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In this new series, Behind the Advice, we ask advisors about their relationship with money from a young age, lessons learned over the years, and how their experiences influence the advice they give clients today. Zainab Williams, certified financial planner at Elleverity Wealth Management in Caledon, Ont., talks about how her upbringing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya shaped her relationship with money – and the investment scam she suffered that led her to become “obsessed” with personal finance.
What was your first money lesson?
I was born in the DRC where the banking system was unreliable. As a result, my mother always stressed the importance of investing in good jewellery. Regardless of any economic turmoil, she believed that if you have good jewellery, you can quickly turn it into cash. When I was eight years old, our family moved to Kenya to escape war in the DRC, and my mother sold some of her jewellery to pay for the plane tickets. That has always stuck with me – own good jewellery because you never know when you’ll need liquid cash.
How did your upbringing influence your money habits?
It gave me a deep appreciation for assets and the ability to make every dollar count. You can’t just live for today; you need to have a financial cushion. I’ve always believed in living within my means. When we came to Canada from Kenya when I was 14, the concept of having a credit card was new to us. We used cash in the DRC and Kenya; there was no credit to lean on. I wasn’t excited when I got a student loan while at university here in Canada. I never saw it as free money. My goal was to use as little of it as possible so that I could pay it back as soon as possible after I graduated.
Money has never been my source of excitement. The newest gadgets don’t capture my interest. I believe in making my things last, like my trusty 2008 Ford that gets me where I need to be. And now, I’m trying to teach my kids about living within their means. It isn’t easy with social media and other influences around them all day.
What’s your biggest money mistake and what did you learn from it?
When I was in my early 20s, my family and I invested most of our savings into a farming project in Congo. A family friend who seemed very financially savvy brought the investment to us. He promised to reimburse us with interest after the first harvest, but it turned out to be a scam. We lost all of our money. It was a painful experience that taught me to understand what I’m investing in and to do my own due diligence. I also learned that financial literacy is critical and to be cautious about investments that seem too good to be true. Building wealth is a slow process, and you need to be patient.
How did you gain financial literacy after that experience?
I reached out to a few financial institutions to see how I could rebuild my financial foundation, but I was turned away because I didn’t have enough assets. It was very disheartening. Then, I just started reading books on investing and personal finance. I became obsessed. It took years of hard work to rebuild the credit and savings I had lost from that investment scam.
What did you want to do professionally before deciding to become an advisor?
My mother worked for the United Nations Office for Project Services, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I took international development studies at university, intending to work somewhere like the United Nations, World Bank or International Monetary Fund. But then I became curious about grassroots work and how personal and sustainable economic empowerment can be achieved. I decided to change my degree to business administration. My goal is to help others gain financial literacy, build wealth and volunteer with organizations aiding women’s causes. I’m also building a financial-planning app to help women become more financially literate so they can set their own path.
What advice do you have for people who want to be an advisor?
It’s important to understand your motivation for entering this industry to figure out what type of advisor you want to be. For instance, are you interested in selling investment and life insurance products, building complete financial plans, or a combination? Also, surround yourself with experienced mentors who have your best interests at heart. They can help you deal with and maybe avoid any setbacks you might encounter because they’ve already faced them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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