Don’t be ashamed to say “I Don’t Know’ or ‘I Don’t Understand’. It just means you don’t know YET or understand YET.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Smith, the CEO of Source Financial Advisors and Founder Wife2CFO.

Michelle Smith has spent her 29-year career dedicated to the financial services sector, including the past 20 years of her life advocating for ‘All Things Inclusion and Empowerment’.

Whether her role as the CEO and Founder of Source Financial Advisors, a registered investment advisor (RIA) firm that specializes in financial empowerment of women going through or recently divorced through its trademarked Wife2CFO educational program, or co-founder of The IDEAL School of Manhattan, an independent inclusion based school in NYC that she co-founded for her son who has Down syndrome, Michelle is in relentless pursuit of creating an equal and transparent playing field for women with their money and children and their education.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

MY MOTHER. You read that right. My MOTHER. She was going through a second divorce in the late 70’s, and at the time was running my step-father’s second shoe store location, a novelty shop she opened called Balderdash, and a nursery school. My cousin at the time was the Chairman of the Board at Merrill Lynch-Government Bonds, and he saw the entrepreneurial spark in her and encouraged her to apply at Merrill Lynch to be a stockbroker in sales. Our favorite joke is that I moved out of the house when I left college, but then moved into her office.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Fortunately, I did join Merrill Lynch and my mother was already quite the story, there, and with my cousin’s legacy, I was fortunate to have an entry that was more of a glide path than hot coals. I still had to bust my butt as a woman in finance in the mid-80’s, and of course, I had to deal with all of the Wall Street backdrop in that time, as a young woman in her 20’s that movies were (literally) made about. I had a branch manager at one point tell me after talking a Meyers-Briggs type of vocational test that I would be best suited to stay an administrative assistant in a tight dress than try to get myself into the Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor training program.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

a. I had a great role model in my mother.

b. I have had a life where I was presented with many challenges and learned resilience. Resilience isn’t taught. Resilience is developed if you choose to develop it. My father left our family when I was 3 ½ and my brother was 6 months old. My mother worked 4 jobs to keep food on the table and clothes hanging in the closet. My son was born 19 years ago with Down syndrome. I didn’t sign up for that and never imagined I could ever develop the resilience I needed to parent a special needs child and live then first year of his life in and out of hospitals, ER’s and ICU’s. It was brutal. And then when it was time for him to go to school in NYC and I saw the hidden and often not so hidden and implicit bias of the schools toward special needs students. So I co-founded The IDEAL School of Manhattan. What was it that Sheryl Sandberg was told after her husband died? “Well, Plan A isn’t an option, so go kick the shit out of Plan B”.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going well. And for me to be able to say that amidst a COVD-19 backdrop, in an industry- financial services- where people were hit with 2 of the things that scare them the most- dying alone and without money. I am so proud of my company and our relentless mission and vision and for the leadership we have provided women- especially women who are very new to being the CFO of their lives-in the worst market and pandemic we have experienced. And hopefully never will again.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes. I was working for Merrill Lynch as an administrative assistant. And a call came in to the branch manager. And the gentleman announced himself as Win Smith. I was half listening so asked him again for his name, and he emphatically responded “Win SMITH. As in ‘Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & SMITH”. I learned pretty early on that I better do my research and know basic things about a company I worked for or the role I was in.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our niche and our trademarked Wife2CFO program and platform. Not many financial advisory firms can say they have a steadfast vision and commitment to helping women Design Their Financial Destiny. It’s not just a shingle we hung up last year to capitalize on the demographic wealth transfer changing hands from men to women. I have been committed to this for decades. It’s not a marketing tactic. And I am deeply committed to it because I grew up witnessing and experiencing 2 divorces at very young ages.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Align what you are good at with what you like to do. Doing something you hate and are bad at is a recipe for disaster and burn-out.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

