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In one African-American woman’s experience, lessons for an entire industry

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Denika Tokunaga says breaking into the profession can be difficult if you don’t fit into the traditional image of a financial advisor. Here’s how she did it.

Financial advisor Denika Tokunaga has a message for wealth management firms: You must be inclusive to be competitive.

“People need to know that there are folks there who look like them,” says Tokunaga. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what your ethnic background is, what social community you identify with, people want to see that, ‘oh, there’s someone there like me.’”

Tokunaga, who is African-American, says breaking into the field can be difficult for people who don’t fit into the conventional picture of a financial advisor. The stark figures show it: Fewer than 24% of CFPs are women and less than 4% are black or Latino, according to the CFP Board.

Financial advisor Denika Tokunaga

In an interview with Financial Planning Senior Editor Tobias Salinger, Tokunaga shared her insights on what it takes to build a successful independent practice against the backdrop of the country’s racial disparities. She sees signs of progress, despite the challenges.

Since she launched Fulton, Maryland-based Maven Wealth Management in 2014 under her affiliation with LPL Financial, Tokunaga has built a base of some 80 clients. Many are black doctors and lawyers from the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area. Some advisors may be missing the opportunity to serve clients like hers, Tokunaga says.

“It is unfortunate, because, just like everyone else, the African-American professional needs to have financial planning,” she says. “They need to have a financial advisor, they need to have investment management, retirement planning, estate planning, tax planning. They need all of those services. And, often times, they probably need the services more, because there is a generational detriment when we don’t have those services in specific communities.”