealth building. The Cleveland native said it’s imperative to create clear pathways for Black professionals to succeed in business and enter the financial field.

Purnell said he hopes to build a generation of knowledge seekers to combat the historic lack of education that often kept people of color from reaching their true potential.

“I’ve traveled the nation, and taught at 23 colleges over the last year-and-a-half,” said Purnell. “We expect people at 18 to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. For me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, because I didn’t have a reference to what was even possible.”

As most people are not born with either privilege or opportunity, Purnell and fellow Cleveland Black professionals are living by the motto, “What they see is what they’ll be.”

In practice, this means creating a sense of belonging among historically underserved populations, said Justin Horton, a financial advisor and founding partner of Stratos Wealth Partners, where he consults high-net worth clients on personal and charitable investment, estate planning and retirement.

“Students need to see someone that looks like them - people in general need to see someone that looks like them to open their imaginations to what they can do,” Horton said.

One dream, one goal

Black Americans are largely underrepresented in financial services, comprising about 5% of industry professionals. Lack of opportunity is manifested by the wealth gap between Black and white Americans,said Horton. In 2021, the typical white household had 9.2 times as much wealth as the average Black family - $250,400 versus $27,100, according to Pew Research Center data.

A higher level of education equates to more wealth-building potential, a laser focus for Horton as he runs his nine-person shop in Chagrin Falls. Horton, a 20-year industry veteran, speaks to minority students about his career, reflecting a commitment to intellectual development where economic empowerment becomes the enduring goal, he said.

Meanwhile, two Black students that Horton brought on as interns are now financial advisors. Investment in diverse talent can further eliminate disparities around networking that have existed for decades, he said.

“The way our business is built, there are a lot of advisors that come into a business that their dad or uncle owned,” said Horton. “We’ve just been shut out of that over the years, so we’ve got some catching up to do.”

Following a successful internship with Horton’s team, Ohio State University graduate Marvin Davies is now on track for a full-time advisory position with The Colony Group. Davies, who will join the financial and business management firm’s Denver office, said he’s excited.

“The biggest hurdle (for minorities in finance) is underrepresentation,” Davies said. “I was lucky enough to have worked under Justin immediately, and with him being a founding partner in such a successful firm, I got to see what success looked like from someone high up on the chain of command. That was very impactful in giving me the belief that, if this was a goal I had for myself, it was achievable.”

Starting the journey

Davies attended client meetings on day one with Horton’s business, soaking in the atmosphere along with complex financial jargon. Marinating in this environment provided much-needed clarity in Davies’ decision to switch his major from biology to finance. A life-long dedication to personal money management sealed the academic deal.

“My goal is to set up generational wealth for both myself and my family,” Davies said. “What better way to do that than to be in a profession that teaches other people the same thing?”

Horton is glad to bring minority students under his learning tree, where education is coupled with communication and networking skills. The seasoned financier points young charges to groups like the Association of African-American Financial Advisors, a nonprofit founded to address the professional development needs of the Black community.

Seminars and conferences are additional outlets to cultivate relationships and spark creativity, Horton said.

“It’s good to have this network of African-Americans you can tap into to share stories, share advice, and commiserate with,” Horton said. “Regardless of race or background, it’s just having people in the industry you can talk to and bounce ideas off of. The relationships and the network are hugely important.”

Former intern Davies knows he has a place at Stratos if and when he returns to Northeast Ohio. For now, Davies’ current “exciting, nerve-wracking” opportunity was made possible by Horton’s willingness to shepherd disparate, often-overlooked talent, he said.

“I’ve consulted with (Horton) every step of the way,” said Davies. “He said home is always going to be here – if you have a chance to see the world, go for it. That motivation pushed me to take that challenge. Without that, I’m not sure I’d push myself to take a journey with so much uncertainty.”

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Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.