Rachel J. Robasciotti is a principal at Robasciotti & Philipson, the San Francisco-based wealth management firm she founded in 2004 at the age of 25.
She’s used her self-made platform to advocate for intersectional social justice, both in her day job and in her extracurricular work.
At Robasciotti & Philipson, more than half the team is women of color, a rarity for the financial services industry. And she has built socially responsible investing into the company’s DNA.
Her advocacy work doesn’t stop there: Robasciotti has served on the board of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the Horizons Foundation, and she is currently treasurer of the LPAC Board of Directors.
Robasciotti says she’s found “that when you’re intentionally blending both logic and emotion, that’s when you are making your best decisions.”
How has being openly LGBT+ at work influenced your leadership approach and your style?
Leadership and authenticity are closely connected. When you lead and people can hear the ring of truth in your message, it’s inspiring. People are drawn to it and that makes leadership effortless. On the other hand, people can be repelled when they sense falseness. That’s when leadership becomes hard and requires a lot of pushing and convincing. For me, now, being queer at work is about leading by being completely authentic.
I’m queer identified, but I’m gender-conforming in appearance, and when I worked at other firms, people would make assumptions about me, or inadvertently make homophobic comments because they assumed I was straight. And I had to come out, over and over again. I think those experiences helped me build up a certain amount of personal strength, and certainly a desire to create and lead a place where other people wouldn’t have those experiences.
Who are your role models?
First and foremost, Oprah Winfrey. She shows up as a whole, authentic person, and she led the way in doing that when there weren’t really Black women on television, and certainly not in the starring role. She came with all of her blackness, all of her female identity.
As a Black woman, I’m encouraged to hide things about myself in order to make myself more palatable to the world, to make myself non-controversial and approachable. Oprah made very deliberate choices around her career and showing her Blackness, to be out about all of who she was. And I was watching.
I also admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love people that go outside of the box of what they are technically supposed to be doing because the truth within them is so loud that it won’t stay contained. Technically, she’s a writer of fiction, and yet she speaks on racism, she speaks on feminism very widely – and not always to the most receptive audiences. She’s fearless. I admire that, and I carry that in myself. Audre Lorde was one of those people, too.
This is an aside, but I’ve done so much social justice activist work that for years I would meet someone and be talking to them about a particular issue or we would meet at a conference or something, and at some point they’d say, ‘So, you work in social justice?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t. I’m in finance. I own a wealth management company.’ And what’s really amazing is stepping outside of my box, outside of the wealth manager box, I’ve started incorporating my deeply held social justice values into the company. Bringing those together with almost 20 years of investment management expertise has, in this very beautiful way, allowed me to bring my heart to my work. Now, when people ask whether I do social justice work, I say, ‘Yes! I own a wealth management company, that does social justice work.’
What’s your motto?
It’s one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lesser known quotations, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
If you could have any job other than the one you have right now, what would it be?
I’d be an astrophysicist. I thought I was going to be an astrophysicist for a while, but it was a little too solitary. I would not say that I am a huge extrovert, but I actually enjoy social interaction too much to only interact with equations. I was interested in math, but I wanted the math to have real world applications.
What’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned from a boss?
It’s important to be conscious about the impact of your choices. I worked in this great office in college, and sometimes I would ask my boss for some extra time off, because I was constantly working on social justice projects. At one point she sat me down and said, ‘There’s something I want you to start to understand. We’re all a team here. We help each other, and we all work together to get the work done. It’s not up to me entirely, to decide whether or not you can take the time off. Only you can know the real trade-offs – how important is this thing you’re taking time off for and is it worth asking of the rest of the team to do extra work because you’re away? In the end, I can’t and don’t want to make those decisions for you.’
And that’s something I still talk to my employees about – internalizing the impact of your choices on other people. I tell them ‘Don’t just ask for permission – also think about what the implications are. Understand the cost of what you’re asking for and, if it’s worth it, go for it.’
What about something that you’ve learned from an employee?
When I overcommit, I don’t just overcommit myself, I overcommit my staff. And the difference between me and my staff is that I both have the power to take on the commitment and the power to fulfill on it or not. But, my staff doesn’t have both options, they only have the work that’s created when I make those commitments. It’s made me far more thoughtful, recently, about what I take on. I truly consider the capacity of the entire team.
If you could sit someone down who had just graduated from college and tell them one thing that they need to know, that you’ve learned, what would it be?
