WE Interviews: Jennifer Openshaw

Jennifer Openshaw
Founder & CEO
Girls with Impact

Jennifer Openshaw is something of a modern-day Renaissance woman. A nationally known consumer financial innovator, author, and commentator, she has been at the forefront of change, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to Main Street. She currently works with EY’s digital financial wellness platform and is also building Girls with Impact, a unique entrepreneurship program created just for girls to help corporate leaders engage in diversity and develop the next generation of female talent. This comes following her role as Partner and Global Marketing Leader at Mercer, where she helped lead the ‘When Women Thrive’ research platform.

I recently had the chance to sit down and speak with Jennifer about the roots of her interest in financial services, the drivers of her success and her take on current and future trends.

A passion for solutions

A quick glance at Jennifer’s resume makes it clear that she’s passionate about leading the charge for women to realize financial success using technology and innovation. Where did this interest originate, I asked.

“My mom was a single mother, and as a five-year-old, I saw her waitress two full-time jobs and struggle to make ends meet. One day while riding my bike home from school, I realized three things: I wanted to impact other people, I wanted my financial independence, and I needed to make it happen for myself – nobody was going to be there for me.

“After working in the California State Treasurer’s Office, I became the money expert for CBS-TV in Los Angeles. I appeared on television to talk about consumer money issues. But funny things happened at 6:00 a.m. Women at the station began asking questions about money: ‘How do I deal with debt?’ ‘How do I manage an inheritance?’ Their inquiries gave me the idea for Women’s Financial Network, which I founded in 2000, the Internet boom days. We had 1,000 women a day signing up for the service, and I think that’s because there was an untapped need and we were the first in the space focusing on women.  I can still remember my interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, then with ABC, and then an email from a woman in Europe saying, ‘Don’t forget about us women here.'” 

A knack for communication

How did you go from founding the Women’s Financial Network to advising firms, hosting your radio show and appearing on Oprah, I inquired.

It was largely coincidence, but I also understood the power of media from my political days. In building my first company, I felt there would be a growing public interest in women and money issues, and I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we can be the leading voice on these matters?’  Watch what you hope for!  I started by going to Larry Kramer, who was then the CEO of CBS MarketWatch, to obtain funding for my business.  He asked me to be a columnist focusing on women and money; I figured it was good branding.  After launching the company, I did quite a bit of TV, and then one day, Microsoft reached out and asked me to serve as a product advisor and national spokesperson for Microsoft Money, the software program.   Together, we conducted a national Realize Your Potential campaign and competed with Intuit’s Quicken. That success and continual presence in the media led to some other major relationships with Fortune 500 firms.  The San Francisco Chronicle ran an extensive profile, and that helped me get my first book deal. From there, I leveraged relationships and some good negotiation to do partnerships with Public Television and Allstate, ABC Radio, AOL, and even PumpTop TV, which had me in gas stations reaching 20 million people! I always understood the power of content – done well, and it can drive brand and engagement and position you as a key thought leader.

“My industry experience really gave me an inside track – what do consumers need and how can it be done better? I’d also seen my own family struggle from everything – job losses, debt, mortgage crisis, you name it. I’ve heard it all.

“Stop and think about it: everything we do ultimately has to be communicated.  It can make or break a firm. I’ve spent my life with a foundation of communications – from strategy to digital, to content to PR and public engagement.  Done right, it can be quite powerful.

“The ability to communicate effectively is a big challenge for wealth firms and banks today.  Dave Coulter, the former CEO of Bank of America now at Warburg Pincus, once told me something very smart, which is that you need to market like a consumer retailer, even in our industry. It’s a very, very fast world today and attention spans are short, but content and information remain incredibly powerful in engaging people.

“I talk to a lot of people in the industry and everyone is thinking about how best to use information. Many are building editorial teams and exploring the use of video, which is more relevant now than it was five years ago. Everyone is focused on engaging consumers. I recently met with leadership from one of the country’s top brokerage firms. They want to build their brand and focus on the long-term investor, but they need to come up with a strategy to do this, and in my view, the solution is not solely content. It’s content coupled with engagement – in other words, can they offer a tool, a diagnostic, or something of that nature that will help investors understand their wealth and take them down a path to action? That’s the question.”

