We talked with Sheryl about:
- Her experiences as a woman in finance searching for a network of other women
- How Females and Finance™ grew to over 3,000 members and its goals for the future
- Tactics to keep community members engaged in professional organizations
About Sheryl Hickerson
When Sheryl Hickerson started her career in financial services, she was often the only woman in the room. She decided that needed to change. With a passion for community and commitment to growth, Sheryl launched Females and Finance™ in 2018. The membership group is dedicated to recruiting, training, and advancing women in financial services.
- Females and Finance™ website
- Females and Finance™ Facebook
- Females and Finance™ LinkedIn
- Females and Finance™ Twitter
- Females and Finance™ Instagram
- Hall of Femme Podcast™
- Lauren LaForge, business coach
- Get Untamed: The Journal (How to Quit Pleasing and Start Living) by Glennon Doyle
Full Audio Transcript
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. So absolutely we are gonna jump right in and we'll go ahead and include your bio and all that below in the show notes. But just tell us a little bit about your story. I am so excited to hear about all the things that you're involved with. I'm not even quite sure where to start. You've got so many things between speaking and this whole amazing network you've created with women and men in financial services. I’d just love to hear more. So tell us about who you are and how you got to where you are today.
Absolutely. So I did not grow up to go into financial services. It's probably not a shocker. I'll be 51 in a few weeks. And when I left school, I had all intentions of going into medical school. I went into St. Louis University and was just really excited about the idea of maybe infectious disease or something that was puzzling. I really liked puzzles. And I got in there and went, wow, that's a lot of homework. And I'm way too much of a social butterfly. I was like, oh, we're in trouble. We're in big trouble because my dad made a deal with me cause I wanted to go to Mizzou, the party school. And he said no. And he says, if you go to StLou, I'll pay for it. So he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse kind of thing. Oh goodness. So I did it. And I'm glad for it because it really did actually open up the door of what I didn't wanna do. And I don't know if sometimes people look at that as a blessing. I didn't know what it was I wanted to do, but I definitely didn't wanna do that. And so I packed up my car at 19 from St. Louis with a thousand dollars and I moved to San Francisco. I got there and was broke in like a second.
But I got there and I was so full of energy and excitement and passion for whatever the world was gonna throw at me. And so I thought, well, I gotta get a job. So I went into the Kinkos in Berkeley, California. I'll never forget. And the first time I've ever seen a computer in my life, and I thought, well, it worked for her in “Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead” to copy the resume out of the book. If Christina Applegate can do it, I can do it. So I did, I copied everything in this thing. And then I faxed it off to the wrong number. And an insurance company called me and said I think you're looking for something different, but we're hiring so come in.
Oh my gosh. It's meant to be.
It really was. And the gentleman who hired me is still my mentor to this day, Robert Grumby. And that was when I was 19, just about 20. And years later—I worked there for quite a while—I asked him years later, why did you hire me? Because clearly I didn't know anything. He says, you didn't. And it was beautiful because we actually had somebody who was so excited about living their life. And you came in every day, this breath of fresh air, and we could mold your mind around what it is that we did in financial services, right. Without losing your curiosity, your excitement and this willingness to want to serve others. What we do so much in financial services, people oftentimes forget the services part of the work we do. The money's a byproduct. It's all energy. Anyway, it's not real, it's just not real. I mean, crypto proved it’s not real.
Another topic, right?
Yeah. But I mean, the point of it is that honestly, it was about the service that we do. And I was just really drawn to that. So I got into financial services that way. Insurance companies are a gateway to financial services and it was wonderful for me actually. I really enjoyed it. To this day will die on the mountain of everyone needs insurance and risk management is important. But then I went out to explore other things, such as estate planning and I was often the only woman in the room. So it's really important. Understand where many of us who are in the 50-plus market, we were many times the only women standing in those rooms; men didn't know where bathrooms were for us, nor did they actually care. Men didn't understand that we had children at home that we were oftentimes the main caregiver of, and many of us in that sandwich generation had an older parent we were caring for as well.
