If there is one thing I want to leave in this world (aside from three wonderful children), it is to help women live up to their financial potential. This is a mission rooted in a lifetime of experiences, and one that influences my work, family life, and contributions in my community.
When I’m not helping clients take control of their lives through financial management, you can find me throwing a ball in the front yard with my 9-year-old son, late evening dog walking with one of my teen daughters (parenting tip: that is when they really open up), paddleboarding on gorgeous Texas Hill Country Rivers, playing tennis with a friend, or hosting weekly Friday Fajitas parties, which means dozens of neighbors following through my happy house. My fitness obsession has taken me on Olympic-distance triathlons, half-marathons at 10,000-foot elevation, and 100-mile, 1-day bike races. Oh, and I always make sure to get in my 10,000 daily steps!
My own journey to being a financially independent woman began as a child. I grew up with a father who had a successful career as a corporate executive, and a stay-at-home mom. Looking back, it’s weird that as a child, I had no idea we were wealthy. I grew up in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Houston, and summer camped with Texas Royalty. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the extent of my grandparent’s extreme success — my grandfather was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I always thought we were poor. My mom was the consummate coupon-clipper, and on the rare occasion we went out to eat, my brother and I were not allowed to order cheese on our burgers, but instead had to wait until we got home to use the cheese in the refrigerator to save 10 cents. And because my mother (who is an excellent cook) did not trust the new-fangled invention, the microwave, the cheese was melted in the oven! I’d often grumble that we didn’t go on vacations at hotels, instead spending time hiking, hunting and fishing on our grandparents’ four homes. My oblivion to our privilege is a testament to my family’s humble nature and work ethic.
Even though I assumed I’d never develop a career and stay home and raise children like my own mother — and my grandmothers before her — I was always expected to excel. I was an A student and editor of the high school newspaper. I was an excellent athlete, on the varsity tennis team as a freshman, and always caught the most fish and was the best shot on my grandparents’ properties. Despite the blatant gender divide in my family, my grandfather took me along to high-level business meetings both in Houston and abroad. The lessons he taught me on those trips and in his personal dealings were worth more than an MBA.
I shudder to think what my life would have looked like had I executed my Plan A after graduating with a history degree from Texas A&M University. The summer before marrying at age 23 to a dashing law student who already had a CPA designation, and clearly en route to one of the most coveted law jobs, I decided to entertain myself with a job (so silly, I know!). I landed in the wealth management office of a regional bank where I had access to the files of the most affluent families in Houston. The names on those accounts were those I recognized from the sides of university buildings, and in the newspaper — not to mention from my family’s social circle and neighbors. Exposure to those figures, and understanding the level of care it took to protect and grow wealth suddenly became my obsession, especially when I came to realize that my husband’s high salary could easily be squandered without proper attention. Now, as a young adult, I saw it squandering all around me.
Still committed to being a traditional wife and mother, I thought I’d entertain myself further by earning a Certified Financial Planner(R) designation (one of just five women in Texas at the time under the age of 30). I absolutely loved the work. I loved the numbers, thrilled in the power that came with understanding money and investing — not just for my family’s future, but for what I could do for others. I loved the work far more than my original, traditional stay-at-home plan, and launched my own wealth management practice, and built a thriving firm before I had my first child at age 25. Since then, I have enjoyed many prestigious accomplishments — participating in programs at Harvard and Wharton Business School. A lifetime honor is being named one of five advisors to AXA’s Elite Producer Group Steering Committee Board out of 5,000 of my peers, and serve as a direct liaison between AXA’s chairman, CEO, and other top executives. But that first commission check earned purely on my own hard work and hustle was a source of pride that I’ll never forget.
Also, I can see now that those early days of thrilling in building a practice was fueled by a tiny, internal whisper that one day I would need to manage my money for the sake of my own independence and my children.
Heading a successful wealth management firm is an incredible experience. Every day I am surrounded by incredible colleagues whose brilliance inspires me. I am very proud of the success that I have achieved, and can model for all of my children, especially my daughters who are now young women. But I am most motivated by the women whose lives I am able to touch — and help.
I often think of the mother of three small children who sat on the couch in my office and cried as she she shared that her family’s net worth collapse from $50 million from her husband’s business, to negative after he suffered a sudden stroke, and the housing market collapsed. She hadn’t developed a career, and had no family money to turn to, or simply, life insurance. She had not been involved in managing either the business or her family’s personal finances, and was lost and terrified. This beautiful woman had few options, and started life anew with an entry-level retail job and small, rented house. “Tell all the women you know never to be dependent on a man,” she told me through her tears.
This story looms large for me every day. It is the fear of this situation that drives me, now a divorced mom, and independent woman managing my own money. Needless to say, I have my finances carefully managed and protected, and there is virtually no chance that my children or I will ever have to struggle, no matter what tragedies may befall us. But for many of the women who sit on that same couch, their future is not so certain — though it often can be with the proper steps.
I see fatal mistakes that incredibly bright, hard-working and good-hearted women make with their finances. This is often especially true of single women, whether divorced, widowed, or never married. Common mistakes include keeping their wealth in cash, or disproportionately tied up in their successful businesses. Lack of insurance, and poorly managed portfolios are other mistakes. But the biggest, most common pitfall is simply not dealing with their money at all. The fear and anxiety surrounding money for so many affluent women can be paralyzing.
I understand. Money, especially if you have a lot of it, is loaded for women. I get first-hand the complications of being the female breadwinner in a marriage. Now, two years outside of my divorce, I also understand the complications of dating as a woman with her own money (Does he only like me for my net worth? Is there anyone out there good enough for me? Will he be intimidated by my success and independence? Help!). I admit that my industry — the male-dominated financial field — has a reputation for preying on women, giving women with considerable assets very good reason to distrust those offering to manage their funds.
Like other mothers, I constantly think about how my money will shape my children’s path in the world, and the legacy I will leave for my community. Like so many of my female clients, I’m concerned about providing my children and one-day grandchildren with financial security, especially in a time of so much uncertainty in the world. I also struggle with teaching my children the same work ethic and humility I learned from my family, despite our good fortune. For the record: despite the many comforts my children enjoy, they are beholden to an aggressive chores schedule, tease me about minimizing water consumption by placing plastic bottles in toilet tanks, and my teenager drives an 8 year-old Pontiac and has a part-time job at a local dry cleaner’s.
The most satisfying part of my work is helping women take action, quiet those fears, and take control of their finances, family and life. I have seen how by partnering with a competent, trusted professional can transform a woman, and help her reclaim her power, for whatever is most important to her.
Molly Ward is an financial advisor with more than 20 years of professional experience. She serves on the very selective Elite Producer Group board within AXA Advisors. A Texas A&M graduate, she started her career in financial services and joined AXA Advisors in 1998. Molly earned the prestigious Certified Financial Planner(R) designation in 2000, when she was one of just five women under age 30 in the state of Texas to accomplish this rigorous credentialing, and is named a Five Star Wealth Manager in the Texas Monthly Magazine. Molly lives with her three children and yellow lab George in Houston, where she is on the board of her local library, and member and former associates roundtable Chair of James A Baker III Institute at Rice University. She is a competitive runner, paddleboarder, and Olympic distance triathlete. Molly hosts weekly Fajita Fridays for her family and neighbors and never has her nails done, and feels perfectly OK about it.