Hey goal achievers! Kristin here. Recently, I had the chance to talk with a guest on my podcast that I have a lot in common with. We are both mamas, married, and spent our careers in the financial industry. In fact, our paths crossed because of a mutual friend in that space!
I was so grateful when she reached out to me via LinkedIn, and we connected. Her name is Arielle Bittoni, and she is a Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Analyst. Arielle worked at large investment firms and learned from the constant adrenaline rush and no downtime, that having the right people around is key to succeeding as a wife, mother, and professional. She became a financial advisor to be that person to her clients and was disappointed to learn that the industry greatly underserves women.Arielle was done compromising and did not want to conform to a competitive culture focused on material success. So, she decided to do things differently. Arielle acted courageously and decided to go out on her own, joining forces with another solopreneur. I am so excited to hear the lessons she learned working in a male-dominated industry and about her passion for serving women and delivering financial education. I start our conversation by asking her to tell me about her firm, Refresh Investments.
“Absolutely,” Arielle begins. “Refresh Investments is a registered investment advisor located in Santa Monica, California. We are a fee-only, independent wealth practice, and we provide comprehensive investment management and financial planning services. And just to clarify, fee-only means that we are compensated only by our clients directly, so we don’t take any commissions, and we have no incentive agreements with other companies.”
I ask Arielle to explain what a registered investment advisor does, also known as an RIA.
“That is a really good question,” Arielle says. She goes on to explain that the financial industry is full of a lot of lingo and jargon that is incredibly confusing. “An RIA is the acronym for a registered investment advisor that manages assets for individual and institutional investors. So, what separates them is that they have a fiduciary duty to their clients. This means that I have an obligation to always act in the best financial interest of my clients and put them ahead of my own. In comparison, a non-RIA could be somebody that is a broker who is held only to a suitability standard. That means that they can provide financial advice that is suitable for their client’s needs. But that they can also earn a commission or earn fees for providing that advice. Additionally, RIAs must also register with either the state regulators or the Security and Exchange Commission, the SEC. They can be researched online so customers can see if there have been any complaints filed against them. And the last point that I’ll bring up is that RIAs generally provide more than just investment advice. They can advise on a range of topics, including retirement planning, insurance planning, and estate planning.”
Given that RIAs are highly regulated, I guess that Arielle’s journey to go out on her own with her partner must have been time-consuming and difficult, and I ask her what inspired the move.
She begins by saying that she would have never predicted that she would end up an entrepreneur. “I began to feel stuck, which I think a lot of people can relate to in my career,” says Arielle. “I was at a crossroads, and what I decided to do was join a coaching program, which was new for me. It was absolutely amazing and the best thing that I did for myself. This program was specifically tailored to coach female financial advisors who wanted to create a more female-friendly wealth practice. It doesn’t get more specific than that. And through this program, which was a lot of individual, one-on-one with the coach and then also group-style coaching, we developed a community. It caused me to do a lot of introspection and vision exercises that I had never done before. And it made me realize that I have a lot of knowledge and a lot to give. I also started feeling that it was my responsibility to give back to my community, especially to other professional women. And, at the same time that I was going through this coaching program, I started becoming more involved in my community and taking on more leadership roles. I stepped up and became the co-chair of the women’s community group for the CFA Society of Los Angeles. I also joined the leadership team of the Ellevate Network of the Los Angeles chapter. So, between all of these activities, I suddenly started feeling like this was the right thing to do and I needed to branch out on my own.”
I ask Arielle to share how her connection to her vision, community and the clarity she was finding through coaching kept her inspired throughout the journey of becoming an entrepreneur.
“Well, it was definitely a process,” Arielle says. “And it had me start to explore where I actually wanted to be. So, a big question for me was, what did I want my environment to look like? I had never asked myself that before. I started exploring other firms, other places where I could see myself and where I could not see myself. I went on a journey of trying to figure out where I wanted to be and where I could see myself for the long haul.”
I can absolutely relate to Arielle’s story. As I mentioned, we both came from the financial industry. And for a large part of my career, I didn’t realize I had blinders on because I grew up in the industry. It took a while to realize that there were other ways to do business. I thought everything had to be about competition and ‘let’s do more.’ I’m so grateful for the opportunity I had to be in a women’s leadership program, which was one of the first times I was in a group of all women in the financial services industry. That experience completely opened my mind! And because of that, I became a better coach. I became a better professional. And then I ultimately got a lot of clarity in my own life and started asking similar questions, like “What do I want my day to look like?” I learned that I didn’t want to get up at 5 am anymore. I learned that I could be really successful but not get up at 5 am and not be the first one in the office. And there were going to be some days that I would be in yoga pants. I could build a huge business wearing my yoga pants! It was so important to take that time and pause and ask yourself what you want your life to look like and what’s going to serve you professionally. I ask Arielle what challenges she faced after answering those questions and taking the next step to becoming an entrepreneur.
