Shelley Saraniti and Her Journey as a Lesbian at Merrill Lynch

When Shelley Saraniti started her Merrill Lynch career 25 years ago, she was wrestling with whether to come out as lesbian to her colleagues. Then a memo from the company’s Pride Network hit her desk. “In that moment I made the decision—hey, there is support and a place for me here, and I want to live authentically and be out,” says Saraniti, who is national financial advisor development program performance executive at Merrill.

Now a company veteran, Saraniti spoke with Barron’s Advisor about that decision and her roles in supporting LGBTQ+ colleagues. She weighs in on how Merrill’s support for the community has evolved, as well as what work remains to be done. And Saraniti explains why the wealth management industry needs more LGBTQ+ financial advisors.

Where are you from, and how did you get into the industry?

 I grew up in a rural town on the Georgia/Tennessee line called Lookout Mountain. We moved to South Florida when I was 10, and that’s where I ended up going to school. When I was 19 and still in college, I had a part-time job working retail, and I was sick of that. I had a friend who worked at Merrill Lynch with a high-producing team that needed clerical help. That is how my journey began. I tripped into it by accident and never left.

You are Merrill’s national financial advisor development program performance executive. Please describe your job.

I help develop the next generation of financial advisors by overseeing Merrill’s Financial Advisor Development Program. With a team of performance managers across the country, we help advisor trainees achieve success through coaching, training, and performance assessments.

When and why did you decide to come out to your colleagues as a lesbian?

 I started with Merrill in 1997, in Boca Raton, Fla., and at that time I was beginning to realize that I was gay. I was going through a personal journey of coming out to myself, and I was very hesitant about how to navigate that in a workplace environment. I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect.

Two years later, I was planning on going to grad school, and I transferred to Asheville, N.C., to do so. At that time, I was trying to make a decision about what to do. Do I live authentically? Do I come out as myself? Or do I continue to hide?

And as I was trying to make that decision, I literally received a memo from Merrill Lynch’s Pride Network. The memo was signed by the chair of the network, who happened to be the specialist who supported the team that I had worked for in South Florida. I knew him, but I had no idea that he was gay. And I had no idea that the company had this network and this support.

In that moment I made the decision—hey, there is support and a place for me here, and I want to live authentically and be out.

How did you come out to your colleagues?

Well, I didn’t want to make some huge announcement that I’m here and I’m gay. I just decided that I was going to put that memo on my cork board in my cubicle. And I was going to openly talk about things and not hide anything.

Were you already out to family and friends at that time? I had come out to family and friends a little prior, while I was still in school. So I was closeted at work in that first part of my career. As a matter of fact, the woman I was dating, and this was pre-cell phones, would use a code name when she was trying to get in touch with me at the office.

Since you mentioned you were anxious about coming out professionally, I’m curious about the extent to which that anxiety did or did not prove to be founded.

When I came out, I knew that there was likely going to be a time in my career that I would experience some sort of discrimination from someone. But I also felt like the systems were there and that the company supported me.

I did have one situation later on, in my first leadership role. I faced a little bit of an issue with a financial advisor, just some discriminatory language. And the firm handled that immediately with the advisor and with myself. I have had one blatant incident, and that was swiftly dealt with.

From your perspective, has the workplace environment changed significantly since those days?

A tremendous amount has changed in the space of LGBTQ+ rights globally and domestically, including several Supreme Court decisions. Personally, I have evolved and changed and become more comfortable with myself. I now am married and have a family.

And obviously, in 25 years, a lot of things have changed at Merrill, including the acquisition by Bank of America . I really do believe that Bank of America and Merrill Lynch are among the most progressive companies not just in the industry, but in the corporate world, in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. We have widely expanded our benefits. When we adopted our son, back in 2012, the bank had an $8,000 adoption credit, which was a wonderful benefit at the time. That benefit has evolved to include all types of family planning and creation, whether it’s IVF, adoption, surrogacy, or any of those specific journeys, and it’s a greater dollar amount.

We have something called Life Event Services, which has numerous themes. One of the main themes is for transgender support, for supporting people who are making that transition. We’ve actually also had numerous parents of transitioning children or transitioning family members use that network.

We have something that we refer to as the “ally out at work” portal that we introduced about 12 or 15 years ago. It’s open to any employee in the company. It’s a place you can go and indicate that you are out at work or that you’re an ally. We’ve had countless examples of people who have looked at that portal to determine who in their geography is also out at work or is an ally.

My favorite example is a rainbow bull lapel pin that we introduced several years ago, which I wear with great pride. I’ve gotten to the point that I always keep five to 10 extra in my suit jacket pocket. No matter how many pins I bring with me to an event, I always come home with an empty pocket.

What’s your role personally in these inclusion efforts? We have a LGBTQ+ executive leadership council at the company, which I co-founded with an executive by the name of David Thornton. I currently serve on Merrill Lynch’s diversity and inclusion council, specifically focused on the LGBTQ+ employee experience. I live in the San Francisco Bay area and serve as one of the executive sponsors of our local pride chapter. And as we as a company are working through our employee support, I’m often used as the sounding board.

Looking ahead, what steps do you think the wealth management industry needs to take next to support its LGBTQ+ employees?

I hope to see greater visibility of LGBTQ+ people in the wealth management industry, namely out-at-work leaders. These LGBTQ+ leaders help set the tone for the rest of the industry and send the message that not only are LGBTQ+ advisors welcome, they’re needed.

Turning toward Merrill’s clients, can you talk about some of the financial planning needs that are unique to the LGBTQ+ community?

For those who are planning for a family, there are always going to be extraneous costs that a heterosexual couple wouldn’t necessarily face. That’s a large one, as is healthcare as a whole, always having that healthcare asset bucket available. Specifically, that could be gender confirmation surgery. And elder care: Many in the LGBTQ+ community don’t have traditional family support from parents or siblings, perhaps because when they came out there was family abandonment.

As far as estate planning, perhaps they don’t have those natural inheritors that you would have in children or otherwise. What we also see within the LGBTQ+ community is that altruism and giving back are incredibly important. After somebody’s death, does their legacy live on? And what does that look like?

What’s your advice for new LGBTQ+ employees in the industry? First and foremost, you belong here. Not only do you have a role in the wealth management industry, but we need you here to continue to react to client needs, to continue that wealth creation in the LGBTQ+ community, and deal with some of those financial planning issues that we talked about. That is incredibly important.

The nobility of the profession of wealth manager, of a financial advisor, is incredible and, I think, often discounted. We hear story after story of prospects and clients who either are making transitions themselves or have somebody in their family, perhaps a child, who is coming out to them as LGBTQ+, and one of the first phone calls they make is to their financial advisor. They want to ensure that they have the right level of support set up for those individuals.

You carry a lot of responsibility in your various roles at Merrill Lynch. How do you like to relax and recharge?

The water is my magical place. The ocean, a swimming pool, that’s the way I recharge. I have a wife, with whom I’ve had a 20-year relationship. We have an almost 10-year-old son, and I just enjoy spending time with them, preferably in the water.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

I just had my 25-year anniversary in mid-May. And if you would have asked me 25 years ago, I never would have dreamed that this was possible for me, an out lesbian at the time. And I think it’s just so incredibly important that those coming into the industry, that those already in the industry, know that the place for them is absolutely here.

The text is written by Steve Garmhausen for Barron’s.



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