So there was just an inordinate amount of stress in a very oppressed way. And yet you flourish. Many of us just continued to flourish. Yes, we had fallout, but many of us continued to flourish. And so 30-plus years later, about three or four years ago, I just, after doing so many different roles, decided every time I tried to join more in a different female-centric membership or community or network, it just didn't feel like it was what I wanted. Like, I don't need someone to tell me how to manage my calendar. I'm pretty good at that. Or I needed real supportive networking. I wanted to hear what other women were doing. I don't really care to hire someone to come and speak. That woman who made a seven-figure income, could you put her up on the stage? I wanna know how she did that. That was what I was super fascinated with. So I built my own.
So did you just wake up one day and say, I wanna build this network, or was it just kind of all these small seeds over the years? Was there a turning point?
I think it's almost always a culmination. But really what had happened was in January of 2017, I went to speak at an event in San Antonio, Texas. And I was speaking at this point—in 2016, I had like 40 conferences, crazy. Like every week I was on the road, but in 2017, I kinda halved that. And I went to this conference and got up on stage and I'll never forget. I used to ask, oftentimes the event coordinators, like how many cheeks are in the seat, just so I could plan accordingly for questions and she said 300 and I said, okay, great. And so I walked up and onto the podium and stand behind the lectern. And I looked out and I remember seeing just a sea of old white men. I kept thinking, how is this possible?
And I stood there for a very awkward amount of time. And I actually was counting how many women were in the room. Four. It was four women. And they divided 'em like there was one in 25% in the room, one in 25. Like they were trying to break us up. And I thought, for goodness sakes. So I got done speaking, went down, sat at one of the round tables, the little clam shells. And I'm sitting there with a group of gentlemen, and it was the gentleman after me who spoke who actually changed my life and the trajectory of what I do today, because he got up there and he said, San Antonio has been great, so much shopping here. But if I don't hold my wife's hand in the store, we're gonna lose our retirement plan.
And the men laughed. And one of the women did too—I was looking—but it was not funny. I made the money in my family. I ran the finances in our family and I thought, no more. No more jokes are coming at our expense anymore if I have anything to do with it. So I felt a responsibility. So it just culminated to that point. And that was when I decided I'm doing something now. You can make a very cavalier statement and be like, I don't even know what that means, but I'll figure it out. And so that was it. That was my turning point.
Yeah. So it's amazing. So it wasn't just standing up on stage and then being able to look out and have that distraction if you will. But it was also the words and just the energy that was being built there and in an empowering way. To be able to make a difference. So now you've got this membership group, which is pretty impressive. And I think it's several thousand that are part of this group.
Now we have 3,298 members.
That is crazy. I mean that.
That is a lot. That's a lot of members.
Heck. I mean, there must have been something that you did to be able to catch fire. Was it through your network or was it through the speaking events? How have you built this? And I mean, to be able to retain membership too, right? You've gotta be able to offer significant value. So tell us about how you've built it.
Yeah. So I think that the first thing is in the early days—I call it my original OG—I remember saying I'm gonna get 200 women. That was some random number I just pulled out of the air— 200 of them. And the beginning phone calls. And I love all those women who listen to me cuz they sounded like this. Like, hey girl, I'm gonna do this thing. I don't even know what it's gonna do, but will you come along and help me? And they're like, yeah. Yeah cuz you do things. You make stuff happen. Okay. Thanks. I love when that happens. Hey girl, I'm gonna do this thing. I mean, seriously, I didn't even know what it was. It was when you talk about startup and grassroots, whatever's underneath that, it was Females and Finance at the beginning.
And you know what, I think it's a beautiful thing because what happened was I learned everything. I learned everything from how to build a website and how to start a marketing plan and how to do everything you could possibly imagine. And I still to this very day maintain our website, maintain the graphics that go out. I do not have marketing staff. And there's a lot of membership organizations that are smaller, like half the size of me going, do not tell my staff cuz I don't know how you do it, but I'm very efficient. I am transparent. I've got a few awards back behind on my creds that say I do marketing well. Okay. It's a matter of how do you bring passion through your dialogue? Cuz it hooks other people when they wanna be a part of that too. I can do that too.