A commitment to engagement

Jennifer’s comments regarding consumer education offered a perfect segue into my next question. You’ve authored a number of books, most recently The Socially Savvy Advisor. Can you tell me a bit about that publication?

“I was overseeing a new investor networking platform and was steeped in compliance, talking daily to marketers, advisors and wealth firms.  Everyone had questions about communicating to investors online, but there were no clear answers. I thought the time was right. Working with Stuart Fross, the former head of compliance for Fidelity, we developed answers to the 50 most common questions with some powerful takeaways, from creating a bulletproof social media policy and leveraging existing content (such as newsletters) to using social media for customer service, events and much more. Whether you’re a CEO, a marketer or a financial advisor, you’ll get insights and examples from a host of top-name firms who are engaging in this new, compliant-focused world.”

Jennifer’s comments about CEO engagement offered the perfect opportunity for a follow-on question. It’s indisputably important for CEOs to maintain their reputation. How do you recommend they do that?

“There’s enormous power in cause marketing – I’ve found that over and over again.  My suggestion is that CEOs break out from the traditional mold. They can do this by identifying an issue that resonates on a national or global scale, convening peers around a topic, or developing a compelling solution or answer that helps the underserved. There are some ways to go about it, but together they can be powerful.

“One CEO, for example, is offering financial wellness “free” and getting a lot of press from it. When I was in Davos, we convened a breakfast focused on new research about women in the workplace. We leveraged our speakers – all top CEOs – and our employees to drive our social media engagement.  Not only was the event considered the firm’s best in 12 years in Davos, but our social media efforts led to a record 3.4 million reach, up nearly 200% from the year prior.

“Another example is Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who took on the issue of equal pay as a cause.  He brought people from Hollywood together around the dinner table and said, ‘I’m going to look top to bottom in my company and make sure that women and men are paid equally,’ and then he actually hired an equality chief. In other words, he didn’t just talk about an issue, he acted, amplified his message in some creative forums, and ultimately became a thought leader on that issue in the business world.”

A belief in oneself

Speaking of grabbing attention…as a national commentator, you’ve interviewed top CEOs and leaders and have been on virtually every show from Oprah to CNBC’s Power Lunch. Who was your most interesting interview, and why? 

“I did a series on the finances of famous women, and the interview that was really interesting — unfortunately I did it by phone rather than in person – was with Maya Angelou. She was really focused on the way people speak and how they treat other people.  She fired one financial advisor and kept the other because of the assumptions he made. I asked her what advice she had for women and she said, ‘There’s a way you walk when you go into a room. It’s not braggadocio, but there’s some confidence. And if you have some confidence, it is likely that an employer will look to you with more felicity, more warmth, more respect. And people feel, then, I can be safe here. This person is really going to look after my affairs.'” 

At this point in the interview, I decided to turn the conversation in a completely different direction. Let’s talk about current trends within financial services. What do you think is the most important trend that CEOs should be looking at right now – the shift from active to passive? And do you think that will last?

“There are three: the shift from active to passive, the focus on data portability, and the entrance of tech firms into wealth.  The swing of the investing pendulum to passive is causing a lot of nervousness among firms – and glee among others. In fact, I was just meeting with one of the world’s top asset managers, a firm now thinking about shifting to a more consumer marketing focus.

“Innovation and technology are also big drivers today. While we have Betterment and others like it, we continue to see new competitors with even cleaner consumer experiences, experiences that will allow customers to more easily access their data from anywhere. Artificial intelligence will also play a greater role in shaping that experience.  Financial firms now have so much data on consumers that they will be able to offer personalized answers to someone’s question to reduce the costs of live interaction. I think that’s the direction in which we’ll continue to go — increasing that seamlessness and reducing the demands on consumers’ time.

“Finally, I’m also seeing firms that began as a tech firm with a single solution – say, student lending – move ever so quickly to enter the wealth space. And they’re doing it with great effectiveness, entering the employer marketplace such that they’re now competing with other employee benefit firms.”

Any words of wisdom or advice for women trying to navigate the system and reach the ranks of senior management or the boardroom in these rapidly changing times?

Never have lunch by yourself. Even if you’re just spending 15 to 20 minutes with somebody at your firm, you will always learn something, and you’ll build a relationship. It makes a difference.

Know your worth. Be really clear about your strengths and value and speak from a place of credibility and authority. When you do that, people will want you.

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