Financial Women: Profiles in Diversity Series

Olivia Barbee

In our allyship with the women of color in the financial services industry and our membership, we are finishing out 2020 with a series of member interviews aimed at giving us a glimpse into their career journeys, spotlighting their challenges and successes.

We hope this series will help provide insight into ways that we can all better stand together and be a strong support system to one another.

Our first interview is with our very own Olivia Barbee, 2020 President of FWSF, and a Marketing Programs Manager at Wells Fargo Bank.

What should people know about you, Olivia?

I’ve had to make a number of adjustments in my life, some of them quite painful.

I was born on the South Side of Chicago to a father who was a recently returning Vietnam Vet and a mother who was completing her undergraduate degree in social work. I still remember the neighborhood of my early childhood years, and even the name of our street. We lived in an apartment down the block from my aunt and uncle, who lived in an actual house! It was a secure childhood—at least until my parent’s marriage fell apart—but one that was decidedly working class.

In school, I was identified as “gifted” and tracked into special classes and given the opportunity to attend state-wide events. All of these experiences took me far away from my working class environment, and I had to learn to adapt. The culture clash intensified when I attended Stanford University, which is very much an upper class institution.

I had no real mentors to help me adapt and had to learn much by trial and error. At one point, I even studied several books on etiquette to learn how to fit in.

I believe class-based differences are under-discussed as a reason why people succeed or fail in the workforce. One of my goals in life is to help women whose backgrounds may be similar to mine to advance their career goals.

What was your career journey and how do you believe it was positively or negatively affected by being a woman of color?

My career path had a rocky beginning. When I left Stanford, I thought I had a job arranged in the development department of a Chicago nonprofit. However, the person who hired me left the nonprofit even before I could step foot in the door, and suddenly I was without a job in an area that, at the time, did not have a strong network of Stanford grads.

I lived with my parents and eventually found a job with another nonprofit as an assistant in their conference and events department. After two years with the nonprofit, I found a position as a mutual fund analyst by answering an ad in the paper. Since that time, I have held several positions in the area of financial thought leadership and content marketing.

On balance, I would say that being a woman of color has most often been a hindrance in that my room for maneuvering is much narrower than for others. I learned to be very careful about how I expressed anger or disagreement, because even mild comments would be interpreted in a harsh and unflattering light.

At certain points, though, being a woman of color has been a help—sometimes teams were looking to diversify their ranks and wanted to add a different voice. It is my hope that the current spotlight on diversity and inclusion will encourage more companies to see that diversity can be a source of strength.

What/Who has helped you get ahead in your career and professional life?

My father and my stepmother have provided guidance and support throughout my career. I have also been fortunate to have managers who supported me. Finally, I have benefited from joining several professional groups aimed at women or minorities.

In your opinion, what challenges do women of color have in the workplace?

I’d say the biggest challenges are the lack of mentors—who are invaluable for giving you the lay of the land—and the lack of sponsors who can advocate for you at the highest levels and connect you with opportunities. There is also the fact that our range of acceptable behavior is much narrower than it is for others.

What challenges have you faced as a woman of color in your profession?

My profession has a strong math orientation, and it was important to me to prove that I could understand the concepts well enough to do my job as a marketer. Early in my career, I took the tests to earn an accreditation as a Chartered Financial Analyst, which was a major asset in showing that I could do the work.

Can you talk about the importance of having a network for a woman of color making her way up in the workforce?

I do not see how a woman of color—or any woman, really—could survive the workforce without support, whether that support comes from friends, a professional network, parents, or a spouse. Although change is happening, we’re still in a world geared to the needs and demands of white men; it’s important to have people in your life who will listen to you and help you to fight for your own position.

What can women of color and their allies do to support equal pay and equal opportunities for women and minorities?

If you are not someone who is in a position to set salaries, I would encourage you to invest in one of the increasing number of funds that invest according to a lens of gender equity. Such funds follow a range of strategies, including taking large stock positions and using shareholder resolutions to advocate for equal pay.

What can organizations like FWSF do to continue supporting the advancement of women in business?

I believe that FWSF is basically on the right track in the way it supports women in business—the organization offers support through our programs, through scholarships, and through mentoring. However, there is always room to expand or improve the organization’s offerings.

FWSF has made incremental progress in recent years—such as by increasing the amount we pay out in scholarships—and I believe we can continue to progress in the future.

For me in particular, FWSF has helped me by providing me with a network of like-minded women. Perhaps most important, the organization has given me a sense of purpose. I benefited from scholarships when I attended school, and working with FWSF has allowed me to give back.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I find it helpful to read stories about women of color who were able to advance despite significant barriers against them, as well as to reflect on their legacies.

One of my teenage idols was Jewel Lafontant, the first African-American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Interestingly, her son, John Rogers Jr., is the founder and CEO of Ariel Investments. Ariel hired a young Mellody Hobson as an intern, and she is now the firm’s president as well as a high-profile advocate for diversity and inclusion. I see this as a sign that our actions today can help improve tomorrow.

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