What happened? So you started making these phone calls and then people started talking and then did you just sort of channel them into a list or what did you do?
So you start off. It was definitely before the whole membership wave came. One of the things I have to say is I listen, I do a lot of studying in other fields of marketing and what they're doing and then I apply it to financial services. So there's some of my secret sauce. And I was seeing a lot of membership organizations popping up here and there where they were very niche and very extremely focused. Cuz the more niched and focused you can be, the easier the stickiness, absolutely. So I started a Facebook group cuz it was free and I thought I can go in there and it's a way for me to start. It's an easy way to get people to invite and women are on Facebook. I mean, if you look at the trends of it, there's a lot more women on Facebook than men. So away we went and I made that invite very clear at the beginning.
I'm looking for abundance-minded individuals to come and do this. And I will tell you that the other thing people are always shocked about, how many people we've been able to do in three years. That's actually not the shocker. We vet every member. So every person who's in is a vetted, qualified financial service professional of some sort. And I am the gatekeeper. So you gotta make it through me to get in. And from there we move on and move forward. And I have a requirement that everyone participate; there are no wallflowers. You know, I want to be certain that we are all giving back to the profession. And especially what I like to call vintage professional; I'm not calling myself seasoned and old and all that stuff. I'm vintage, as somebody who's been doing this for 25-plus years. My desire to give back and bring a young person through and help—the pull is so strong—while I also still want to make money and things like that. Of course, I wanna keep my financial energy high, but I still wanna have that give back. And so I go into a lot of organizations and look for the young people who are not out prospecting for them to surround them with support and abundance and even just love.
And when you talk about just engagement, what does that mean?
Being actively engaged as part of the network.
Yeah. So we've always maintained, even to this very day in 2022, 56% of our community is active every 30 days.
Wow. That is significant.
It's very significant.
On Facebook groups, that sort of thing, you've got a very small percentage that are active. So you've gotta have a huge amount of people that are in those groups to sort of simulate this idea of activity.
Yeah. And this is it. I'm really a good community builder. You've got to ask engaging questions and you've got to ask for help. You need to go out and actually have dialogue around things that are timely, trending things of that nature. And you also have to tell everyone it's not a love fest. People come in and present things that are sometimes, oh, don't ever put the insurance and the financial plan or people together. Oh, they get a little gritty. But they have their way. They believe in what they're doing and they be a little bit out there, but they're always kind. And one of the questions that someone asked me that I wanna make certain I also share with you is how many people I ever had to remove. That’s a little bit of a dicey conversation, right? And so I'm really proud of the fact that it's only been three.
Okay. That's great.
And they were, and I'll also be transparent, because the other question, why were they removed, is because they attacked women of color and I will not tolerate that.
Oh yeah. Yes. That is bad.
I have a zero tolerance policy.
Wow. It's shocking, and it sounds like in a public forum too.
Yeah. I mean, we are a closed private Facebook group. But people can go to the website and register and sign up. We've always had a free option too from day one. And we've kept that to this very day. So people can come and create an account, register, get access to Facebook and LinkedIn, the groups.
Good for you though, for holding their feet to the fire. And putting your foot down regardless of whatever's being said, you're holding to those standards, which is critical, right? It takes a community to be able to do that.
It really does. Yeah. It's an African proverb that says it takes a village. It does; it literally takes a village of people to make a community happen. And going back to that question about the stickiness and why people do it, let's put it on the things that you're really good at, Lauren. I'm very dependent on you to be able to do your thing well, and I do my thing well, and I don't know if you're familiar with Glennon Doyle, she's married to Abby Wambach, but she wrote a book called Love Warrior and a few other books, including Untamed. One of the things that she said is people don't realize that there is an architecture; when something becomes a little unstable they'll introduce another piece of wood. A lot of times people think like a shim or something like that, where it comes in, it bolsters that piece of wood to keep it stabilized. That particular act is called sistering.
You are sistering the wood so that it stays strong and foundationally will be there for a long time. And that act of sistering is what we do at Females and Finance. We are sistering in bringing in women and male allies so that we can create better communities of professionals for tomorrow.
