Prioritizing diversity as face-to-face networking fades away due to COVID-19

As the CEO of The Investment Diversity Exchange (TIDE), Grace Reyes is a diversity cornerstone to many in the investment funds community.

She outlined in a recent interview with Alternatives Watch her ambitious new initiatives and what she’s seeing as managers and investors both focus on the diverse teams equation more than ever before.

As one of the most prominent voices in finance when it comes to promoting diversity and gender balance in the investment management industry, Reyes is also an Independent Board Director and part of the Audit Committee of Professional Diversity Network.

Prior to TIDE, she was most recently with AAAIM, a non-profit organization featuring seasoned and rising investment managers.

Vailakis: Thank you Grace for agreeing to speak to Alternatives Watch readers at this unprecedented time of change.

To start, how are you seeing marketing evolve in the current climate, with the triple whammy of health, economic and civil crises changing the way that business gets done? Please speak to the increasing use of technology, in particular.

Reyes: Thanks so much for having me!

I remember my last pre-COVID in-person meeting was in New York City with Andrew Junkin. At the time, he had just announced his resignation from Wilshire Associates (and now he’s CIO at State of Rhode Island — Congrats, Andrew!). We were both relieved to have left that night, as NYC suddenly became the hotbed of the novel virus. All conferences and in-person meetings were put on pause.

Since then, the industry has shifted to doing business digitally and there has been an influx of webinars, conference calls and industry events on tech platforms like Zoom.

It took a while for the industry to adjust. Many were optimistic and hoped that we’d go back to normal and in-person meetings would resume. We are four months into the lockdown and that’s still not the case. In fact, cities are rolling back their re-opening plans.

Vailakis: How has your own TIDE inaugural event shifted as conferences are not likely to be in-person affairs for the foreseeable future? Other than the avoidance of travel, which is a boon for many (but not all), what do you see as being even more highly effective about the digital model you’ve quickly pivoted to implement?

Reyes: TIDE was born in the digital world and has been at the forefront digitally within the investment industry. We are also innovative, nimble and agile. However, our heavier shift to digital worked not only because of our digital expertise but because of the TIDE Tribe.

From the onset, we had a strong foundation because of those who were there for us since day one. It’s great to have a digital strategy but you also must have the adoption of key players in order to make an impact. TIDE is fortunate to have the support of the movers and shakers in our industry.

As you know, we put all our heart and soul into our inaugural event. We were devastated that we had to postpone to 2021. However, we are very well positioned to host the virtual event while still providing a valuable attendee experience. Check out our rock star line-up for the digital event at the end of September: Rising TIDE.

Vailakis: Given how dramatically our health and economic challenges of late have evolved into civil unrest and really, the civil rights movement of our time, what do you think investors and asset management firms need to do to move more effectively beyond the prior regime of diversity initiatives, and into the new era we are witnessing and helping to create?

Reyes: There’s a recent FundFire article titled “Consultants Spoke Out Against Racism. But Will Actions Follow?”, that talks about actionable change consultants can make within their firms to be more inclusive and increase the recommendations for black and other minority-owned asset managers. The article includes a chart which lists the percentage of assets allocated to diverse managers as reported by the consultants. It’s important to take stock of the industry’s current situation because we can’t improve what we don’t measure.

Disclosing these numbers is the first step in the right direction but there should also be an action plan around it. The diversity initiatives spearheaded by Jasmine Richards of Cambridge Associates are the industry benchmark. I also think adoption of an objective diversity score is important — think FICO score but for diversity. Jason Lamin (and his team) at Lenox Park Solutions is the market leader on that.

Most importantly, having an open line of communication with the industry’s largest asset allocators is key to moving the needle forward. Marcie Frost and her amazing team at CalPERS recently hosted a conference call with its partners to discuss ways to increase diversity. TIDE is honored to be part of that discussion and to partake in CalPERS’ initiatives to think of fresh new ideas from diverse perspectives.

Vailakis: In a number of ways, your career path in financial services has been unconventional. Explain how this has been a real boon to the platform you’re creating, to encourage and inspire other ambitious people prone to ‘outside of the box’ thinking and initiatives.

Reyes: When I left my prior position, I really didn’t know what I’d be doing next. I started talking to a few firms about fundraising given that fundraising is my wheelhouse and I have extensive LP relationships.

But then, I remember it was a Tuesday. I had just returned from Dubai after attending SALT Abu Dhabi. Suddenly, out of nowhere, everything clicked. TIDE started out as an idea and became an actual business in one day.

To boot, TIDE resonated immediately within our industry because it fills a void. While different groups need their own voices, as they face different challenges, there is a need to break down silos and have a united voice for diversity — TIDE is like the United Nations for diversity!

I think it’s important to find something that you’re passionate about and then build a business around that. The best businesses always start as passion projects and I’m lucky that I found my calling.

Vailakis: I heard a rumor that you’re writing a book about what it means to be an effective connector — I look forward to reading it.

In brief, given that you’re a consummate networker and are highly successful at leveraging social media, what are some of the highlights and messages you’re aiming to capture in this new project?

Reyes: My secret’s out!

While I envision the book to be a great resource for people looking to build authentic and genuine connections, the book for me is a way to keep my mother’s legacy alive. I was 25 years old when I lost her to cancer and she was only 50 years old at the time. She was charming and always had a way with people. Even the most guarded felt comfortable around her. In the short time she spent in this world, she instilled in me the important values in life — one being the power of human connection.

Like anything else, our capacity for connection is not limitless. Therefore, whether personal or professional, we must discern which relationships are worth our precious time.

The book will not only include anecdotes based on my life, but it will also be a compilation from others. If you’re reading this interview and you have any stories you’d like to share, please do send them my way. I’d love to hear from you.

Nancy Vailakis

Nancy Vailakis is a 16 year veteran of the alternative asset management industry, having held prior investor relations roles at Cerberus Capital Management and BlueMountain Capital Management. Vailakis holds an MBA in Finance from the NYU Stern School of Business.

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