Driven by experience, guided by empathy
Dr. Nandita Das is exploring financial planning from a societal angle and educating a new class of advisor.
Sometimes inspiration springs from a question that, once asked, demands to be answered. Other times, inspiration comes from questioning the question.
After hearing the same introductory query from three different financial advisors, Dr. Nandita Das was inspired in that second way. Their question? “How much of your assets do you want to put under management?”
“I was shocked,” the finance professor said. “I felt I could have managed all of their clients’ assets – I didn’t say that out loud, but I was thinking it. Rather, I was looking for help with other parts of financial planning; they didn’t have any interest in finding out why I had come.”
As she left unsatisfied, she wondered how people without a doctorate in finance would have understood the situation and whether they would have gotten the sound, holistic financial advice they needed.
And she wondered if advising, as it is sometimes practiced, was capable of serving the many spectra of human experiences and circumstances for the betterment of people and communities.
So, she sought an answer. She became a Certified Financial Planner® professional and opened a fee-only practice, Das Financial Health, in Newark, Delaware. Then she became the founding director of a College of Financial Planning Board-registered financial planning minor at a historically Black university, Delaware State University. In 2022, the university is expanding its curriculum to include a financial planning and wealth management degree program.
She is driven by a clear ethos.
“Financial planning is for everyone, it’s not just for the rich, and many are falling through the cracks.”
Higher education’s growing place in the industry
A review of the College of Financial Planning’s college program listings at the end of 2021 revealed that, in addition to 154 certificate and 62 capstone programs, the education company has associations with 160 undergraduate, 44 graduate and three doctoral financial planning programs. Expect those numbers to continuing rising.
Traditionally, the paths into a successful financial planning career are many – just open an average issue of Aspire – and Das doesn’t think that’ll change as degree programs become more common. The multidisciplinary nature of professional financial planning lends itself to a variety of backgrounds.
“Career financial planning is not rocket science,” Das said. “You don’t need to know every detail about finance, but to be successful you do need to have people skills. You don’t have to be an extrovert but you have to have a heart for listening to stories.”
The Delaware State University minor program reflects the multidisciplinary nature of the field. There are no prerequisites to enter – students from all fields ranging from STEM to liberal arts are encouraged – and the first course in the curriculum is always personal finance.
Financial planning as a formal academic discipline, however, promises more than a running start in a financial planning career. It can inform professionals in fields including social work, private practice and entrepreneurship.
And though they are unlisted in the course catalog, there are two recurring lessons that would benefit everyone: How to take the discomfort out of talking about money and how to be empathetic about others’ decisions and circumstances. The first is required for anyone looking to make financial planning a career. The second is required to make financial planning a tool of societal improvement.
If you go to them, they will come
Das has immigrated twice, changing careers both times. She holds a Ph.D. in finance and a master’s degree in economics from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, an MBA from the University of Saskatchewan, and a bachelor’s degree in dairy science from Anand Agricultural University in her native India.
“I keep joking my next country is Mars if they find life there,” she said.
Das is also a Fulbright scholar, and through the U.S. State Department program will spend six months in India researching on socially responsible investing and teaching financial literacy this year.
With all that, she says she is still always learning – especially from her clients and her students.
As an example, in the early days of her program, her students hosted a financial literacy and planning event at the university for people in the community. Interest was limited, but the lessons were plentiful.
Lesson 1: Talking openly about money doesn’t come easy.
“It’s ingrained in our brains to not even talk about it, so we put it on the back burner. People are more willing to talk about sex with their kids than to talk about money,” she said.
Lesson 2: “People think that if they don’t have money, financial planning is not for them,” she said. “And there are some barriers the finance industry has created. We’re seen as the typical insurance agent or stock broker trying to push product. And those are fine, but most of us are not pushing products.
“Unfortunately, the prospects don’t know that, so they didn’t come.”
Lesson 3: Location, location, location.
“So now we go to them,” Das said. Community centers, schools, senior centers – and online, where her students can talk about the notorious FAFSA form and the rigid realities of student debt with their peers. Her students also take what they know to their friends and families, having serious discussions about money for the first time. They put into practice what they learn.
Das has also learned to understand her own and others’ financial blinders. One story she used in her classes references adding water to milk. She was then surprised to hear a student who had severely limited income say that she wasn’t sure what Das had meant by people adding water to milk.
“In India, food is such a big slice of the whole financial pie,” Das said. “Here, it’s not such a big part that people would think to water down their milk to make it last. I stopped using that as an example.”
She also gained some perspective from students in the financial planning and investment club when they adopted a family to provide Christmas gifts. Das said she was a bit taken aback that the family wanted a smart phone, which she saw as an extravagant expense considering their other needs.
“The student told me, ‘During Christmastime, everyone has needs and wants. For them that’s the only luxury they have, so give them a break,’” Das said.
That’s where empathy comes in, and how financial planning becomes more than dollars, budgets and compounding interest. You not only have to meet people where they are, Das said, you have to meet who they are as well. This isn’t easy for anyone but can be learned and continuously improved.
The biggest lesson
It’s simple to say that financial planning is a business built on trust and trustworthiness. Putting it into practice is much harder.
For Das, she said the moment that people start to take down their walls comes when she starts sharing her story. People are more willing to open up to you if you open up to them.
So when Das meets with clients, she goes as herself, authentically, dressed in her own sharp business style. She doesn’t presume to know what they want or what their values are. She remains open-minded and open-eared. And she shares her story with them, and listens intently when they share theirs with her.
“Finance is so personal,” she said. “I think telling your own story is very important.”
From that, professionals can build relationships and people can learn the skills to pursue lasting financial well-being. And they can learn that despite any idioms to the contrary, money is a very important thing and managing it can be learned.
“Money will not make you happy, but lack of it will make you unhappy,” Das said. “Money is just a tool. No one says their goal is to be rich. They may say it but what they probably mean is they want to be able to spend their days on the seashore.
“That’s where we help. Not by putting our values onto them, but by equipping them to pursue the life they want to live.”
This piece was featured in Aspire Magazine, a biannual publication from the Women Financial Advisors Network. View the latest.
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