Now that's incredible. So it sounds like recruiting hasn't been as much of a challenge, but I know you've got some big goals. Just looking at a little bit of what you've put out there is the advancement of a hundred thousand women; is that right?
Yes. You put it out there before I could. So yeah. How did you come up with that number?
Oh my goodness. Well, because I have a business coach, Lauren Laforge, and she asked me what would be a number that you could do? Well, in three years I've already got 3,000-plus members. So what is a crazy number that you could put out there and you could hire, mentor, and train in advance too. What would that look like? If organizations, all of them, came together, I firmly believe that we could hit a hundred thousand, even though it scares me to death. That number's like, oh my gosh. And so people have often asked me too, well, what if you only get to 53,000 women.
You know what I mean? So I'd still be proud because that's the other part of it too— you pick these big, hairy, audacious goals. And then the goal is to get them to them or even go past it. Well, you know what, I wanna know that even if I don't for whatever that reason might be, I will do my darndest to make it happen. I wanna be really proud of the number because when people ask me about our membership and you asked me at the top of this chat, how many members do you have? And I said, 3,298, right? Every person counts; I don't round. I don't say more than this. I always know the number because every one of these women count in our community
So what has it been like with COVID going on? How has that slowed down or increased membership?
That's a really good question because we were already online before COVID happened. So I was totally ready again. It's like, wow, got that one through too. And we were already meeting on Zoom calls and doing Facebook lives and things. So it was kind of business as usual to some degree. Now I say that, but I've got women in different communities regionally, cuz we've broken it out. We have 15 communities plus Canada; we went international this year. It's our first one. We have a few more that are coming because I wanna be an international financial service professional space for all women. But they wanna meet in person. So I was like, hey, we need to be safe. I have my Southern people who were just like, we love to hug you; I'm like, I know, I know, calm down, calm down. But now pretty much everywhere's open. I live in Missouri and it's pretty much everything's open at this point. So we've gone back to in-person. And I think it's beautiful because they'll go to an event, maybe they're going to the X, Y planning network event and they wanna know who else is gonna be there from Females and Finance so they can meet up.
And that's what we facilitate for a lot of those events. That's fantastic and they may not know it.
Yeah. That's fantastic. So for someone who is entertaining building a community, what tips would you have? You started to allude to it earlier, right? You talked about asking really tough questions, putting out value through those questions, just knowing what's trending. It sounds like you're creating opportunities to connect on and offline, but it's not an easy thing to do, you know?
Yeah. Talk to me more about that community aspect. Cause my hunch is that's probably really a critical KPI, if you will, to reach that goal.
Yeah. And I have to tell you, I'm so glad you asked that question in particular because I think people sit back and they think, oh, I could do this too. So you might, you very well might, but I'm gonna tell you, you have to wake up every single day, whether it's vacation, you're at an event. It doesn't matter what it is. You are responsible as the leader of an organization, especially as big as mine, to every single day, bring it. You have to be excited. You have to believe in your mission. You have to be passionate and you gotta be there. And be thinking about what that looks like and changing like an amoeba flowing through. Some people are so rigid and that's not gonna work. So your rigidity is gonna work against you. You gotta have flex and flow.
You have so many different opinions when you have 33 or a hundred people, you have 3,300 different opinions on things. So you're trying to crowdsource what that looks like, making certain that you are honoring what the ask was. It takes a lot. So I tell people when I look back at the time, when I said I was gonna do this, I am proud of the fact of what I've built, but I have the tenacity to make it happen. I get up every day, this excited, every single day to do this work. I dunno if I would be this excited about some other community or something, I'd be like, nah, I don't know. So you really gotta look at yourself and say I am ready to take this on and do this well. And not just plunk a bunch of people into a membership community like Circle or MemberVault or whatever else. You really have to see them as the humans that they are too and still love it every day.
So like you said, you could plop a group of people into this, but just to get a little bit more tactical, are you sparking questions daily?
Are you actually policing the forum?
Are you creating questions where people can vote and articles?
Sometimes you can throw stuff out there and it can be radio silence. How are you encouraging that?