She explained how she met her business partner, Pamela Chen, a few years ago, who was also a member of the Los Angeles CFA society. “She had started Refresh Investments on her own,” Arielle says. “And when she and I reconnected, I was really impressed when she was telling me about it. She continued to share with me that she was looking for a business partner. And this was in the midst of my exploration and figuring out where I wanted to take my next move. She wanted somebody to help her expand the services of the firm. This is a bit cliche, but the rest is history.”
I think it’s the universe aligning with that intuition. As Arielle got clear, she got that clarity. Then the intuition and the universe came together. The rest was history, exactly like she said! Refresh Investments is committed to creating an environment where clients become more connected and in control of their financial life, so I ask Arielle what steps someone can take to be more in control of their financial life.
“The first thing that I would say is to begin with what we call a foundation,” Arielle begins. “That’s where you spend time defining what your core values are. So, it would be answering the question, what’s most important to you? Once you’ve done that, then you can start to focus on what we call your purpose. So, what purposes do you want to use your wealth for? So, for example, if you said that your core value is taking care of family, a purpose could be providing education for your children. Then ask yourself, do these purposes fulfill the foundational value that you just defined? If you’re unsure or the answer is no, well, then we should question why you would be putting your money there. Once you’ve clarified what your purposes are, the next thing to focus on is prioritizing them. And this can be done on a rating scale and importance scale. What’s an absolute? Some will be a definite yes – I do want to do this. What’s something that’s more of a negotiable? The final piece is getting really clear and specifying your financial goals for each of those purposes. What Pam and I have found at Refresh is that creating this foundation piece first, rather than jumping straight to what financial goals clients are focused on, creates a more meaningful experience. And in the end, we see that our clients are more committed to seeing those goals through.”
I find a similar process is helpful when I support my clients to achieve their goals. If we’re lacking that clarity and go straight to okay, what’s the goal? What are the strategies? What do we need to do to achieve it? It’s sometimes easier to give up on that goal because we don’t have that clear ‘why’ backing up why we want to achieve that goal and why it’s important to us. The foundation is fundamental and it sounds like it’s fundamental in both goal achievement and financial planning. I think it’s brilliant how Arielle brings up the importance of values. Because if we allow ourselves the time to get clear on our values, we’re going to make better decisions for our life, our financial future, and our career. But it can be so tempting to make decisions in alignment with other people’s values.
I ask Arielle to share some thought-provoking questions that she likes to ask to help people get clear on their values.
“We definitely like to have our clients dig deep when they’re beginning to think about this foundational piece,” says Arielle. “Because it really helps us get to know them, which is key when we start building strategies and putting together their financial plan and investment strategy. So, the questions that we like to ask are broad and open-ended, general in nature, and we ask them to write it down. That’s one thing that I have found – when somebody writes it down, it becomes real, and they need to think a lot more when they’re putting it down on paper or in our Google form. An example of one question is, what does your financial life look like ten years from now? Specifically describe all the pieces professionally, personally. What does your lifestyle look like? What does your income look like? Another question we ask is about their investment philosophy. This is important because we want to understand their relationship to money. Everyone’s relationship is different. And everyone has their own philosophy. We need to know and understand this with our clients. The last piece is something that’s more of a vision exercise. If we take money out of the equation and talk to our clients about what they see themselves doing with their day, a lot of different values will come out. Because a lot of concerns are tied to money, and if we don’t have that concern anymore, it allows our clients to dream.”
Arielle had me at vision. I do a lot of work with my clients on visioning. And I found that it can be challenging for women to dream really big. One of my favorite questions to help people when visioning is what legacy are you creating? If you stop thinking about a particular role or amount of money and start thinking about impact and legacy, I find that that helps women open up and start pouring out their dreams and desires from their hearts. It’s an incredible experience when you give someone that space to dream. I wonder if having that conversation with a financial professional is a little nerve-wracking for some people and ask Arielle what she thinks hinders people from sitting down with a financial professional.
“Well, everybody should,” Arielle says. “But I understand why they don’t. I think that trust is a major factor. It’s a big deal for someone to get what we call ‘financially naked’ in front of someone else that they just met. And then to think about handing them their life savings to manage for them. It’s something that Pam and I don’t take lightly and we don’t believe that clients should take lightly either. Another factor that I think can be intimidating is knowing what questions to ask a financial advisor. It’s important to ask questions when you are meeting one or when you are interviewing one. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask about their credentials, their experience, how long they’ve been doing their job, and very importantly, how do they get paid? You should also find out what type of clients they serve. And ask them, what’s their approach? What’s their philosophy?”
