Nov. 9, 2023: Getting candid about sudden wealth creation
Jennifer Risher is an author, speaker, philanthropist and investor. After her own family had a wealth creation event, she wrote a book titled "We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth," which focuses on the impact of wealth on identity and relationships. She discussed her personal story, her book that started it all and how she currently approaches philanthropy.
Your sudden wealth accumulation had a profound effect on you — so much so that you wrote a book about it. What was that journey like?
It has been a very personal journey that started when I was 25. In 1991, I got a job at Microsoft; met my husband, David; and got stock options that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. David’s were worth millions. Then, six years after we met, when we were married and expecting our first child, David took a job at a small startup selling books on the internet — called Amazon.com. He was the 37th employee, the company went public, we were in our early 30s, and we had more money than we could wrap our heads around.
I’d grown up with middle-class values, saving my pennies, and a sudden fortune was a shock. Yes, it was amazing. But it was surprising as well. Soon, I was discovering that something most people — me included — consider to be nothing but positive was emotionally complex. My identity was at stake. No one talks about the impact that new wealth can have on relationships. And I was worried about judgment and full of questions that weren’t comfortable for me to ask. It was hard to talk about “problems” other people wished they had. Was our wealth going to spoil our children? Should we give money to my brother? How do I handle a friend’s resentment? Were my parents looking at me differently?
After years of trying to hide our good fortune, I began writing about the experience. In 2020, We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth was published. Since then, I’ve been sharing my story to acknowledge and validate the emotional complexities of money and to encourage individuals and families to have much-needed conversations.
What lessons did you learn from writing the book?
The response to my book has confirmed our need to talk about money and the emotional issues that arise. Wealth can be isolating. It brings up questions — and our silence doesn’t serve us. When we keep things hidden and in the dark, our silence breeds shame and creates distance between us. We could all benefit from exploring our money stories and from talking within our families and with friends. Conversations about raising children, figuring out how much is “enough” and discussing prenuptial agreements give us the chance to connect and learn. Ultimately, my goal is now to help others move out of shame, guilt or a desire to keep money hidden and into a sense of meaning, joy and purpose with their money. Writing the book really helped me find a sense of purpose and power with our wealth.
Why do you think people have such a hard time discussing their wealth?
When I was growing up, I learned money wasn’t polite to discuss. And I think many of us learn that it’s shameful or taboo to talk about money. So we don’t get practice or have experience discussing finances and examining our own feelings. And our silence keeps us stuck, failing to examine our relationship with money, failing to get comfortable with our feelings and allowing distance to form in our relationships.
Economic disparities that exist within extended families and between friends make money a challenging topic. When we have a lot more than others, it’s uncomfortable to discuss, so we shy away from conversation. There’s a fear of being judged, soliciting jealousy or making others uncomfortable. And yet, when we don’t talk about money, we end up giving money too much power. It starts to take on a life of its own. We make assumptions. We make up stories in our heads. Even though discussing money-related issues is awkward at first because we’re fearful and don’t have practice, conversations can bring a sense of relief and connection.
Philanthropy is extremely important to you. Tell us about #HalfMyDAF.
Getting more comfortable with money has helped me find real purpose with our wealth, and #HalfMyDAF is an example. In April of 2020, when my husband and I were sheltering in place at the beginning of COVID, all the uncertainty and need was so upsetting. We sat in our backyard and talked about what we could do. We were aware of all the money just sitting in donor-advised funds [DAFs], which was frustrating. Our country was in crisis, and yet there were billions of charitable dollars sitting on the sidelines in DAFs.
We came up with the idea of inspiring DAF holders to give by putting up $1 million of our own money as incentive. We created a website. We talked to the press. And we asked donors to spend down half of the money in their DAFs by the end of September 2020. When they did, their donations would be eligible for a dollar-for-dollar match from us through our #HalfMyDAF challenge. In 2020, in five months, #HalfMyDAF moved over $8.6 million from DAFs to nonprofits, which was a huge success.
We hadn’t expected to continue the #HalfMyDAF challenge, but with all the buzz and excitement from donors and nonprofits and with more awareness around the billions of dollars in DAFs, we felt the need to continue. It was powerful to be working with my husband. Even more fun was our daughters getting involved. Each of them has worked on the project and donated their own money to the matching pool. We just finished our first year. From March 1 through Sept. 29, #HalfMyDAF donors recommended $16.1 million in 1,462 grants, and #HalfMyDAF matched 456 — nearly a third. Since we started, #HalfMyDAF has put over $50 million to work at nonprofits in 46 states across the country.
What do you hope #HalfMyDAF will accomplish?
#HalfMyDAF has exceeded our expectations. Our emotional response to the need created by COVID has now turned into a movement. Over the last four years, as a family, we have contributed millions of dollars in matching funds, worked to spread the word, found funding partners, rallied hundreds of donors, partnered with the Amalgamated Foundation, held webinars for thousands of nonprofits and truly created a community. We’ve gotten some great press, too.