So I think part of it is using those really good content ideas trying to spawn some dialogue and stuff. We do a lot of times where we have let's discuss posts where something got published, you know? And are we really okay with this? Do we like this? Was this a good idea? And what I usually do is I look. Remember, because I interview every person, I have a very systematized and very intricate CRM system. So I can actually search in my CRM for people who specialize in those dialogues, tag them and pull them. And then they start the conversation flowing. And oftentimes they will then take the ball and run with it. So that's another thing too, for those of you who might be listening thinking I'm gonna start my own membership or they might have one, if you are not keeping copious notes on your members, on what they talk about, you're missing out on an enormous opportunity to pull them into conversations that will help keep your engagement high.
Yeah. These are real relationships. So is it a HubSpot CRM?.
Yeah. So I use ClickUp. Everybody knows I'm a ClickUp nut. I use ClickUp for everything. So our accounting, our CRM, our project management, our document center; I’m a ClickUp warrior.
Well, once you've got a tool you love, it's good to maximize its use.
But it takes a lot of time to build it the way you want it. I did. I felt like we tried HubSpot for a while and I was like, that didn't work. And I didn't like it. I tried Zoho. I tried all of 'em. And for me, I literally spent my entire day in my Females and Finance ClickUp space, from managing all of that. And I built it the way it made sense for me. So if somebody calls me now, just to give you an example, the CLTC is one of our sponsors. They can call and say, how many people are in your group of the CLTC and I can literally search it and come back and be like, it’s 82. That's meaningful to them, you know?
You must have a good search platform too. I wanna talk about sponsorship in a minute here too, but I'd love to talk a little bit about the tiers. I know you have these membership tiers too. Does everyone have access to this forum or tell me a little bit about the tiers, how you set that up and why you went that route.
Yeah. So part of it is because I felt that there was a barrier to entry from a financial capacity for young people who are new coming into the profession. So we always started off with a basic tier, which is a free membership. They register on the site, they get access to the Facebook group and our LinkedIn group. We actually have a Slack board that's pretty active as well for the people who are like, I don't like Facebook. Everybody has a Facebook and they're all liars if they say they don't. But if they really don't like it, we have backups for things so they can still participate in dialogue. The basic tier has always been there when they wanted something more. We move into a Community Plus, which just means plus everything else. They get access to marketing classes, some specialized networks, some writing and speaking opportunities that we get. My Community Plus members are so much fun. We keep it very low cost because we offset it from our sponsors who came in and I see that's the only way we're able to do that. So our cost right now in 2022 is $9 a month.
Very, very affordable. And then what we do is we work with some of the college students and really discount that down even more for them. So, I have to tell you, one of the best things that's happened is we have members who have been there since my OG, my original gang that's been in there. A lot of them actually sponsor anonymously, young people who are coming in, they're paying for their Community Plus and giving it away.
That is so awesome.
Yeah. It's really beautiful.
And just in hearing you talk, I think one of the things I really appreciate, just hearing how you've built this, is that it sounds like you've got your ear to the ground. You're really listening to what people need. If they don't like Facebook, they go to Slack, we've got Community Plus, we're doing this, we're doing that. And so you can feel just that you're in it, the way that you're talking about it. And my hunch is too that that's probably why it's grown the way that it has, because you're hearing people. So you've got your finger on their pulses.
I really try. We started adding mastermind. We did the first one this year to see how it did all. It was amazing. So we're gonna be adding more mastermind classes and groups to our membership as well.
So then tell me a little bit about sponsorship or partnerships that have been a big part of the success too. We'd love to hear a little bit more about that.
So when we got to be about 1,800 members, I realized that I couldn't do all of the educational pieces to it. And at the same time we found that there were companies out there that do a great job, and our members would want to talk about them in our group, but they weren't in the group. And I was like, okay, hold on a second. We gotta rethink this. And at the time I was a startup and I had actually funded 100% my own dollars on building this company. I took no outside investments. It was just me and Wal; if my husband were here, he'd say me too.
