A Husband and Wife Start a Discussion About Race on Wall Street

This Bloomberg Markets article is part of “The Only One in the Room,” an oral history of the Black experience on Wall Street.

Anjelica Watson, 32, and her husband, John Watson, 36, are executive directors at Morgan Stanley in New York, which they both joined in 2013. Anjelica worked in debt capital markets before joining the office of the chairman and chief executive officer last year. John, who joined Morgan Stanley from UBS Group AG, became head of digital infrastructure in the Americas for Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners last year after six years as an investment banker to media and communications companies. The Watsons, married since 2018, spoke about their experiences working on Wall Street and their communications with Black colleagues in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis in May. They were interviewed separately by Bloomberg Markets. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

John: You’re going to have to be more careful than your peers, this is something that Black men, women in the United States have been hearing from their parents and family members and trained to think about since they were kids. As an adult, you’re going to be under a bigger magnifying glass and that’s not just from inside your organization. And if you find yourself in hot water, your actions are going to be more scrutinized than others. So you have to devote significant mindshare to that.

People of color in general suffer from the question “Do they have the technical skills?” and when they’re junior that comes up over and over again.

Anjelica: I don’t understand the notion of check-the-box diversity. The whole point of diversity is to bring different perspectives, for things to actually be understood, interpreted, and communicated in a potentially different way to provide diversity of thought.

There are certainly negative stereotypes or perceptions that exist and I feel that even the fear of those stereotypes changes behavior more often than the actual stereotype itself. At least that’s been my experience. As a result of that fear, Black people, Black women generally, play smaller than they would if they didn’t potentially have to face the fear of being stereotyped. Choosing projects that are safer, not necessarily taking the appropriate risk in their career at the right time, generally seeking a career path or specific role where there’s an easier point A to point B road to be travelled are all examples of this. But as a result you have prematurely capped the progression of your career and have not necessarily met or even attempted to meet your full potential.

John: I had a young brother come to me and say, “Look, you know, I’ve been looking at other people’s work and my work is just as good, I work longer hours than everyone else, I’ve never turned down a staffing. But I don’t seem to be getting the same sort of accolades that my peers are getting.” And I said, “Can you think of any reason why that would be the case?” And he was, like, “no.”

The kid went to Yale, had been a top student his whole life. And as I talked to him, working through some of the bias stuff—making sure he was seeing himself within his role and team, how it may be that he needed to do a better job of promoting himself or working harder to make some of those connections—it was jarring for him to have this realization that wow, bias is one of the things I have to really be thinking about and working around. And that’s what this moment in time is about, trying to make a big push to eliminate this type of bias in systems and communities.

One of the things that I do now is to try to force conversations to be as fact-driven as possible. A prime example in hiring is if a candidate is described as “a good guy,” that’s usually because that candidate reminds whoever said it of themselves, and their experiences reflect that own person’s experiences. We need to force conversations to be fact-based and reduce bias as much as possible because I do think over time it tends to tip the scales in favor of less diversity.

Anjelica: Being mistaken for the cleaning staff or being mistaken for the assistant has certainly happened to me. But I wouldn’t say that it was so pervasive to where I walked away and said maybe this industry isn’t for me or maybe this isn’t the place for me.

I worked in a product area and not necessarily client coverage. I think that is an important nuance as someone goes through their career—product experts are just that and because they’re subject-matter experts, they have an automatic credibility when they are in the room. I think you’ll find typically more diversity amongst the individuals that are in those roles than you might in a regular client coverage role that relies on having relationships.

John: My wife and I sent out an email to the younger people of color below the MD [managing director] level at Morgan Stanley and basically said, “We realize this is a really tough time in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, and we want to make sure that we are all connected and have a dialogue on this.” We wanted to be available to be a sounding board and support system for young people at the firm.

And from the response we got, we were pretty surprised by just how much of a toll this has taken on people. They were uncertain about their jobs, their career prospects given the pandemic, and then you add this complex racial element. And now your boss is going to call you and ask you to walk them through the race problems on Wall Street. And the world. And ask you how he can fix them. Some of them are just 22 years old and may be going through the most traumatic period in their life already.

We got these pretty massive responses from folks: Can we get on the phone with you guys? Can we talk for half an hour? Can you help us think through sort of how to deal with this? It’s just an unprecedented situation, especially for younger people. But we all needed to work through this and share ideas and experiences and hopefully find ways to make an impact. And as a group we came up with a plan to make a donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was then matched by some senior people at the firm and the firm itself, which was great. And now we have an ongoing dialogue and support system at various levels of the firm.

Anjelica:  While it may be a tough subject to discuss, acknowledgement that people may not be OK is the first step. And I’ve had colleagues and former colleagues reach out to me during this time. So I use those individual moments as an opportunity to try and be vulnerable with them. And as a result, I’ve felt that people are more vulnerable themselves. I don’t look at any one phone call as a silver bullet to any broader change. But step one is really understanding that there could be a population within your organization that is experiencing pain, and making sure that you are doing what you can to acknowledge those feelings.

It’s not enough to just be really good at your job. You need to then use that credibility and spend that political capital that you worked so hard to build to make more space for others.

Tan covers finance for Bloomberg News in New York.

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