In this episode of AFB's Inform & Connect podcast, Melody speaks with Gena Harper, Senior Vice President, Investing with Impact Director, Senior Investment Management Consultant at Morgan Stanley.
Gena will share the story of her personal and professional journey, and setting the example of a life lived with no limits. Having joined AFB’s board of trustees in January 2020, she will also discuss what AFB’s mission means to her and why the work the organization does is as important as ever.
Melody Goodspeed: (silence) ... Welcome to The American Foundations for the Blind Inform and Connect Series. We are episode 12 today, and our special guest is Gena Harper, which we're very excited about, and I'll put it more, but I'm going to tell you a little about AFB. We are about creating a life with no limits for people that are blind and vision impaired, and our goal is to do that with systemic change. And we are very excited to do that, and our mission is very powerful, and we are also doing that by having our Inform and Connect Series, where we get to meet people that are examples of that.
Melody Goodspeed: So with that introduction, it really gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Gena Harper, and she has a lot of titles behind her name. She's senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Firm Financials and an AFB trustee. So we're very happy to have you, Gena.
Gena Harper: Thank you.
Melody Goodspeed: How are you doing today?
Gena Harper: I'm great. It's a beautiful day and it's great. I'm doing great.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. I know. You're very excited. Well, we're really excited having you here today. And one of the things I just loved in the advertisement that you've just really spent your life just looking at obstacles in such a different way. Can you tell us about that?
Gena Harper: Basically, I really have a can do attitude and a woman of action attitude, and I have never really let anything get in my way. It was different when I was younger and in high school. I did feel less than because of being blind, and I felt as though I would never be as good as sighted people. So, I had to deal with that. And I got really through that through sports, going to the orientation center for the blind and learning blindness skills, and then when I was there getting introduced to all kinds of outdoor sports activities that I was never able to do. And I became a world class downhill skier, and that was the first time I felt like I could do something better than sighted people that I knew. And that was the beginning of the change. And so I really don't view things as obstacles. I really view them as challenges. And I really like challenges and I find them fun and interesting, and I don't mind them.
Melody Goodspeed: No, I think you crush them, and your story is just so great. And I love that because we all at the end of day are people, and the fact that you're crushing those is it's definitely a sign of living a life with no limit. Let's talk about, everybody, Gena is one of two women in the United States that is at her caliber and her level of being a financial advisor. Do you want to talk to us about that, Gena?
Gena Harper: Yeah. There's a missing piece there, two blind women.
Melody Goodspeed: Two blind women, yes.
Gena Harper: In the United States. And yeah, I have a very unique job. There's only 17% women in financial services in the first place. Then to be blind is the second thing. And so I do very complex financial planning, and I help individuals and many of them own businesses. So I help them with their personal finances and planning, and their business finances like their retirement plans. And so it's a real unique job. It's a job where I get continuous education, like very current on what's happening in the world, a lot current on what's happening with taxes and things like that. So the education piece of myself, I like. And then interacting with my clients is really meaningful. And being blind in this career, it does have its obstacles. So, yes.
Melody Goodspeed: Do you want to tell us maybe about one of those obstacles?
Gena Harper: I would say there's really two. One would be accessibility, access to things. And I think most blind people deal with accessibility issues. So most things at my firm, I work for Morgan Stanley. They're awesome. Most of their systems are inaccessible. And a couple of years ago, they did make a commitment, that would be with me kicking and screaming and pitching the biggest step possible, to get some change on the accessibility side of things. So now, they've thought outside resources and they've made a lot of changes. The thing is it's like draining the ocean one cup at a time. In all seriousness, it's just a huge undertaking. So, they started with things that are pretty meaningful to me and they are now I'd say 70% accessible, but they weren't accessible at all. And there's a team that are very committed for just a piece of the business.
Gena Harper: And so that would be the first thing, trying to access things. And I really learned how to do my job by memorizing everything. And I also have assistants that I've earned, not just because of the blindness aspect. As you get to be more successful in the job, then you get more assistants. So, things that are not accessible to me, like certain reports, I should say all reports, I have a template of what I want to know from this report. And then they run the template for me and put all the information in an email, which is completely accessible to me. So I've just come up with a lot of work arounds. And then I do actually... I mean, I make outlines for myself. And like I said, I memorize things. So, that would be the accessibility piece.