I have to tell them two things, of course. Number one, be resourceful. You don’t have to know the contents of every book in the library, but you do have to be a good librarian. Don’t be afraid to figure things out. Make the choice to do so. Some people believe that they have to earn that kind of confidence, but my experience is that confidence isn’t earned, it’s chosen. If you choose to be confident that you can figure anything out, you will become resourceful and indispensable to any team.
Also, make yourself easy to help. I’ve had a number of people come to me and say, ‘You know, I’m really interested in this position.’ And in the end, they want me to write them a letter of recommendation or make some introductions for them, or something like that, but the one thing they haven’t done is made it easy for me to help them.
You’re more likely to get help if you go to someone and ‘Hey, this is something I really want to do.’ And if you need a letter of recommendation, say, ‘Here’s a draft of something that you could write about me if you felt like it was accurate. Please adjust it however you might see necessary.’ When someone has made themselves easier to help, they’re more likely to get the help they need.
Do you have a story about a time that someone who was a sponsor for you at work helped you take your next step?
The people who really helped me, who really sponsored me, were the people that entrusted a 25-year old to manage their life savings, when I started my own firm.
I had some experience in the industry and I technically knew what I was doing, but they were definitely taking a risk. When I look back at the people that trusted me at that time, they understood that I hadn’t yet had the opportunities that someone else would have had to, for example, already have managed my own or a family member’s portfolio. The people that chose me as their financial advisor early on did so, not in spite of the fact that I was young, Black, and female, but because I was young, Black, and female. They believed I could do it and they wanted to give me a chance – which is a huge thing to do with your life savings.
What’s your favorite interview question?
‘What’s the biggest misconception that people have about you?’ It lets you explore the degree to which the person is self-aware.
Who in your life would you say has been your most important ally?
My business partner, who is also my best friend, Maya Philipson. I started the firm in 2004. She came on board as an associate in 2006, and then became my business partner in 2007. She has two lesbian mothers that I have adopted as my moms, because my mother is not a lesbian and everyone should have lesbian moms. I call them ‘The Moms.”
Maya and The Moms, they’re my biggest allies. I feel like they’re allies in terms of being White people who have chosen to love and take a Black person into their family so that when they hear things that deeply impact Black people, they take it in differently than other White people do. I can see it. I never want for them to hurt, but I can see that when something that hurts us as a Black community, it hurts them as well because I’m their family.
True allyship is really hard to make happen. As much as we might have good intentions, our neighborhoods and social circles aren’t usually filled with people that are of different races and in different classes than we are. Becoming a real ally has to be very intentional, and with Maya and The Moms, it is.
Who is your queer hero?
Kate Kendall, and she always will be. When I was 23, I joined the board of NCLR. I was a professional, I had started to build my network, but I had nothing close to what you’d generally expect to see in someone sitting on a board of that kind. But, I had what they needed in terms of background and they needed more young people. They also wanted to welcome people of color and have more diversity on the board.
NCLR and Kate took a chance on me. But, when I’ve mentioned this to Kate she said, ‘No, it was never a risk. I always knew what there was for the Board, and what there was for the organization with bringing you in.’
I hire in much the same way. People say there are no women and people of color in finance, and it’s actually getting worse over time. That’s because people are looking in the wrong places. You can’t only hire people for their years of financial experience. You have to take really smart people who are values-aligned and have the right aptitudes, and you have to bring them into your organization and create your own pipeline. That’s what we’ve done, very successfully. And I learned a lot of that from Kate.
What is the most tantalizing leadership opportunity that you see out there right now?
Social justice investing is a huge opportunity. People are so hungry for deeply aligning their values with their investment dollars. And it’s hard to do right now. We often tell people who believe they are investing responsibly to look more closely at what they actually hold, and whether it aligns with their values. Large investment managers don’t make it easy.
Our RISE (Return on Investment & Social Equity) portfolios use community-developed social screens, which means that our portfolios are more deeply values-aligned. We talk to members of the community about their priorities, and based on those priorities, we set up rules for what we will and will not invest in.
Here’s one example: Our RISE Community let us know they don’t particularly care about divesting from alcohol. Socially responsible investing started with religious funds, so most socially conscious investment managers usually take alcohol out of a portfolio by default. The social justice community doesn’t seem to care as much about excluding alcohol, but they care very much about racial justice.
Before we started RISE, there was no comprehensive metric for racial justice in the investment world. There’s one that had been floated, and very few firms are using, based on prison labor and private prisons. What I never could have imagined is how much richer an investment screen for racial justice could be with community input. When we talked to social justice activists and investors, comments came in like ‘Who’s insuring the money bail system and how can we discourage that?’ So, we have a money bail screen. For-profit colleges and predatory lending practices also have disproportionate negative impacts on communities of color, so we screen them out. These are things that, even with my own background and social justice values as an investment manager, I didn’t imagine. It’s a perfect example of why the values decisions should sit with a community and not with the investment managers alone.
