The first financial decision Zaneilia Harris made in life turned out to be a costly mistake. When her grandmother, who raised her, asked whether they should pursue Harris’ estranged father for child support, Harris petulantly replied, “No.”

If he didn’t want to be part of her life, she thought they should have no contact — financial or otherwise.
“It was an emotional choice — not one that I would have made now,” she says.

Looking back, it was not surprising that Harris made a bad financial choice. After all, she was eight years old at the time. What was surprising was that Harris’ guardian left the decision to a third-grader — and abided by it — even though their family struggled with money throughout all of her young life.

More than three decades later, after working as an accountant, a consultant and a stock broker, Harris went back to school to get financial planning credentials so she could help people like the grandmother who raised her make smarter choices about money.

“What is driving me is having watched my grandmother suffer,” she says. “My grandmother was always stressed out about money — always. It was a horrible way to live.”

AN ATYPICAL STRUCTURE
Harris, 45, set up shop in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a small town with one of the wealthiest predominantly African-American populations in the country. Although her average client has between $100,000 and $500,000 in liquid assets, she says they are not accustomed to handing over their money for management or paying up-front fees for financial advice. This prompted her to structure her practice in an atypical way.

“I have to be original,” she says. “If I wanted to work with people who looked like me, I couldn’t build my practice the way that other people were doing it.”

Consequently, Harris cobbled together a half-dozen different payment models. Clients can choose to compensate her by the hour, via retainer, by assets under management or through commissions she earns by selling life, health, disability and long-term care insurance.

In addition, Harris sponsors events, such as “finance and fashion” shows at Talbots and an upcoming four-day spa retreat in Northern California’s wine country.

Though neither the fashion shows nor the retreat would make sense if she wanted to bill at her normal $250 hourly rate, Harris hosts the events as a client service. She says the professional women who come to her for advice need financial education and the best way to get it to them is in a fun, friendly and supportive environment.

“I try to think outside the box to reach women like me,” she says. “If I were on the other side of the table, how would I be able to learn what I need to know?”

EDUCATION IS KEY
Education is a key part of her practice, because Harris seeks out clients who resemble an earlier version of herself – young, single, African-American women striving to make wise choices in an environment where seeking advice around money is uncommon. More than half of her current clients are single minority women, she says. Many of them grew up in families with limited positive financial role models, like her own.

“I am just getting comfortable with talking about the family history that molded me,” she says. “For so long, I was ashamed. But as you share different pieces of your life, you realize that your background isn’t unique.”

Indeed, Harris says she’s begun to realize that her upbringing resonates with members of her community. The only child of a single mom, Harris was raised by her grandmother in a rural town in Southern Virginia. Her grandmother, a seamstress, worked full time, leaving Harris and her cousin, who was two years younger, to fend for themselves after school. During the summer, a neighbor “babysat” by having the youngsters pick tobacco at a nearby field.

Harris, then only eight or nine years old, says she remembers never being able to completely rid her hands of the tobacco oil, with the bitter taste tainting everything she ate over the summer. The tobacco picking ended when an aunt reminded their neighbor about child labor laws, but Harris says she has been working in one way or another ever since.

FINDING HER PURPOSE
Harris studied accounting at St. Paul’s College, and got a job working for the Department of Defense in an internal auditing division. She later joined big four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, and had a successful consulting career. But even as she took on increasingly responsible and lucrative positions, she was dissatisfied.

Friends at home and work had been nudging her toward financial planning, so she decided to try her hand at selling investments. She got a job as a broker at Edward Jones, later moving to PNC and then to Merrill Lynch. She hung out her own shingle in 2009, and, with the economic and psychological support of her husband, she went back to school to complete the coursework necessary to pass the CFP Board exam.

Her practice has a range of offerings, from full-service financial planning to investment management. Hourly clients can hire her to handle simpler questions about big financial transactions, such as buying homes and cars, or how to handle an inheritance.

When it comes to investment management, her one unique requirement is that each of her clients buy at least a few individual stocks. She doesn’t have a recommended investment list she’s touting. Instead, Harris insists that clients think about the places they shop, the things they buy, and the products and services they consume every day. She then urges clients to pick a few companies that Harris will research fully on their behalf.

Owning individual stocks is a key to understanding how the entire investment universe works, she explains. When she asks clients why they shop at a particular store, drive a particular car or use a particular service, they usually respond with lots of fundamental reasons, from quality to convenience, she says. Explaining how those same factors work to the advantage (or disadvantage) of shareholders helps build her clients’ confidence and makes them better investors.

“When I worked for [other firms], our clients invested, but they didn’t understand what they were buying,” she says. “No one ever took the time to explain it. I think I have an obligation to my clients to educate. I want to be available to do that.”

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Kathy Kristof

Kathy Kristof, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Los Angeles, also contributes to Kiplinger's and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter at @kathykristof.