Christine Le serves as a wealth advisor at Kayne Anderson Rudnick, where she brings more than a decade of experience in financial services to her work. She’s a dual-certified professional, who holds both the CFP® (Certified Financial Planner™) and CTFA (Certified Trust and Financial Advisor) designations. At Kayne, she strives to help individuals and families create customized plans for their financial futures. Notably, she serves as a mentor for SHE-CAN, an organization which works with young women from countries such as Rwanda and Cambodia, and also provides pro bono services for the Financial Planning Association of San Francisco. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from San Francisco State University and a certificate in personal financial planning from the University of California, Berkeley.
Ms. Le graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you initially get into wealth management? How did you find yourself at Kayne?
[Christine Le] Sure. I might go back a little further. I entered the finance industry because of my background growing up here in the Bay Area. I am a child of immigrants. My parents fled Vietnam as part of the second wave of boat people. Seeing how they struggled here when I grew up made me think about the ladder to climb out of these economic conditions. High school economics was one course that stood out to me because I could see an array of financial solutions for my family situation.
You have to be at least 18 to work in a financial institution, so my senior year, I started off as a teller at U.S. Bank for several months. I moved on to a role as a banker, where I worked with consumers on home loans, credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages. That was just one piece of understanding personal finances, and I just wanted to learn more and more, so I transitioned to the U.S. Bank investment and insurance group. I was there for a short stint and decided to take a six-month break during college to finish up my senior year.
Before I went out to interview for jobs, I wanted to identify which companies and industries were interesting to me. I was looking at this company called First Republic Bank based in San Francisco. It was important to me that it was local; also, my service experience at that institution early on was excellent. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to explore other avenues outside of finance. I interviewed for a tech company and one more financial institution. I found that finance was definitely still my comfort zone and there was still so much more in that arena I wanted to learn.
I took an opportunity at First Republic working in trusts. That arm of the business focuses on trust administration—settling estates or working with families. I like to summarize it as being the individual who controls the the money purse for future generations. It’s typically the first generation that builds the wealth and if it’s significant in size, there may be some family dynamics which could cause some uncomfortable situations. An institution such as a bank isn’t biased since they don’t have a past relationship or history with those family members. I actually got to explore several different areas of financial services. Another opportunity opened up within the investment management group. I learned about investments and equity markets, working with families and understanding what their goals are, developing deeper relationships with them.
I sought my certification in in two areas: trust and financial planning. I earned my certification as a Certified Trust and Financial Advisor. In the investment arm, I pursued my certification in financial planning. Financial planning is an area that’s somewhat broad because there are so many different aspects you need to know about: estate planning, income taxes, insurance, investment management, and a few other areas. It’s a nice broad skillset to figure out where you can apply those skills to help clients.
Earning those certifications really aligned with my personal perspective—how I want to manage my own money and help my family. They didn’t have that education and they didn’t know about investments or what being a home-buyer encompasses.
I was at First Republic for almost 10 years and it was very comfortable. I enjoyed incredible relationships with many mentors and I felt it was time to move on. I want to make sure that I’m always comfortable in an uncomfortable situation because you never know what might be thrown at you, whether it’s in business or personal life. Kayne has given me an opportunity to work even more closely with clients and have my own book of business to manage.
[OnlineEducation.com] One of the things that I really admired about your background is that you’re so involved in the community. You work pro bono with local families with the Financial Planning Association of San Francisco. From both your volunteering and work experience, what are some of the major areas that Americans need to work on financially?
[Christine Le] Financial education is not a requirement when you’re in elementary school, junior high, or high school. There is an optional personal finance course I’ve seen a few schools in San Francisco. The companies I work for are great, but they do serve a certain niche in the market. I’m passionate about volunteering.
There’s a big event in October where we get to open up our services to everyone regardless of their background or income. Basic checking accounts and debt management are two of the biggest things that come out. Figuring out how to tackle debts or save money are challenges, especially here in the Bay Area. Many people are living day to day, trying to get by because of how expensive it is.
A teacher came into one of my sessions with her daughter after a day of driving for Lyft. She had come by the library to drop off some books, but she saw the Financial Planning Association. When we went over her balance sheet, she broke down and cried because she had a lot of credit card debt and an auto loan. I asked her about her partner and his willingness to help out because in the end, they are supporting their daughter together. He was a homeowner working for Apple. I told her there are ways to access equity in the home to help to take care of the credit card debt that has a higher interest rate. At the same time, the partner could get a deduction on the home equity line of credit as a way to start this process. So I offered her a few options to explore and she was appreciative. It’s that fundamental stuff that people should know and try to explore so that they’re not stuck in a situation where there they find themselves helpless. I was happy that I was able to impart some information that was simple and helpful for someone in her situation.