I think that’s really helpful. And it aligns with a lot of the work that I do when I’m meeting a potential new client for coaching. Much like Arielle said, your clients get ‘financially naked’ with you very early. The same can be somewhat true with coaching. There are a lot of topics that come up and things that maybe clients haven’t wanted to admit. And now they’re going to start sharing these dreams, hopes, and desires with another person. I always find it magical when it just clicks, and I get the real person at some point in a coaching relationship. And it’s crazy because it could be two coaching sessions, or it could be six coaching sessions. But all of a sudden, once it clicks, you can achieve really big goals together.
Knowing that Arielle has been in her career for some time, I’m curious what mistakes she recommends avoiding when it comes to people and their finances.
“A big one is when people think they have time to figure it out,” says Arielle. “Time is one of, if not the most, valuable thing that we have. The earlier you start saving for your future and planning ahead, the better you’ll be prepared for financial independence and security down the road. I think that living through the past year has taught us all how important that is.”
I absolutely agree. We live in an “I’m so busy” culture right now. And say things like “I don’t have time to think about that.” Some people really do have super busy lives where they have a lot of responsibility. But in general, a lot of us go to that because it is an easy excuse. I have found in my work coaching that a lot of times, that excuse comes up because there’s fear. There’s fear that starts to surface and, in Arielle’s world, it could be fear around what you have or haven’t done financially, fear or embarrassment around the choices you’ve made. Or comparison ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ All these beliefs start to come out, and some people don’t want to confront them.
“You are correct,” Arielle agrees.
I’ve heard Arielle explain why a conversation with a trusted professional is incredibly important and empowering. And that people can start to understand and recognize that they’re not being judged by financial advisors. Instead, they’re here to help people get clear on where they are, where they want to go, and build a plan so they can make that happen.
“Yes,” Arielle confirms. “And we’re really lucky today that there are so many types of financial advisors out there. It’s not like it was 20 years ago, where you only had a few different options. There’s basically a financial advisor for everybody out there today, no matter where they are in their lives. There’s somebody who is a good fit. The challenge is just finding that person. But again, with the internet, you have all of it at your fingertips! It may just take a little bit of time researching to find that right person.”
I find that to be so encouraging. Both Arielle and I grew our careers in the male-dominated finance industry. And I feel very fortunate to coach many women who are still growing their careers in the financial services industry. I’m curious to understand what Arielle has learned about being a woman in a male-dominated industry and ask her to share her experience.
“So, over the 20 years that I’ve been in the industry,” Arielle begins, “There have definitely been a lot of lessons along the way. The bottom line is that I learned and want to share with others that being different and being the only woman in the group, if you are the only woman, is not a bad thing. Women need to trust their gut. Stay true and authentic to themselves. And don’t apologize. I know that women tend to say ‘I’m sorry’ often, but we don’t need to do that.”
I agree so much. I remember when my daughter Scarlett, who’s now seven, was younger – maybe four or five years old. She was riding her scooter and bumped into the wall. I said something like, “Hey Scarlett, let’s make sure we’re not bumping into a wall.” Her response was, “Okay, I’m sorry.” And that was such an eye-opening moment for me. I thought, are you really sorry? Because that’s not necessarily something you need to be apologizing for. So even at such a young age, she’s apologizing for things that are learning opportunities, awareness opportunities, not necessarily things to be sorry for. I think we carry that with us when we go to work. As I reflect on my career, I felt like I had to show up as that direct, competitive person to fit into this male-dominated industry. I think what’s hard, or at least what was hard for me, is that I got conflicting feedback.
Early in my career, I got feedback that I was too positive. It was like leadership was saying you can’t possibly be real because you’re too positive. Then later in my career, I got the feedback that I wasn’t real, or I wasn’t authentic, probably because I had overcorrected. But I was trying not to be too positive to fit in! I ask Arielle if she has any advice or insight for women who want to be more authentic.
“It is challenging,” Arielle agrees. “I think that it all needs to begin with women supporting other women. It’s no secret at all that there just aren’t enough women in the financial industry. And, I mean, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t enough diversity in the industry, which means there aren’t enough perspectives. And this is such a huge problem. I mean, when you look at the pool of financial professionals out there, it doesn’t mirror our society at all. But even with this big discrepancy, we’re not seeing the percentage of women entering the financial industry increase. It seems static.”