Before we got the results of our first community-developed social screens back, we were sweating bullets We were like, ‘Are there going to be any companies left in the portfolio?!’ We have over 400 positions in our portfolio. We were surprised to find that the companies that do good tend to cluster. For example, companies that are really great on carbon emissions are also probably really good about corporate governance, and they probably do a decent job with respecting human rights. It’s been really fun and enjoyable to support those companies, and to start to highlight how companies can be part of that cluster.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
Everything is negotiable. I’ve been told that something was not possible, or was not allowed, more times than I can count. If, as a company, we had accepted those answers, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are now. Viewing ‘No’ as the opening to a negotiation is a much healthier way, I think, of dealing with the many Nos that you can receive as a triple minority. When they told us it wasn’t possible for us to get what we wanted out of socially responsible investing, we said, ‘Okay, not possible in the current system. Then we’re creating a new model.’ There’s always an alternative.
What would the next step for you in your career be?
Now that we’ve created a system where social justice is embedded in a portfolio from the beginning, I’m starting to wonder how we can deeply align what we’re doing politically to support social justice work. I feel like that’s the trifecta. When you have significant dollars, public support, and the political system all working toward a goal, you’re able to make monumental social change.
It’s actually a lot of what the conservatives have going for them. The only difference is that they’re doing it in a very top-down, command and control, way. We want coordinated action on social justice issues, with coordinated investment dollars.
That’s what I’m starting to think about – me, operating outside of my box.
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite any five people from history, who would they be?
I’d invite Emmeline Pankhurst. She co-founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, which was the very beginning of getting women the vote. It was all about direct action to win women the vote. It was really badass to be doing that in 1903. There are pictures of her being assaulted by police officers at the protests in her 1903 getup, with the clothes, the hat, flowers on it and everything.
I’d also invite Septima Poinsette Clark. She is the grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement. Everybody thinks about all the stuff that Martin Luther King did, and Malcolm X did. What nobody really thinks about is, in order to really exercise their rights, a bunch of Black folks had to become literate.
And she was a big, big part of that. She thought that the first thing that was most important was literacy and citizenship knowledge. She was huge in playing a role and spreading that important knowledge throughout the Black community, and she doesn’t really get any praise in literature. It’s just, you know, sexist. Nobody thinks about how Black people couldn’t communicate with each other efficiently enough to create a civil rights movement without the written word. My grandmother couldn’t read or write, so it’s not that far back that there were actually people who were illiterate.
I think women’s work is often that way, foundational and ignored. Frequently, it’s the building that’s recognized, not the foundation. But the foundation allows the building to exist. I feel like that’s what Septima did. I want her to get some more praise.
I would also really want Adam Smith and Karl Marx to be in a room together. You know, the quote-unquote, ‘father of capitalist ideology’ and Karl Marx, socialist and communist. I would, actually like them to see what’s going on right now, and have a discussion that takes in what’s happened since they developed their ideas. I think that would be fascinating.
Finally, I’d also love to bring Einstein back and just hear about what questions he was noodling on that didn’t quite get figured out before he died.
What would the opening song in a movie about your life be?
“Rise Up,” by Andra Day.
It’s about taking the long view. To lot of people who accomplish more than the hand than they were dealt in life, it’s very important to always show up in this really powerful, confident, and optimistic way. But, in reality, our lives are riddled with moments of being ‘broken down and tired’, and ‘not able to find the fighter inside.’
Andra Day says, ‘But I see it in you, so we gonna walk it out.’ This is something Black folks do, ‘We gonna walk it out. Let’s go walk and talk and figure this thing out.’
What are the six things you could never live without?
- Family, including my business partner Maya and The Moms
- Eggplant parmesan
- Words and poetry
- Lactobacillus plantarum 299v
- A comfortable home
- Hope and optimism – there are too many reasons why my life shouldn’t have worked out for me, too, too many reasons. I had to hope for something else. Can’t work without it.
What are the three books that you would take to a desert island?
The first is The Gift is by Hafiz who is a Sufi mystic poet. It’s part of my spiritual practice and my meditation.
The second is a blank journal, because the most interesting book is actually how I am processing the experience of being on a desert island.
I have one for support, one for reflection, and then for amusement I would bring: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. It would allow me to pretend that I’m an astrophysicist and think about the nature of the universe. It will probably make my problems of being on a desert island seem so small compared to the enormity of the cosmos.