[OnlineEducation.com] That makes a huge difference in people’s lives and you’re absolutely right: we need financial planning and education from an earlier age. I want to move and talk about the demographics of the industry. Are you typically one of the only women in the room or is it a more equitable gender distribution?
[Christine Le] We’re a satellite office in San Francisco and I’d say it’s equitable here. Grace is a senior wealth advisor and I work with another senior wealth advisor, Tom. One reason I joined Kayne was because I saw how they promoted internally, bringing up individuals from operations into the wealth management side. Also, there are other female role models here. Our COO Jeannine basically co-manages the team with our executive director. There is a bit of a gender disparity among wealth advisors, but I don’t find that impacting me in my role.
When I was at my last firm, the COO there was also a woman and a huge swath of managing directors were all successful women. In fact, the leadership across the different departments was pretty gender diverse and even culturally diverse. It might be unique to my situation because of the Bay Area.
If I go to a conference, this is where I see that it is a mostly male-dominated industry. Planners are typically white, older men, but that is changing. Older people are going to need succession. There’s a group called Next Gen and it gives me a lot of hope that this industry is going down the right path. I’d say in the next decade, we will start seeing a more colorful and broader number of people that are planners.
[OnlineEducation.com] In the industry, what do you think is causing the current lack of representation for women and people of color? Why do you think there is this iniquity?
[Christine Le] I think the iniquity is just the history of this country. Let’s take our tax situation: historically, men have been the breadwinners and the women may run the household and take care of the kids. That was for the better half of the 20th century and then we get to the sixties and you start seeing more participation from women in the labor force. We’re one of the few developed countries using a joint taxation method for married couples. If you look at the tax brackets for single person and then a married couple filing jointly, you see that there’s some interesting bandwidth in the brackets. It was set up assuming there’s one breadwinner. For example, for top-earning, dual-income families, there’s a “marriage tax.” If you’re married, you’re in the 40 percent tax bracket if you have a total combined income of $470,000 and above. If you’re single, it’s $420,000. It’s interesting that the married bracket isn’t $840,000. So there are some cases where it behooves both people—if they’re high-income earners—to not be married or to file separately.
[OnlineEducation.com] Speaking of pay, I have two more questions: the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the profession with the largest gender wage gap was “personal financial advisors.” In 2016, women earned only 55.6 percent of the median weekly earnings of men in the same position—a corresponding wage gap of 44.4 percent. What do you think accounts for the vast gender wage gap in financial planning and advising?
[Christine Le] When I was a banker many years ago, I got to witness this first-hand. My manager had me send in paperwork for a new entry-level teller who just graduated. He was a guy he was getting paid about 25 percent more than me, and I had a role that was more complex. He was a teller and I was a banker, so I brought it up.
I think there’s a problem with this taboo over talking about salary. In some cases, it’s actually written into a firm’s policy that it shouldn’t be talked about. One factor is just communication. I don’t know if it’s a gender thing, but as a woman, you’re seen as tiptoeing and not wanting to cause tension, wanting to keep things calm and peaceful, approaching things without causing discomfort to others. That’s just kind of a gender bias, although it’s changing with this newer generation. For Millennials, everyone’s speaking out regardless of their gender.
In some cultures, females are still the ones acquiescing to others and they don’t speak up. I think about this young woman who I worked with last year in Rwanda. She told me the gender stereotypes were still heavily ingrained in society. At home, her grandmother would be afraid to approach her brothers for housework. In school, the boys would be the ones to speak up. She saw that as a huge issue and she created her own club for girls to come and gather to speak openly. She continues to be a voice for young women in society and I was lucky enough to work with her.
The organization also works with people from Cambodia and in the past, we worked with girls from Afghanistan as well, but we found that it wasn’t safe because once the girls finished their education here, they couldn’t go back to their country.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s a really tough situation and I admire your dedication to community service. My last question is what advice do you have for women who want to become financial advisors and wealth managers?
[Christine Le] I think it’s seeking out people in whatever financial advisory role you admire. Don’t be afraid to ask them for their time. I find that everyone’s been pretty generous with their time if I’ve ever needed assistance. Also, if there are junior individuals on our team looking for guidance, I’ve been more than happy to talk to them about my experience and the options. Finance is such a big umbrella and you can do so many things.
In my experience, there are people who don’t realize that they’re my mentor, but everyone’s a mentor to me in some way. They might know it; they might not, but I always find something interesting that one advisor’s doing and I’ll adopt it in my own practice. And when I find something helpful that I’ve done with clients, I share that with other advisors. It’s just about fostering open communication.