IDEAL School of Manhattan. The hundreds of women who I have helped level the playing field for in their divorces.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Determine what type of CEO you are and what your leadership style is so you can surround yourself with people who are strong where you aren’t. Example: I am not a micromanager. I don’t dive into details well. I am strategy and big picture vision. Early on, I surrounded myself with others like me. We had a lot of strategy but little tactical. A good sound business needs vision and execution or vision never gets executed. And having just a bunch of tactical execution people does no good without a vision and mission to carry out.
  2. Don’t be ashamed to say “I Don’t Know’ or ‘I Don’t Understand’. It just means you don’t know YET or understand YET. And you won’t know or understand till you embrace your vulnerabilities as a leader to ask for help and clarification. It’s a strength to do this, not a weakness. It is dangerous for your business if you are worried about how stupid a question looks. And btw: you are judging the question as being stupid, not others. As I say to my newly-divorced female clients: ERADICATE this from your vocabulary: “I have a stupid question”. Replace it with: “I have a clarification question”. Even your voice changes when you change the words. You ask from a position of power, not weakness.
  3. Know Your Numbers. Cold. Know your operating budget in your sleep. Know your overhead. Know your variable expenses. Know your Key Performance Indicators. You cannot measure what you do not have command of and you can’t have command if you don’t what your metrics should be.
  4. Know the financial benchmarks in your industry for a healthy business. Understand what you ‘should’ be budgeting for. What % of your overhead should be allocated to a real estate lease or purchase? What % of your overhead should go to talent and the team? Know what healthy budgets and expenses look like for a comparable business in your industry so you know how to plan from before Day 1.
  5. Apply for a line of credit BEFORE YOU NEED IT. In the years when I really needed a backup line and source of financing to avoid using my own savings, I couldn’t get one. Better to fix a leaky roof when it is sunny out.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think I am on that path between my Wife2CFO and the IDEAL School of Manhattan. EVERYONE told me it was stupid to focus my business on the narrow niche of divorcing women and to start a never-before-done Inclusion elementary school in Manhattan when none of the co-founders were educators.

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The Covid-19 lockdown has raised tensions for many couples on the verge of getting a divorce, said advisors who specializes in divorce matters.

The temporary shutdown of courthouses has only made a bad situation worse, as many have no choice but to hunker down a bit longer with their soon-to-be ex-spouse. And with that comes money talk, where the spouse in control of the finances begins to plead poverty, said Michelle Smith, a certified divorce mediator and the CEO of Source Financial Advisors, a wealth management firm in New York City.

“I am getting a ton of calls because people need help with strategy and separating myths from reality,” said Smith, who specializes in divorce financial matters. She explained that these clients are being fed information by their spouses that are scaring them and she is helping them to see if there is manipulation of data going on, and how she can move them forward with some binding agreement in the absence of court involvement.

Her call volume, she said, has jumped 33% to 40% since February.

Smith said she has been engaging in webinars on separating fact from fiction in divorce with a Covid-19 backdrop. “The advice isn’t necessarily different. It’s just heightened right now. I like to get back to how do we get you to resolve this together,” she said.

About 90% of the calls she gets comes from people who are not in control of the finances, which in many cases are women, Smith said. “And what I see from the spouse in control of the financial situation is unnecessary scaring, controlling and manipulating,” she said.

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The coronavirus has yet more consequences: a rise in retail therapy. While many have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford the basics, some people are shopping online for stuff that’s not essential, to ease the pressure and pain from the pandemic.

A recent Credit Karma survey found that more than a third of Americans are making impulse purchases and nearly 20% said they’re spending more now than before shelter-in-place orders. Of those who have overspent, 10% have gone more than $1,000 over their budget. Similarly, a WalletHub survey found that 43% of those polled were “comfort buying” — buying beyond their usual for things like alcohol.

“People have absolutely shifted from panic buying to comfort spending. It could become a big problem for people who were at risk for this type of behavior prior to COVID-19 and will enlist new people,” says Jennifer Bohr-Cuevas, a disaster mental health specialist and clinical social worker in Huntington.

What’s driving the behavior? “Online shopping gives people an escape, relieves anxiety and quells boredom. The anticipation and delivery of packages replaces the joy that was sought elsewhere prior to COVID. But it is only a Band-Aid,” she says.

Overspending once is likely not a big deal. Trouble is, it can become addictive. “The ‘feel good’ moment when you press that final button to close the deal is like a ‘runner’s high,’ ” warns Ellen Ettinger, a Manhattan life coach and certified disaster recovery professional.

Since the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, how then to curb the craving?

Identify your feelings

“Get to know your internal self. What is quarantine triggering for you? Anxiety? Boredom? Loss of control? Depression? Anger?” asks Bohr-Cuevas.

Prior to making a purchase, do a reality check about how you’re feeling. “Are you bandaging specific feelings?” she asks.

Limit screen time and find other ways to get that dopamine rush. “Other pleasurable activities include cooking, watching funny movies, exercising, meditating, calling a funny friend and chatting, or gardening. This will give you a much-needed break from work,” says Dr. Lea Lis, a psychiatrist in Manhattan.

Be strategic

The best way to reduce overspending is to create a solid budget. “Determine how much money you can spend each month on splurge transactions and set an alarm, through apps such as Mint, to notify you once you’ve gone over your limit,” says Jared Weitz, CEO and founder of United Capital Source in Great Neck.

Try to browse the web in “private” or “incognito” mode so search engines cannot gather information about you. “This will decrease the number of ads that are targeting you — and those that are actually more appealing to you, which is why they gather the information to begin with. Make sure to clear your cache and cookies frequently to prevent websites from gaining more info about you,” says Lis.