Melody Goodspeed: I think that you bringing up that accessibility piece is so critical and important because that is something that we do struggle with in the blind community, but what I really love and what I'm hearing there is overcoming challenges. But the fact that people that are blind are very creative thinkers, and in the ways that you have shown that by even just how you've climbed the ladder. And we've spoken before, just how proud you are of that, which it was really just a beautiful thing to see. Can you kind of talk to us a little bit about the highlights or one of those challenges that you did overcome as far as making something accessible? How you treated that, how you maneuvered to say, I know you said kicking and screaming, but truly there's a value added that you bring. Can you talk to us about that?
Gena Harper: I can. I want to add one piece to the last thing we were talking about though, is really in the beginning, I mean, I think a lot of it is mindset. And I would say there's a lot of clichés, but that are really true. They are true if you implement them and make them a part of your life and your philosophy and mindset. So in the beginning, I didn't have the attitude that everything had to be accessible. And I knew that the people I was dealing with, they didn't know how blind people would do the job. They had no clue. And so it wasn't that I just sauntered in. I actually applied at Merrill Lynch, and they didn't give me the time of day. I had a cane and they sent me a letter saying that I wasn't qualified, which was not the case.
Gena Harper: So in that case, it was a matter of a lot of networking. And I met a gentleman who really had faith in me. So then, I had some of my own tools, and I needed less tools than I need now, but I did need some tools. And I had some and they helped where they could. But I didn't take the attitude like the ADA attitude and the you have to, there was no attitude. There was like, what can I do? And what can you do? And how can I figure this out? And I just worked endless hours on the weekends and at night, and I did things like that. So I think it's my own mindset and a blind person's mindset or anybody's mindset, obviously, to their approach of educating the employers. And I also, there are certain rules and guidelines, and not everybody's going to agree with me, but I try to tell the employer how I'm going to do my job and get them all involved.
Gena Harper: I show them my iPhone and how it works, and I might show them. And I don't have to do that. There are laws that say I do not have to do that. And that's not going to get me a job. The laws are not going to get me a job. So, my personality and my attitude and my engaging them is going to get me a job, and of course my skills. And so I think is a hurdle, the beginning part. So just getting in the door. And then the other thing was my clients. So for the very first year, I would not meet any client in person. Because again, I did deal with a lot of shame. That's a whole other series. And I was embarrassed, and I knew I could do the job. And the guy that I worked with that hired me knew I could do the job.
Gena Harper: So I had a lot of faith in that, and I worked really hard, but until I managed somebody's money for a year and did a really good job, I wouldn't meet with them. And then after, I would tell them or I'd meet them in person. By then I'd done such a good job, I mean, what could they do? I mean, they're not going to fire me. I just did a great job for them. So, I dealt with that, and I would say you asked about something I overcame. I really have overcome that now. Really, if somebody doesn't want to hire me because I'm blind, the loss is truly theirs. And there's people. I mean, there's some men that have a women issue. And I'll just say I know more than you do about investments, and here's what I can offer and you get to decide. And so those are a few challenges I know that apply to everybody and that I dealt with and kind of what I've done about them.
Melody Goodspeed: No, I love that because it really is. I'm hearing a lot of education, and we do have to educate and be our own ambassadors and be our own advocates. I myself, when interviewing for positions, have done the same thing, showing them and being assertive to say, hey, do you want to ask me how I do my job? Or I'm going to tell you how I'm going to, instead of. And mindset is such a huge thing because really your mindset that you've developed got you downward skiing. And it keeps growing and growing, and it's gotten you where you are today. So, that's such a huge thing. And thank you for sharing that with us and telling us all how we can have our mindsets. One thing I want to go back to is when you were first deciding, did you realize that finance was going to be your career?
Gena Harper: Absolutely not. I knew nothing about finance. I had been a client of the Department of Rehabilitation, who sadly was mostly useless in my case. And they did a series of tests that said I couldn't be a gazillion things, which wasn't true. And again, at that point in my life, I depended on teachers and professionals. I mean, I was young. So I didn't really have the mindset, screw you, I'm going to go do something different and you don't know what you're talking about. I wasn't there yet. So the going to the orientation center for the blind and the sports, that was pivotal. But by then, what had happened is I had started college, I was going to go to UC Berkeley. And I got into UC Berkeley. And I had to take one prerequisite class.
Gena Harper: And I had to have eye surgery during that class. And the teacher gave me an incomplete, which is a whole other, that was ridiculous. And if I knew what I knew now, they wouldn't have gotten away with it. But so I decided to do what I would call take the road less traveled. And I didn't finish college because of that one professor, but I did do a program where I learned how to be a word processor and amazing computer skills. And that's what I thought I was going to be. And that was my first job, being a word processor with dictation at a huge insurance company. And that did have a similar, I was embarrassed when I did the interview. I really misled the woman that was interviewing me, but she was completely onto me. And she knew I couldn't see very well, even though I didn't bring my cane, I hid it.