But that was very intentional as well because I wanted to see if I could make it. A lot of times what happens, and I see this in membership organizations, oftentimes they'll go out and start getting sponsors before they even have their community built. And that is a really backwards way of going about doing it because you gotta have a proof of concept, gotta be solidified. And I think it's really interesting that people think that women are a niche and I'm like, no, there's no niche. It's just us because without us, there is no other human on the planet. We're pretty important. So I would say that we're the only ones that matter, right guys, but it's true. But you know, it's one of those things where, when we opened the sponsorships, it allowed them an ability to have a very focused eye on how do we fix things or how do we offer things or how do we change products? A good example was we had one of our sponsors that had a technical flaw in software. One of the women knew about it and had mentioned it several times, came into our group to complain about it, which was okay. Like I said, we're not gonna love fest on everybody all the time.
But we made a courtesy call to that sponsor to say, I know this is gonna come down and I want you to be prepared so that you have an answer versus just getting caught off-guard. They were able to bump that to the top of their queue, fix the problems in a matter of 10 or 12 days, and then come back and say to that person, I hear you. Thank you. And then great. And present the problem. So guess what? We had a win for the sponsor. Yeah. A win for Females and Finance, because we gave them a place to commune and to communicate. And a win for the advisor and their client so they could continue to do the work that they needed to get done. So I just think that literally because of it, besides the fact that it was wonderful, but more importantly, their sponsorship dollars allow us to keep our cost low so we can invite those women in. Remember they're all vetted. So not everybody's making the cut, but they're there to have meaningful intent, intentional dialogue around how to be better stewards of financial services as a profession. And I think that's how you do it. Not go slam 'em on Twitter because they did a stinky job on something. That's not fair.
And this is a forum where you can talk. That's fantastic. Well, one last question for you before we wrap up here. As you look ahead, any big challenges you see as you're navigating forward?
So I think that the first thing we're doing and putting in place is some updates on our site where we're gonna be measuring and asking people how to measure, because that is number one. How do you get there? Well, that's a good question, but I already have some ideas of course, on how to measure out our fearless pledge—what we call taking the fearless pledge, empowering the pledge of hiring, mentoring, training, advancing a hundred thousand women by January 1, 2025. And I think beyond that, some of the other things that I see that we really need to get a better handle on is the fact that I love to see what other people like Sonya Dreizler are doing and a few others, but I think that if we're not openly dialoguing around why there are not enough women, people of color speaking, but it's even more than that.
Neurodiverse candidates, Andrew Komarow at Planning Across the Spectrum. I think that we really need to start looking at each of these areas. And we have to stress of the muscle inside of us to say, are we actually doing the best by our profession or best by our conference or the best by our presentation or whatever it might be, or their podcast even, are we showcasing not just the best of the best, but sometimes it's the voice of the people that they don't get to hear as often. You know what I mean? And I think that there's a lot of times where I love nothing more than actually going to conferences. Sure, I'd like to speak, but I actually like going and participating and listening to others and putting people whose voices may be just not as loud and pushing them up to the front saying, you're gonna go up there and speak.
We do something at Females and Finance called a Tuesday topic. And every Tuesday we feature a professional in our group and they get to talk for 30 minutes about a particular item. That has done so much for people speaking, because they're like, I didn't know that they did this. I said, no, because we have too many people who are glittering gold. We've got some awesome bronze and silver people. We gotta bring those people through. And that's what I'm trying to do is kind of give them that hoist to push 'em into those spaces as best as I can. And I think that's what some of these other organizations that are coming up are doing. So I think the more we're focused there, the more change, positive change, we're gonna see in financial services, because I love the profession. And the only thing I tell everybody is this, when our clients come to us and say, am I going to be okay, it is our responsibility to have an answer to that. And that's a really big question and very broad; it takes a lot of professionals to make certain that we are able to say to them, we got you. You're gonna be all right.
Yeah. You've got that community, that tribe, right? So fantastic. Well, thank you so much for sharing a little bit more behind the scenes and congratulations to all the success. I mean, you'll be cheering for you and it's gonna be fun to keep watching it all grow. I appreciate all you're doing in the industry as well.
I'm really grateful for this opportunity to talk about this and the women and the male allies. They're really important to us and anything we can do to support you and others in this profession, please let us know we're there.
Oh, absolutely. Well, thank you again for your time today.