Alumna committed to improving financial literacy for women

Sherry Paul
Sherry Paul

At the heart of a movement to improve financial literacy for women is the simple feminist agenda of directing one’s own destiny, said UC Santa Cruz alumna Sherry Paul, a philosophy major and social justice activist who took an unexpected turn onto Wall Street and found her calling.

“Financial self-care is a radical act,” Paul said.

Paul (Cowell, ’91) reflects on her undergraduate days when she used to sneak into the crowded classroom of then-Women’s Studies professor Bettina Aptheker and hear her teach, the personal is political and the political is personal. (Aptheker is UC presidential co-chair of Feminist Critical Race & Ethnic Studies in the Feminist Studies Department.)

“In my opinion, every major civil rights movement has been moved forward through some money-related action,” Paul said.

It is an observation that shifted her activism from work as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations to that of a top private wealth advisor with UBS, a global financial services firm.

After graduation, Paul moved to New York and worked as an activist for social justice issues involving AIDS, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, hate crime legislation, and the marriage equality movement. Again and again, she witnessed the negative impact of financial inequities—what happens when people don’t have money to support their basic needs and their ideals. During the AIDS crisis and later, after 9/11, people who couldn’t get married couldn’t gain access to their partners’ benefits, pensions, housing leases and estates.

“It’s devastating enough to lose a loved one, but to be hurled into financial crisis only compounds the loss,” Paul said. She began to understand how important it is to raise money for nonprofit organizations, to run people for office and take care of one’s self financially. “It was such a huge eye-opener how critical money and financial self-care can be when you put it to good purpose, how much you can change the world.”

Marriage equality was “the panacea legal moment that solved financial inequities and provided a healing moment honoring people lost to AIDS. Marriage equality is the lotus flower of that struggle.”

Paul, a senior vice president at UBS, sits on the board of directors for Invest in Girls, a nonprofit organization that provides financial literacy and leadership programs to high school girls and the UBS Advisory Council for All Bar None, a women’s network within the firm. Last year, the New York City YWCA named her as one its Academy of Women Leaders. In February, she ranked 100th in Forbes’ Top 200 Women Wealth Advisors in America. On releasing the list, Forbes Media estimated that about 16 percent of all financial advisors are women—most of whom, like Paul, manage private wealth portfolios rather than corporate wealth investments.

In an industry dominated by men, Paul is proud to lead one of the few all-female, private wealth management teams. It is, she says, an act of social change in its own way and provides her with a unique perspective for social change.

This next wave is all about women, she said.

After generations of financial disenfranchisement, women aren’t often comfortable talking about money, asking for a raise, or asking for a donation to a cause. But soon, due to longevity, inheritance trends and more women entering the workforce, they will manage a majority of the country’s wealth.

“We’re in the darkness before dawn as we get back to the unfinished business that is women’s equality,” Paul said. “At the heart of that are financial literacy and financial self-care. The fact that we have been unable to legally ensure women are paid equally for equal work speaks volumes. We all need to recognize and embrace the part we have to play to collectively make that happen.”

Part of that involves investing earlier in STEM and financial education for girls before they drop out of math and science. Help them imagine futures that include making money, she says. Paul urges more mentoring of women entering the workplace, to help them champion their achievements, ask for raises and overcome obstacles that people put in their way.

This is the time, she says, to “step in and be truly disruptive at a moment of dramatic change in the U.S. The act of financial care allows us to be the author of our own lives.

“When you look at how critical financial self-care is as a form of radicalism for those historically excluded from wealth creation—all the important ways money makes its way into social change movements, who gets to participate—for me, all of that questioning originated in my academics in Santa Cruz.”

Paul, who returned to UC Santa Cruz last year to speak on a panel about the ethics of technology in the financial sector, is planning another education-related visit to the campus in the fall.