Gena Harper: I left my dog at home. I mean, which is so silly. Because I was going to show up with a dog or a cane anyhow. But so she did hire me, the first woman that I deceived. And I didn't really deceive her though. And so what happened is from the skiing, when I won the race, I did a lot of public speaking, and just a random stranger came up to me and said, "You would be a great financial advisor." And I was like, wow, that's interesting. I'd never taken a finance class, an economics class. And so through networking, I met the person that I mentioned that actually hired me in the end, just through a bunch of networking. And he trained me. And it's been onwards and upwards since that moment.
Melody Goodspeed: That is awesome. So, I'm hearing education, advocacy, employment, mindset, and live your dreams.
Gena Harper: Well, and also don't take no for an answer. Again, a cliché is it's easier said than done. No, it isn't easier said than done. It's easier done than said. If somebody tells me no, then I go ask somebody else, in every aspect of my life. I've tried to do sports before, and called the kayaking company, "Oh no, that's a problem." No, that's not a problem. You're the problem. And I either decide to duke it out with them or I hang up and call the next kayaking place. So, there's different methodologies that I use depending on what the situation is.
Gena Harper: So it's don't take no and don't get beaten down, and it's hard. And to have proper expectations that it doesn't come easy and you do have to constantly be an educator, though that can become exhausting, it's just part of life. And you will reap really good rewards by doing that. And if you don't get that job and you've educated somebody, you can only hope and you can probably bet, or hope and bet, that that will show up in somebody else's life, that you've benefited somebody else that you just don't know who they are.
Melody Goodspeed: No, for sure. And I agree with you completely on that. I think there's too many times that we even just as people as a whole put on our own negativity to ourselves and we let others dictate who we are and we shouldn't, and I think this is such a prime example of that. It's just sticking to who you are. And moving into your belief that, I want to move into the advocacy and the role that, and we're so glad to have you as a new trustee for AFB. I have really enjoyed getting to know you because we are both in the blind leaders program as mentors. And I want to talk about why you wanted to be a mentor for blind leaders and what it's done for you.
Gena Harper: Well, the blind leaders mentoring program has truly been the most favorite volunteer thing I've done. And I do a ton of volunteer work and a ton of philanthropy. And I really love the one-on-one connection. And there are lots of guidelines and principles and ideas on getting employment. At the end of the day, I do think it's a connection and a networking, and that a lot of the mindset and attitude that I can share that with somebody. And if that person is open to that idea, those are things that are going to tip them over the edge. We can all sit down and kind of try to say how we're going to do our job, but it's all about your personality and a lot of things and the mindset, even though I keep saying that. So my mentor... Well, I love the concept.
Gena Harper: So I've been friends with Kirk for some time and he introduced me to it. And I love the concept and it's a very well organized program. And the matching of the mentors to the fellows, I have an amazing fellow and she is so openminded, and amazingly she's a sponge. And she's also super respectable. I respect her. She brings a lot to me. I learn a lot from her. But the things I think she wants to learn from me, I'm teaching her. And it's a wonderful connection between the two of us. But these aren't that many... Sharing it person to person is different than reading it in a book, which again, the principles in the books are good and they are the principles. However, being able to have a dialogue and talk about different situations, and we talk about employment and we do talk about when blindness gets in the way and other things like that. And I think it's a phenomenal program. And I also think it can reap just huge rewards for the fellows. I think the outcomes can be very impactful.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. I know when you and I were talking about, a couple weeks ago, time has changed, but we were talking about when we were sharing ideas about mentors, and we both kind of agreed that we were learning from our mentees as well. I mean, it's just been such a, the fellows and them as a whole, it's been truly unique and very... Intimate's not the word I want to use, but it's very nice with the structure of how we're able to all collaborate.
Gena Harper: Well, yeah. I think it is a degree of intimacy or closeness or connection, the connectivity. And the other thing is that I can be really tough and super direct. And some people like that, and some people don't. I like it. And so if I need to be, which I don't need to be much with my fellow, but if I needed to be, I would be. And I think that just the way this program is set up, that that's a very doable thing. And some people might need that. Because they might have just had so many bad experiences, or maybe not had good role models or good mentors in the past. And so they come with all this baggage that's not really on them. It's not really their fault. And so you can say all the mindset you want, but if they've had a lot of these bad experiences. And so I think this program offers a lot of potential to address really very specific one-on-one things individualized to each fellow. And I just think it's a wonderful program.
