Jyoti Chopra is director of the multicultural and diversified business development group at Merrill Lynch, responsible for strategic planning, community leadership and relationship development among the U.S. South Asian market. This market includes immigrants and people of descent from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other bordering nations. Prior to Merrill, Chopra was a writer and media consultant covering human development and issues affecting women and children at the United Nations.

Chopra recently spoke with Mutual Fund Market News reporter Katherine Moon about why Merrill Lynch is interested in this marketplace and how it is being approached.

MFMN: How important is it to have a separate multicultural division?

Chopra: It is critically important because of the changing demographics of America. Census data and population projections find minority communities are among the largest-growing populations in the country.

The South Asian population certainly is one of the fastest-growing populations. Thus, it is important to understand their needs and provide them with appropriate products and services.

Merrill has taken a segmented market-based approach to these diverse communities. We currently have market managers and programs in the Hispanic-American market, the South Asian market, the African-American market, and we will be launching efforts for the women's market.

We've been extremely successful and very, very pleased with the initial results, and that's why we've expanded into other markets.

MFMN: Since you have specialists devoted to each cultural group, what is Merrill's strategy for the South Asian community?

Chopra: First, the strategy is to build community partnerships with important centers of influence, whether it's through the consul general's office or the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin. With those connections in place, we then provide important investor education to those communities.

I believe it's very important to understand the needs, behavior and attitudes - particularly cultural sensitivities - of the investor and family you're targeting.

MFMN: What are some of the needs and cultural sensitivities of your audience?

Chopra: Education. Our research showed us that particularly among the South Asian people in the U.S., education ranked as the first or second priority in terms of their savings and investing goals. Yet, they were often lacking in knowledge about financial products such as the 529 college savings plan.

Moreover, in the Asian Indian community in the U.S., taking care of older parents or having elder parents reside with the family and the concept of one family or an extended family is very common. That may not be the case in other cultures, where elder parents live independently or perhaps as part of an assisted living program or a retirement community.

That's an important distinction to understand because insurance, healthcare, savings and retirement needs for that community will be very different.

MFMN: Are there any generational differences?

Chopra: Yes. There is a bifurcation in terms of financial needs because you have first-, second-, and perhaps even third-generation immigrants or descendants who are now residents in this country. The needs of those different tiers and their attitudes toward saving and investing vary greatly.

We are keenly aware of those differences in terms of how they approach savings and investing and their knowledge level. For example, the older generation is much more conservative and averse to risk taking than their younger counterparts.

MFMN: Do women have an important role among these ethnic groups?

Chopra: Our research has shown that women play an important role as income producers and also in the saving and investing patterns and behaviors of the families.

More than 70% of the Indian community in the U.S., for example, are in the U.S. workforce. A large percentage of that constitutes dual-income households.

Women are in the workforce, they're earning significant incomes, and they cut across a number of professional fields, including the medical profession.

MFMN: How important is it to understand all these cultural nuances?

Chopra: It is critically important to understand all of the nuances and cultural sensitivities.

For example, I'm North Indian, and I'm leading our South Asian market efforts. Prior to joining Merrill Lynch, I spent 10 years working at the U.N. For these reasons and for my experience, I was selected to lead our efforts in this community.

Our Hispanic market manager spent many years, for example, working for the Catholic Archdiocese and has extensive knowledge of the Hispanic community in the United States. And so it's a combination of work experience, academic background, and knowledge of the community itself.

MFMN: Do you think people respond better to those who share their ethnic background?

Chopra: No, not really. We have a number of financial advisers from all races serving the South Asian community, for example. It's a question of who the individual investor feels comfortable with.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe Now

Access to premium content including in-depth coverage of mutual funds, hedge funds, 401(K)s, 529 plans, and more.

3-Week Free Trial

Insight and analysis into the management, marketing, operations and technology of the asset management industry.