Adopt a spending mindset of “I can buy this … OR, not this …. AND that. This way you treat yourself but not to everything. This makes you choose, think, save money, but also affords some immediate gratification,” says Michelle Smith, CEO of Source Financial Advisors in Manhattan.

Put it on pause

Add your item to your cart, but don’t check out yet. Give it the classic 24-hour waiting period, though right now you might want to extend that to 48 hours — or even more — to give yourself time to mull it over.

“During this period, make sure you have a clear idea of how you’ll use the thing you’re buying. For instance, are you eyeing a new bag? Will you carry it everywhere or only with certain outfits? Be honest about how often you’re going to use something. Those high heels might look gorgeous on screen, but if you know they’re going to hurt your feet it’s better to just skip them all together,” says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst with

Only allow yourself to make online purchases once a week. Make a list of what you need to buy and do it all at once. Says Lis, “This will prevent impulse buys and make you reflect about whether or not you really need it.”

By Sheryl Nance-Nash
Special to Newsday

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Michelle Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Source Financial Advisors

AdvisorHub’s Publisher & CEO — Tony Sirianni — asked top advisors from leading firms their opinions on the dual management of the Coronavirus and market meltdown crises. Read how these advisors are managing one of the most unique challenges we have faced as a financial community.

Here is how Michelle Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Source Financial Advisors responded.

So we’re in a new and challenging dynamic, where not only do our clients need us more than ever, but we have to change the tried and true way that we have always interacted with them. How are you handling the challenge of working remotely and managing clients? Is video conferencing effective? How do you maintain a sense of normalcy personally and professionally?

I am handling the challenge of working remotely and managing clients remotely very well. I am seeing the gender issue creeping in, as women are held to a different standard on zoom calls than men. It’s amusing and funny that our male counterparts may be growing out a beard and wearing their college fraternity hoodies on calls. We still need to maintain a professional presence, albeit slightly more relaxed. Which is fine, just an observation.

People who have never done this job don’t really understand how much psychiatry we do every day, how close we have to get to our clients to get them to tell us about their hopes and dreams and plans, nor do they realize how closely the physical fears of coronavirus and the all too real fear of financial ruin are so closely related. How are your clients reacting to the dual threat of covid-19 and the market crash? What are you telling them?

Ten percent of my client base legitimately realized their risk appetite is not what they thought it was. I am counseling those people not to be ashamed of that. Just because you cannot tolerate volatility to this degree is nothing to be ashamed of. Half of my clients are also ‘newer’ investors as they are divorced women who are newly in control of their money so this is the first crash they have experienced. In fact, the opposite is true. Your money should not keep you up at a night. If it is, something is wrong and needs to be corrected. This health crisis combined with the economic avalanche shortly behind it hit people’s primal fears of dying alone without money. I am meeting all clients ‘where they are’ and not throwing a bunch of historical data at them to convince them otherwise.

What about your business? Are you just “maintaining” or are you growing? Is there an opportunity to build your book because other brokers are afraid to pick up the phone right now? How do you prospect without traditional client interactions during a market climate like this?

I am now growing (as in past 4 weeks) for the entire month of March — maintain was the most important thing for me to do as a fiduciary. It was the responsible move to solely focus on the clients who trusted me with their life savings. Now I have shifted into gain new business mode.

Things are down, but somebody must be making money. Where do you see opportunity in the market? Are you recommending any investments right now to clients, or suggesting they exit certain investments or sectors? Do you have any sense of where to invest post crisis? Or are you riding out the storm?

The opportunities into some dislocated sectors of the bind market are the obvious choices.

What’s been the most useful piece of technology or advice that you could suggest to other advisors who are trying to cope in these circumstances, particularly some technology or business practice that you have discovered or rediscovered during this crisis that you will use in your business going forward?

Riskalyze check-ins, timeline app Monte Carlo one-pagers, and ethic investing’s health check.

I’ve got a feeling that we are getting to know each other a little better these days. Whether we hear kids and dogs in the background of a conference call, or see some interesting choices in clothing and grooming on Zoom, we are “getting real” with each other in an out of the corporate world type of way. I’m seeing the best advisors create truly holistic experiences for their nervous clients, and helping folks in ways above and beyond what a “traditional” financial advisor would normally do. What’s happening in your world during crazy time that you will take with you into the post corona world that will help you grow your business and deepen your client relationships?

Authenticity is now a default way of operating, and frankly, my special needs son running into my bedroom office saying hi to clients has truly created amazing opportunities for a different type of real-life conversation — on top of talking about death and money.

Source Financial Advisors is a member of the Dynasty Network. Click here to go to article


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