Melody Goodspeed: Yes. And you had mentioned that you've done other volunteers, and this is definitely one of your favorites. What is something that's unique about this program that you find?
Gena Harper: Well, it's incredibly well organized in that there's goals and objectives. So the goals and objectives fall into the monthly. And I mean, people could choose not to follow the model, but I think the model is really solid. So what is unique is how you kind of keep on pace and you keep moving forward. And if you do it right, then you don't kind of fall off track and get lost and don't connect. So I think also that the beginning kind of assessments where you outline the goals and objectives, that those are very accurate and very measurable. And so it's not just a squishy, we like each other kind of concept. There's real, tangible skills and goals.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, yeah, because I mean I definitely have seen a lot of change and an upward mobility with all of us, I think, as a whole group. So no, thank you for sharing that so much. Now, you guys always know that I always ask for one tip before we go to the Q&A section, but Gena and I are talking, and she has, I'm going to just say it, she calls them Gena's gems, and I think we all need Gena's gems. So, I'm going to ask her to share some good gems with us, not that she hasn't already, but Gena, please do.
Gena Harper: Some of my gems, I'm just going to review the quick ones that I said, and then I'll tell you the one I would think to focus on. So I did say work hard is one. I mentioned that. And then being a woman of action or a man of action is another Gena's gems. And then there's always a way. But the one that I think is really kind of thought provoking and is super actionable, they're all thought provoking and actionable, but is the, I already mentioned the taking the road less traveled. So I really, the not going to college is a road less traveled, is how I get things done. I just figure it out. I figured out my way. And it may be a different way than... It's pretty much for sure probably going to be a different way than somebody else's.
Gena Harper: So to be open to that when you approach something, if the standard way you think it's going to work isn't going to really work that way, to just don't even give it a second thought. Just say, how am I going to figure it out? Or reach out to other people you know that might have figured it out before you or people that you admire that really can give you insight. And I think you'll accomplish a lot, and it'll be more effortless is what I want to say. It'll be more effortless because it's the way that works for you and a way that's doable to you. So that would be my Gena's gem or my tip.
Melody Goodspeed: I think that is an incredible tip to move into the question and answer. Gena, thank you so much for sharing your story both personally, professionally, and we welcome you so much as an AFB trustee and that as well, and I'm seeing good things to come. Suzan, do we have questions to start with for Gena?
Susan Henderson: Chat is open you guys. So if you have a question, go ahead and send those in. So, we're still waiting on them right now.
Melody Goodspeed: Okay. So Gena, I have a question about, we'll go ahead while we're-
Gena Harper: That doesn't surprise me. I love that about you. You have a lot to say that's great too.
Melody Goodspeed: No, I love that we have this connection in so many ways. That makes me happy. If you could share just one time when you reached the level that you are at in your education, but I'm sorry, in your employment, what did that feel like? Was it like, I did this? I love how you talked about how proud you are of your accomplishments.
Gena Harper: I am. I am so proud, and I truly have worked so hard. So I have a 20 year old lovely daughter and a boy that just turned 18. And if I say things, they're very sensitive, like, "No, that sounds arrogant." I don't even know how to present it because I don't think it's arrogant. It is truly an honor to myself and recognition of how, and it's not comparing me to anybody else or saying that I'm better. I've just worked my ass off, and I still do work so hard. And it just feels freeing and it feels, I would say mostly freeing, and that I have choices. I can make choices that maybe I couldn't have made before just because of everything that makes up my success and my connections and my experience and so many things.
Melody Goodspeed: No, I love how you own it. I think some of us are afraid to voice how we're proud, and we should. I mean, we really should.
Gena Harper: Oh, I call people up and tell them all the time, like, hey, I'm cool. I was thinking of calling a guy who I love on the 10% Happier podcast and say, hey, I think you're cool. I think you'd think I'm cool. Let's set up a time to talk. So...
Melody Goodspeed: It's important. For sure. Do we have-
Susan Henderson: Yes. We have a comment, Melody, from our dear friend Lee Huffman, and this is very insightful. He said, "I like that you said you work hard and that laws don't get you a job. Young people need to know that they may need to work twice as hard, at least in the beginning."
