In the early years of her financial advising career, Zaneilia Harris was asked to give a presentation to the local Junior League chapter. She needed to make the presentation engaging, so she thought about tying it to something she loved. And a theme for her practice was born.
Harris is a Certified Financial Planner and president of Harris and Harris Wealth Management Group in Upper Marlboro, Md. She also is the author of Finance ’n Stilettos — Money Matters for the Well-Heeled Woman, and she describes herself as “a financial planner to the well-heeled woman.” She produces a podcast series called “Heels Of Success.”
If you guessed that Harris uses her love of shoes to relate to her clients, you are correct. Harris said her practice is focused on executive-level women, “with a lens toward Black women, because our industry doesn’t focus on the African American community, and it definitely doesn’t focus that much on Black women.”
Her firm’s slogan is “Helping smart women make smart decisions about their money.” She said she wants her firm “to be a safe haven for Black women across the country.”
“It’s a place where I can talk to them about finances and be a resource to them, as well as to join their personal board of directors and provide them with the advice and guidance and support necessary for them to achieve their goals and live their dreams.”
Harris described her ideal client as a woman who makes a six-figure annual income “and is very much in control of her destiny. She is very strategic, and she has goals and she’s the person her group of friends relies on because she seems to have it all together.”
But even though her ideal client seems to have it all together, she still needs help building her financial future. Harris wants to be the person who helps her make the right financial decisions for her life and her family.
“At the end of the day, your family dynamics are yours. Your family resources are yours,” she said. “And we are here to provide another perspective that maybe you didn’t consider. But the financial decision is still yours.”
Retirement is the foremost concern of her clients, Harris said. But she added that many of her clients have financial concerns that are characteristic of Black family culture, and they need someone who understands those concerns.
“For example, if a client says they give a specific amount of money to their family because it’s something that’s important to them, that’s not always understood or respected,” Harris explained. “But it’s something that’s important. You have to understand the dynamics of being in a Black family. A lot of times, if you’re the successful one in the family, there is this unwritten rule or obligation that exists for us to help anybody in the family who may need it. And I don’t think the majority understands this.”
Harris also is the creator of the Savvy Women Investors Circle, an educational program designed for women to gain knowledge and guidance around building and growing their investment assets. She wants to help women overcome the wage gap and achieve the success they deserve.
“Black women are graduating from college and getting degrees because we want better for ourselves,” she said. “But we also have to deal with the fact that we’re not always being lifted up to be successful — not having mentors and not having sponsors. Everything I cover in my classes is for women to ask for the salary and the compensation we deserve. And sometimes we women are afraid to ask. I’m a big proponent of women valuing themselves and asking for what they deserve.”
Overcoming Financial Stress
Harris is inspired to help women become financially secure because she was raised by her grandmother in a household where money was a constant source of stress.
“I remember a time when my grandmother couldn’t pay her bills and that was the only time I saw her become emotional,” Harris recalled. “That left a strong impact on me. I saw how that impacted our family.”
Harris entered St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., where she studied business administration and accounting while pursuing as much knowledge about managing money as she could. She subscribed to Money magazine and read every issue cover to cover.
“There was a section that used to appear in the magazine, where they featured a professional giving advice to people who wrote in about their finances, and the expert gave them recommendations of little things they should do to change their finances so they were able to achieve their goals,” she said. “That section really appealed to me, and I guess that’s when I realized that was something I would like to do as a career.”
After reading an article in Black Enterprise that discussed job opportunities in finance, she eventually homed in on the idea of becoming a financial advisor and helping others achieve their financial goals.
Encouraged On The Journey
Harris moved to Washington after graduation and took a job as an auditor with the federal government. She mentioned her interest in becoming a financial advisor to one of her colleagues, and he surprised her by researching the steps needed to become a Certified Financial Planner and placing that information on her desk one day.
“He said ‘Here you go. Go do it,’” she said. “I will never forget that.”
Harris left her government job and began working for Nasdaq. Again, a colleague there encouraged her to pursue her dream. So she moved on — earning her CFP designation and becoming a financial advisor with Edward Jones.
“I met people there who were very encouraging and supportive, but I still didn’t realize how hard starting in this industry can be because it’s built on networks and connections,” she recalled. “If you don’t have those deep connections and networks, it’s hard to build a business.”
Harris spent much of her early days at Edward Jones going door to door to find clients. One day when she was prospecting in her own neighborhood, someone called the police on her.
Eventually, she took over managing an Edward Jones office in Petersburg, Va., but her heart remained in the DC metro area. “Washington is a bigger city, there are more things to do — just more of everything,” she said.
Meanwhile, she lost her job in 2009 in the depths of the Great Recession. Despite being in the midst of an economic downturn, it was the perfect time to start her own firm.
“If I was going to start, I might as well start in the middle of the recession because everybody was angry with the big firms anyway,” she said. “Going independent made sense to me because I get to tell my own story.”
Clients And Legacy
Looking ahead, Harris said that she believes her legacy will be her clients.
“My hope is that my clients are thankful they encountered me because they were able to live their dreams, live their lives the way they wanted to and were able to do the things that they enjoy and love,” she said.
A second part of the legacy she hopes to leave is one in which money and women are discussed from a positive perspective.
“There’s a tendency in our industry that whenever there’s a conversation about women and money, it’s negative,” she said. “We don’t give women enough credit. We’re smart. We’re successful and we also are good with money. Look at the households that we’re running, making sure our kids achieve their goals; we’re helping our families make those things happen. And we’re helping our parents and grandparents too. So to say that women are not good at money is ridiculous. That’s why my whole idea is to have positive conversations around money, with a specific slant toward minority women.”
Harris’ podcast series, “Heels of Success,” shares stories of money lessons learned as well as the success stories of a number of women.
“It’s my legacy to my teenage daughter,” she said. “So when she doesn’t want to listen to me, I can send her to the podcast and she can listen to other women tell her things I would tell her.”