Northwestern Mutual invests locally in its home city of Milwaukee and across the U.S. through a $100 million impact investing fund.
The racial wealth gap isn’t closing as it should be. After years of modest gains, it began to widen again in the 1980s and continued at a rate of .01 percent per year through 2020. While the cause is systemic, there is plenty that can be done to rectify the imbalance. Corporations, and financial institutions in particular, have both the ability and the responsibility to work toward closing this gap.
“We still have a gap in the ways individuals build their net-worth to ultimately create wealth and how that is then transferred to their children and grandchildren,” Kamilah Williams-Kemp, vice president, risk products at Northwestern Mutual, told TriplePundit. “But the financial planning industry is making some real strides in shifting the mindset and the conversations that we're having about wealth-building.”
From investing in communities of color and ensuring programs and processes are equitable for clients and employees alike, companies like leading financial services company Northwestern Mutual are working to drive this sustainable change.
Williams-Kemp, who has spent 20 years in the financial sector, said she has a much deeper sense of optimism than she did a decade ago. By and large, she sees more honesty and recognition of those systemic and historical barriers at the leadership level — and more collaborative work to fix it. “It's unfortunate that we're still in this space, but at the same time, there’s nothing but opportunity in front of us as a country. And specifically for Northwestern Mutual as we aim to be a part of ensuring that the gains in education and income are matched with wealth creation and the transfer of wealth.”
There is no question as to the origin of the wealth gap between Black and white Americans. White families had 23 times the wealth of Black families after the Civil War, and the gap still stands at 6 to 1 today.
Access to capital and the ability to hand it down from generation to generation is integral to building wealth over time. Northwestern Mutual’s approach to bridging the gap takes both elements into account through its comprehensive financial planning process that enable individuals to grow and protect their own wealth through insurance and investments, as well as making community investments that provide diverse entrepreneurs with funding and support to build businesses that last.
“Our main mission as a company is to alleviate Americans of financial anxiety. It's something that, as a country, we don't talk enough about,” Williams-Kemp said. "Building financial security for people can feel very personal, but our planning approach focuses on helping people identify their hopes, dreams and aspirations so that we can provide the building blocks to actually achieve them.”
The company is working hard to close the racial wealth gap through community investments and support for entrepreneurs — namely through the Sustained Action for Racial Equity (SARE) task force, the Black Founder Accelerator Program and engagement with community development financial institutions (CDFIs). Additionally, the company launched a $100 million impact investing fund, which invests locally in its home city of Milwaukee and across the U.S.
"Financial inclusion and Black and African American prosperity is one of our top priorities,” Abim Kolawole, chief audit executive at Northwestern Mutual, told 3p. “One aspect we’re focused on is increasing diversity among our suppliers and spending, which we have done dramatically. Just last year we inked more than $10 million in contracts with Black-owned suppliers.”
Lack of access to capital has been a huge barrier for Black entrepreneurs — both historically and at present. And since business ownership is one of the primary ways of building wealth, that lack of access is a major contributor to the wealth gap, which is why Northwestern Mutual has made it a primary concern.
“We've invested in Black and African American venture capital funds directly. But there's also a sum total of about nine investments we've made and deployed, with commitments up to about $75 million out of a total of $100 million that is earmarked,” Kolawole explained. “We have funded $5 million so far to two CDFIs which are identifying local Black- and African American-owned businesses that are in need of capital, underwriting their business models, assessing the need for the capital on their suitability, and deploying those funds.”
Northwestern Mutual has also set aside $20 million from its venture capital fund for Black- and African American-owned businesses, entrepreneurs and startups, Kolawole said. Additionally, the financial institution’s Black Founder Accelerator Program acts as an incubator for startups. “Entrepreneurs spend 12 weeks in the program getting a lot of technical know-how, assistance with their business model and pressure testing,” he said. “But more importantly, they get access to $100,000 in capital as well as networking.”
Kolawole credits leadership as the key to Northwestern Mutual’s dedication in this space. “Our efforts to drive racial equity was chartered by our CEO, and I think that's very important,” he said. “To get that sustainment, you need leadership from the top.” This type of commitment is one our leadership feels passionate about and like many others following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, vocalized in an effort to hold itself and others accountable.
“I'm proud to say that we had already invested substantial time, energy, and capital into our diversity and inclusion efforts for more than a decade before George Floyd’s murder,” Williams-Kemp added. “And in that moment of time, it gave us an extra push to make sure we were being bold enough in our aspirations, and we were really holding ourselves accountable to progress for the roadmap we'd already established. It actually enabled us to double down on the commitments we'd already made.”
Along with positively impacting communities, the company’s efforts to advance racial equity have struck a positive chord among employees — Kolawole included. “It warms my heart to be with a company that's so well positioned to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s enabling me to lead the charge in something that I'm tremendously passionate about.”
To learn more about Northwestern Mutual’s enterprise sustainability, D&I and community impact, visit here.
This article series is sponsored by Northwestern Mutual and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Northwestern Mutual.