Gena Harper: Thank you, Lee. I want to say, unfortunately, that is 100% true. So if you're not a hard worker, you're not going anywhere. And if you're blind, it's going to take you longer for everything. Even if everything was perfectly accessible, which is pretty much not going to happen, and so you have to work hard and be dedicated and you have to admit if you make a mistake or if something's hard. I mean, even for me, I didn't want to say when I couldn't do something because I had pride and I just didn't want to say I couldn't do something. So now I know how to say if I can't do something, and some of that does come with experience. I don't want to mislead anybody because a lot of times successful people talk as though it's so easy, and it's not easy. Just like Lee said, you have got to be really committed, and you also have to seek outside resources and tools and technology. And that's not on your employer. That is on you. And they're out there. And that takes time to learn and just to improve yourself.
Susan Henderson: Okay. We have another question from our wonderful friend Libby Thaw. She says when she has met with a financial advisor, that they have shown her stuff on the screen or paper. Her question is when you are in face to face meetings, do you use any visual aids for sighted clients?
Gena Harper: That's a very interesting question. So yes, I do. I generally give them an outline that's printed like a word document that I created the outline, and I might've had an assistant fill it in. And that's the thing that I referenced that I memorized. And I have reports. And if it's just something super cumbersome and I haven't had time to memorize it, which is rarely the case, but there are times where I will bring in one of my colleagues like an assistant. I don't really call them assistants, I call them colleagues. But one of my team, and I might say, okay Joel, let's show them the pie graph of how the account's done.
Gena Harper: And Joel knows that it's on page six. I know it's on page six too, but he's kind of the one doing the showing. I generally prefer to avoid the big 96 page report, but it is also useful. And so I just know what's in the report and I've gone through it. And there are also times, you guys, again about shame or embarrassment, I used to not be comfortable with the clients. And now I might say, hey, why don't you read this piece of the outline to my client? And I think they think it's endearing and they don't mind it. I don't feel any less by engaging them. I don't always do that, but I'm happy to do that if I need them to be the reader for some reason.
Melody Goodspeed: Thank you. I love that, thanks for sharing that. I also too struggle with that. So yes. So with people, Gena, actually that you're working with that are blind that do seek financial advice from you, what's the technology, how you get things accessible for them?
Gena Harper: There's just not that much accessible. So what I would do is I would make them a word document, kind of like a summary of their report. And I think there's firms, and I think even mine, I'm not sure they can print things in braille, but the thing about that is that’s a statement that's important. It really is going to be 400 pages. Nobody's going to want that. And so again, do we push for that to say, oh, you're obligated to make a braille document? And I think they can do it. I think it's much more important that they make it accessible online and that their websites are accessible, which they're improving. The Morgan Stanley online website I think is far from perfect, but I think it's actually quite good. So that's one thing. And then I of course would do anything for a blind person.
Gena Harper: If it's have my staff cut the corner on something that the blind person, maybe they're going to use the CCTV and they wanted to hone in on a few pages. I mean, anything they need to do, and I myself could also emboss certain braille things. So again, it's going to be a personalized, tailored thing to each person's needs and situations. But if people have financial advisors, they can just ask them to translate certain things into whatever format is easiest for them, like an email or a word document or Excel spreadsheet, something, whatever helps you as the client. It'd be good to just have a conversation with your advisor.
Melody Goodspeed: Thank you.
Susan Henderson: We have a guest today from Russia, and they are sending you the warmest greetings, Gena. They'd also like to connect with you, if you could give or would like to give your contact information.
Gena Harper: Oh yes. So a great way to contact me is, and you can maybe put it in the chat, but it's Gena, G-E-N-A., as in period, D as in Diane.Harper, my last name, H-A-R-P-E-R, @ms.com, like Morgan Stanley. So Gena with an E, G-E-N-A, .D.Harper at ms.com. That's the best way to connect with me. I'm also on Facebook and Instagram and yeah, that too.
Melody Goodspeed: How could they reach you on Instagram and Facebook?
Gena Harper: I think it's just at Gena Harper. It's just my name.
Melody Goodspeed: Okay, perfect. Well, Gena, I just want to say really thank you so much for this, your powerful story, your powerful set. And thank you for reminding us all, because we do need to change our mindset, and we're better together to creating a life of no limits in any situation we are in if we pull together. So I loved how you've showed teamwork, you've showed tenacity, just spunk, and we thank you so much for sharing with us.
Gena Harper: Thank you to AFB for having such a neat little series. I think it's wonderful. It's great.
Melody Goodspeed: Well, we're so glad that you love it and we're so glad you're here. And I hope that everybody has a great rest of their week. And again, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. Thank you so much. And we look forward to seeing you next week. So thank you all. Take care. Have a wonderful day.