It feels great to support nonprofits working to solve our country’s toughest problems. Too much wealth is still sitting on the sidelines. Problems like climate change, poverty, illiteracy, inequality and injustice aren’t getting easier to solve. Our goal is to continue to inspire donors to have an impact and find joy in their giving. Ultimately, we want to make #HalfMyDAF bigger. There is over $234 billion currently sitting in DAFs. Policy change requiring a payout from DAF accounts is badly needed. Until then, my husband and I plan to continue to inspire giving at a grassroots level—and are looking for partners who can join us to grow this effort. I welcome people to contact me: [email protected].
What do the next five years look like for you?
I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing: talking about wealth and using my financial and social capital to create the changes I want to see in the world. By sharing my story and acknowledging the emotional side of money, I want to help others find more confidence and feel more connected. Money shouldn’t be a taboo topic. I want to help put money in its place, as a tool, and not something that creates distance between us. I also want to help others, especially women, step into their power and purpose.
In addition to being more involved in philanthropy with #HalfMyDAF, I’ve become an investor. I love that I can invest with my values and help create the world I want to live within — one with more economic, racial and gender equity. Right now, women get just 2% of venture capital funding. I want to change that dynamic. There is so much talent being overlooked. So many untapped markets. When one segment of our population makes all the decisions around who and what gets investment dollars, we are missing out on variety and diversity. We need to take everyone’s perspective into account. Investing with women in general and with women of color in particular makes social and financial sense.
Over the last few years, I’ve invested with four different women-of-color fund managers. It’s exciting and empowering. As women, we can use our money to decide what products and services get funded. Too many smart women and historically underrepresented people are being overlooked — and a more diverse, equitable marketplace ultimately benefits us all.
MORE INSIGHTS: Understanding greenwashing and why it matters
By PETER KRULL
Creating a legacy for your children, grandchildren and generations to come takes lots of foresight and planning. It also means investing in companies that are working toward a sustainable future. Unfortunately, because ESG investing has become a buzzword, greenwashing has become more prevalent.
Investopedia defines greenwashing as “making an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than they actually do.”
Morningstar categorizes 627 mutual funds or exchange-traded funds as being ESG (environmental, social and governance) or sustainably focused. That’s a lot of funds with a lot of different and diverging definitions of what sustainable, responsible and impact investing (SRI) means.
And while I truly believe in diversity of opinion, I still have a hard time understanding how some managers can include companies such as ExxonMobil or McDonald’s in their SRI portfolios.
Regardless of your beliefs or what types of companies you’re interested in investing in, it’s critical to do your research to avoid greenwashing. A term from my high school Latin class is appropriate here: ‘caveat emptor’ — or buyer beware.
DEFINING ESG AND SRI
First, it's important to understand the difference between ESG investing and sustainable investing, because both investment managers and the media often equate the two.
ESG is simply a set of metrics quantifying the environmental, social and governance risks within a company. Many investment managers then use that data to adjust allocations of traditional indexes, thereby reducing a portfolio's “ESG risk.”
Sustainable investing is more intentional. The investment process analyzes which sectors, industries and companies are and will be leaders in a new, cleaner and more sustainable economy. Which technologies will make society healthier and more resilient? How can we reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy while at the same time keeping in mind the importance of equity issues?
Sustainable investing represents a step beyond ESG investing by being solutions-based and focusing on innovation. At the end of the day, I would define the practice as true growth investing.
The example I typically use to delineate the two types of investing is this: An ESG portfolio that reduces its exposure to ExxonMobil is “less bad.” A portfolio that eliminates the company entirely is better. But a portfolio that replaces ExxonMobil with First Solar is truly sustainable.
Most of the 627 ESG funds listed by Morningstar are likely “less bad” and a function of investment managers' focus on indexing. The easiest way to integrate ESG metrics into a portfolio is simply layering them onto an existing index. It’s also cheaper.
But as with most things, cheaper isn’t always better. It takes effort to create a portfolio from scratch; to understand issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and equity; and to find innovative companies leading us into the new economy.
In my experience, responsible investors want solutions-based portfolios, not “less bad” ESG indexes. And large fund managers are, at their core, institutional investors, and they invest for individual investors in the same way that they would invest for themselves.
The solution for individual investors is multifold. Before selecting a fund manager, ask a lot of questions, including how much experience the manager has in responsible investing. Does this person understand the differences between ESG and sustainable investing? What types of companies and industries is the manager investing in? And how does the manager plan to avoid the “less bad” portfolios?
If you already have a fund manager or family office, make sure the manager understands your goals. Create a family mission or motto to ensure that your investments are aligned with what you’re looking to achieve. Make sure to have regular meetings to ensure you are in sync and your team is adjusting your investments accordingly based on new developments and changes in technology and information available.
Ensure you also have conversations with your family so they understand your goals and the importance of avoiding greenwashed funds.
Consider separately managed accounts (SMAs) instead of mutual funds or ETFs. SMAs own individual securities in your account and make it much easier for the investment manager to focus on solutions instead of indexes.
Finally, don’t be afraid to switch to an adviser who is an expert in sustainable investing. Because responsible investing isn’t one-size-fits-all, an expert can understand which values are important to you and guide you through the greenwashing maze.
An expert also will help you navigate the negative political rhetoric that currently plagues ESG so you can be comfortable with your decision. Remember that ESG is simply a set of numbers. It’s risk metrics. And when used well, it can help you create a sustainable portfolio that can have a positive impact on the world, and your family, for generations to come.