I think a couple of things could be contributing to this, based on my own conversations with women in the industry. Often, what we perceive a financial advisor does isn’t exactly what the job entails. When I considered being a financial advisor, I was like, no way. It’s way too numbers-focused. When in reality, it’s incredibly relational. It’s about asking insightful, thought-provoking questions, building deep relationships, having other’s best interests at heart, putting all these pieces together, building a plan, and being influential in getting people to act. So, I think one challenge is that the way we perceive the role might be different than the way the role is in day-to-day life.
“I think that’s definitely true,” Arielle says. “I think another piece is, and maybe this isn’t widely known or widely understood, but women are great at being financial advisors. And there’s a huge demand for women. It’s a great career. I think that maybe there are these barriers where they don’t feel that the industry is friendly. It’s the environment. But like I said, we women need to support other women. The more women that we can see in positions, the more we will encourage younger women who are starting out in their careers to join. And I think that’s a big place we need to focus on – the age group of women who are deciding which career to go into.”
Arielle brings up a great point around the support. Even if a woman joins a firm or a company, and there aren’t a lot of other women, there are so many resources out there. One is the resource Arielle mentioned earlier, Ellevate. Thanks to her, I’ve now joined Ellevate, and I am in this incredible squad that is helping me think differently. And I’m meeting other women.
There are support groups out there. There are other thought leaders in this industry that women can follow. When I didn’t have mentors I could connect with, I sought out that mentorship from other podcasts, other books, and other women in different companies and industries. If you’re intentional, you can find that support that you need to thrive in the financial advising career or the financial services industry.
“Yes,” Arielle agrees. “And it’s only growing! I mean, there are a lot of women initiatives that are blossoming and gaining a lot of popularity.”
Another element that might be a hindrance to more women looking at this career is the idea of juggling being a wife, being a mama, being a professional, and doing all the things! I know Arielle has two young boys under the age of 10 and that her hands are certainly full. I’m curious how she defines success as a mom, as a wife, and a business owner.
“It’s definitely changed over the years,” Arielle says. “And I’d have to say, what’s most important to me now is making a lasting impact. When I think about my kids, I really want them to see what I’m doing with my career because I have boys, not girls. I want them to be inspired by the decisions that I’ve made and the career path that I’ve taken – that it was done with a lot of hard work, perseverance, but most importantly, a lot of passion. Not giving up is a really difficult thing to master, and it’s something that I’m constantly working on. I always want to improve my skills and learn to be better. I hope that when they see me, that’s something that they absorb. That they can take that on in terms of their own work ethic when they think about their own careers and their drive, and what’s important to them. I mean, they have two parents who are entrepreneurs. My husband built his business as well. So, between the two of us, we really hope that we’re teaching them a lot.”
As a fellow mama and a fellow entrepreneur, I have a feeling that Arielle is teaching her sons a ton. There are these little nuances that children start to pick up and watch as they see mama building her empire, which is incredibly, incredibly impactful. Speaking of building, I ask Arielle what goals she is focused on achieving this year.
“Yeah, so the pandemic was something that was completely unforeseen,” Arielle begins. “So, a goal for us this year is to really make sure that our clients are even better prepared when we all start re-engaging in the world. I feel we’ve learned so much over this past year. And a big takeaway, for me personally, is being proactive. Having a plan and feeling secure is priceless.
I am so thankful for the insightful conversation with Arielle about how invaluable connecting with a financial professional can be. I think it is incredible how she helped us understand values and vision and how that helped her join Refresh Investments and find a career where she can work with dynamic women and families. But also, a way to not compromise who she is and to relate those foundational pieces to building out a financial plan.
Before we end our conversation, I’m reminded of the power of networking. Arielle and I had this conversation because she courageously reached out to me on LinkedIn. And I was like, “Heck yes. Let’s have a conversation.” Then she inspired me to join Ellevate, which is this incredible network of like-minded, professional, inspiring, ambitious women. And then she even found her current business partner, Pam, through a women’s community group that she now chairs!
Arielle agrees the power of networking is huge. “I am so thankful for it,” she says. “And even though when you’re networking, you’re not sure what’s going to become of this connection that you’ve just made. And maybe it’s six months down the road. Maybe it’s a year down the road. It was a few years after Pam and I met that we decided to combine our practices and build a firm focused on serving women. It’s amazing and that’s something that I do stress the importance of. If I could tell my younger self how important it is, I would call her up right now and tell her networking is really valuable – equally as valuable as your education.”
With that goal achievers, keep focusing on your wins, learning from your lessons and identifying those key priorities so you can consistently progress in the direction of your goals.