A Wealth of Opportunity

By Sacha Zimmerman

Marcus Shaw ’95 on creating corporate diversity, helping Black talent connect to the world of finance, and embracing the burden of optimism.

“If there’s an opportunity to make an investment but you can’t fully appreciate the value of it because your lifestyle or background does not allow you to properly assess the value,” says Marcus Shaw ’95, “then you have to get somebody on your team who does.” As the CEO of AltFinance, Shaw is creating such teams by nurturing young talent from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the world of finance. After more than a decade in the industry, Shaw has aligned his personal passion for diversity with his career. AltFinance runs a multiyear fellowship program to prepare young Black students for jobs in alternative finance.

“AltFinance was a tremendous vision by three large alternative investment firms: Apollo, Ares, and Oak Tree,” says Shaw. “In the wake of George Floyd and in the wake of having greater clarity on the true impact of not having diversity of opportunity, these firms said they wanted to do something about it. They had the tools and the resources in terms of being $100 billion firms, but by their own admission, they hadn’t really done this work before.” So the three firms put up $90 million to launch AltFinance and started looking for a financial leader who had done this work before. Enter Shaw. “They wanted to seed a nonprofit organization whose mission was increasing diversity in the alternative investment space,” he says. “The way we are doing that is by creating pathways for HBCU students and communities.”

An HBCU alum himself—he attended Morehouse College—Shaw majored in mathematics and started his career as an engineer. Ultimately, his entrepreneurial spirit led him to business school at Duke University, but once there, he surprised himself. “In business school, I really fell in love with finance and saw it as an opportunity not only to build wealth for yourself and your family, but also as an opportunity to really understand how the broader economy and the markets work and interact with each other,” he says. “I found freedom in that.” Business school demystified the complexities of finance in a way he found liberating. “When you learn how certain economic tools that you use every day work, there’s something empowering about that. So, as I worked in that world, I felt this obligation to share that knowledge with others and to share opportunities with people who otherwise may not have access to that.”

After all, not everyone has the benefit of what Shaw calls the right “dinner table training.” Take, for example, Shaw’s parents—a psychologist with a military background and a DC public school teacher. “We never had a discussion about money at the dinner table in my entire life,” he says. “We never talked about investing! I’m telling you, never in one day did we ever talk about money or investing. We talked about education, we talked about the military, we talked about race, we talked about philosophy, we talked about a lot of stuff, but we never talked about money.” If finance is foreign to kids with liberal-arts parents, it’s downright alien to kids who grow up without any kind of dinner table talk at all. A career in finance doesn’t even occur to a wide swath of young people as an option. And a lot of the best firms are not household names like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. AltFinance investor Apollo, for example, is unfamiliar to most people, yet the company recently purchased Yahoo! from Verizon in a $5 billion deal. Shaw wants to share insights like these to help create a bridge between Black students and the world of finance.

“I know the incredible value that exists at HBCUs in terms of the talent,” he says. “I also know that oftentimes these students do not have the same level of exposure to career opportunities or networks as students at bigger schools or at schools that finance firms have historically targeted.” When young Black talent does make it in high finance, they are often doing it without the benefit of access. “So imagine if all of a sudden you created more equitable pathways so that these companies are actually recruiting on these campuses, and they’re building relationships with young men and young women at HBCUs in the same way that they do with other schools.”

When you’re able to lead in these environments, you can add certain perspectives to the mission of the organization that helps increase impact.”

Shaw then goes a step further: Though diversifying their ranks is worthwhile in itself, Shaw argues that companies have a fiduciary responsibility to do so. “If I’m a company, I don’t want my bias to limit my access to talent,” he says. “A company ultimately has a responsibility not only to shareholders but to stakeholders. I have to make sure that I’m finding great talent wherever it is, and if that great talent is on the campuses of HBCUs, then I have a responsibility as a company to make sure that I am preparing that talent for careers in my industry.”

He says today the expectation is that companies will be inclusive. “No longer do folks get a pass for that,” he says. If, for example, a brand launches a marketing campaign that ends up offend- ing a large group of people because the concept was not vetted by those with varied perspectives, the company is held to account. Further, diversity doesn’t just help stave off questionable decisions, it also creates opportunities. Shaw says a woman he knows, the chief diversity officer at a firm in the lodging and hospitality industry, once told him that when leaders in her sector became more tolerant of different lifestyles, they began to understand that people in the LGBT community spend a lot of money on travel. “Imagine if you create marketing experiences, create customer reward programs, create hiring practices to make people feel a greater sense of belonging to your brand,” says Shaw. “Imagine what that will do to the benefit of your company financially. At AltFinance, we are developing a solution for our industry, but we believe that this solution can be utilized and transformative for a bevy of industries.”

Shaw also knows firsthand what it is like to be the only Black face in a 250-person division inside a major investment bank. “I had an unbelievable team, but it was not a very diverse environment, and there certainly was some sense of loneliness,” he says. “But you want to win, so you work incredibly hard to try to prove your value and your worth. But it is exhausting—and that’s the element that I don’t know if people always appreciate. It doesn’t mean you’ll quit, it doesn’t mean you’ll give up, but it is exhausting. It’s like driving your car in second gear, just redlining it all the time. It was a great learning experience from a technical perspective, but from a cultural perspective it was really dis- heartening to see what could happen when you don’t bring the best from all aspects of the industry together.”

Shaw aims to change that culture. “I recognized that when you’re able to lead in these environments, you can add certain perspectives to the mission of the organization that helps increase impact,” he says. Now Shaw says his greatest sense of accomplishment stems from increasing the confidence of the young people who participate in the AltFinance program. He quotes a line from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, “If you don’t get somebody’s attention then you’ll never get their interest,” adding: “The finance industry by and large has never sought to get the attention specifically of young Black talent.” AltFinance even recruits freshmen for its program; that way they’re taking the most relevant classes from the outset and “framing their minds earlier around what it takes to be successful in their career, not just what it takes to be successful as a student.”

As a Sidwell Friends lifer, Shaw knows something about what it takes to be successful in both business and academia. He was positively influenced by being surrounded by kids from all different backgrounds at Sidwell Friends. “It’s like I have cousins from like every race and religion imaginable,” he says. “I never feel any reluctance or nervousness about reaching out to Sidwell folks, and that’s powerful.” He says Sidwell Friends gave him “the burden of optimism.” “You need to have that burden of optimism to do this type of work,” he says. “You have to believe something is changeable if you want to change it.” Shaw adds that while his experience as a Black student at Sidwell Friends provided him a strong basis, Morehouse ultimately made him complete. “Seeing that the Black narrative is not a monolith, and that students are coming from all over the country with all types of experiences, and everybody is brilliant, hungry, and has a great character,” he says. “I think the combination of those two experiences, Sidwell and Morehouse, was so valuable for me because it positioned me for the moment that I’m in right now.”

There’s no doubt about that. As Shaw puts it: “I am a big believer in leading from the front; when you lead from the front there’s no mistaking what you stand for.”

To learn more about AltFinance and their fellowships, go to altfinance.com.

 

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