Renee Baker is the current Head of Private Client Groups Advisor Inclusion Networks at Raymond James, leading diversity and inclusion efforts in support of the recruitment and retention of diverse financial advisors. Before working at Raymond James, Renee was CMO at Carillon Tower Advisors for two-and-a-half years. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Renee has worked for such marquee financial brands as Oppenheimer Funds, now Invesco, and JP Morgan Asset Management. She currently sits on the board of Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA,) which provides Safety, Empowerment, and Prevention programs to end domestic violence, and is a Trustee at the American Stage Theater Company. Renee has degrees from both Rutgers University and Penn State University and has earned a Doctorate in Business Administration from Wilmington University, as well as a Master’s Certificate in civility training. Renee Lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
CMO Club — Welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?”
Renee Baker — “I grew up in southern New Jersey, a town in Salem County near an area called Cowtown, nice, rural, and very quiet back then. I’m a Jersey girl through and through, lived my entire life there up until moving to Florida about three years ago.”
CMO Club — What were your parents like?
Renee Baker — “My parents are nice, small-town, regular middle-class Americans. They still live in southern New Jersey. My mom was in healthcare before she retired to help me raise my kids. My dad still works at UPS.”
CMO Club — Who had the biggest influence on you growing up?
Renee Baker — “I think both my parents and my maternal grandparents had the greatest influence on me. I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house growing up. My grandmother, whom I called mom, cared deeply about how things looked, personally, and in the house. I think that’s where I get that part of who I am. My grandfather passed away in 2007. He was known as a very kind soul and passed that on to my dad, who is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. My mom is very funny and direct, which I also appreciated growing up and especially now.”
CMO Club — Can you remember something that your parents or grandparents instilled in you that still has relevance?
Renee Baker — “Everyone instilled the value of family. We are all very close. I lived around the corner from my parent’s house until just recently. My mother didn’t want anyone else watching my kids growing up, so no one has ever babysat except family. My mother always said, “we’re all we have. We have to take care of each other.” I’m the oldest of two girls, so I always had responsibility growing up, and always did the best I could to represent our family.”
CMO Club — Growing up in that rural environment, did you ever experience any racism?
Renee Baker — “I come from a multi-cultural family, so I can’t say that I recall experiencing racism personally growing up. The reality is that the town I grew up in was diverse, very small, and close-knit. Because of that, we’ve always taken care of each other. People used to tease me when I landed on Wall Street, calling my town “Candyland,” because I never faced a lot of the more challenging issues that others in the outside world faced. In some ways, I was very naïve. The only time something stood out to me from a possible racism perspective when I was younger and would take the school bus to my great-grandmother’s house, I’d get there and some kids would make fun of me, not from a racist place, but more a class place. My great grandparents lived in a tiny house that they built by hand, one of the first houses built in the area. It was so much smaller and more modest than the other houses that popped up over the years that kids would try and make fun of that house, but the truth was that I was proud of that house that they build alone on their land. I didn’t appreciate it back then, but I came to love that house and all the love, care, and hard work that went into it.”
CMO Club — Did that affect you as you got older?
Renee Baker — “It did. I learned that if there’s not a way, you make a way. The fact that they owned that land, and they built that house, kept expanding it as the family grew, says a lot about who they were, and formed my work-ethic and belief system.”
CMO Club — What part of that have you strived to pass-on to your own kids?
Renee Baker — “Just be good human beings. Be kind but be firm. My kids have grown up in a very different world from the one that I grew up in. They had a much more privileged lifestyle. I tell them to find a way when there’s no way. No one just hands you an opportunity. You have to figure it out yourself and do the work.”
CMO Club — “What did you dream of becoming when you were nine years old?
Renee Baker — “I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved science. I was a straight-A student and graduated early from high school. It wasn’t until the space shuttle disaster that I needed to reevaluate that choice. It shook my world. I would up pivoting toward a medical career. I wanted to be a doctor, but when it came time to work with the cadavers, that’s when I ran into an issue. It wasn’t because I was squeamish or shied away from the work. It was that I cared too deeply about the people and the stories of those who were lying there on the table. I wanted to know who they were and why this had happened to them. My school advisor said to me, “you’re spending too much time asking about why and caring too much about the people to be successful in this field. Maybe being a doctor isn’t for you.” She suggested I look into finance where I wouldn’t care about people so much, which is funny to me because all we do is care about people.”
CMO Club — “What was your path to marketing, then?
Renee Baker — “It just evolved over time. As a financial services marketer, I’m still very much a finance professional with a marketing discipline. I was always drawn to marketing for the connection it gave to people. I am a true extrovert. I felt like the marketing folks were connecting more, very different from the trading folks were. While the traders were taking care of people, it was all done behind closed doors, whereas the marketers were seeking out the connection and then relating those to finance. I liked the way marketers were able to take complicated information and distill it into ways that people can understand and relate to.”
CMO Club — So that storytelling part of you was drawn to that in marketing, telling those stories?
Renee Baker — “Yes. It’s interesting because in my early days, in many ways even as we are speaking right now, when I came through Wall Street, you didn’t tell your story. We connected to people but we didn’t really care about the stories. I find that now we are more human, more of a human-to-human connection as opposed to a B2B, or B2C connection like in the past. I do feel that being able to connect on that level offers more authenticity in understanding that everyone is an individual. Sometimes people only think of authenticity as people just like them. That’s when you get to those conversations about inclusion and diversity of thought and perspective. As people tell their stories, it’s not for us to judge. It’s up to us to listen and learn. As marketers, we can utilize those stories to make real connections.”
CMO Club — “That leads me right into your current role at Raymond James, leading diversity and inclusion efforts for all private client group networks in support of the recruitment and retention of diverse financial advisors. What is that role, exactly?
Renee Baker — “I took on my current role in the fall of 2019. While there are many facets to the role, it’s still very much a marketing role. It’s about listening to the stories of the advisors I support, of telling their stories and making those stories visible so that we are focused on our goals of recruiting diverse financial advisors, helping them grow their business. Most of that is pure marketing. With the three advisor inclusion networks, the Women’s Financial Advisor Network, the Black Financial Advisors Network, and the Pride Financial Advisors Network, we as a firm are committed to supporting diverse financial advisors, as well as changing the way our advisors look at today’s clients and how diverse they really are. We strive to be as unique as the people we serve.”
CMO Club — “And now our country is faced with a reckoning with how minorities, the black community specifically, continues to be treated and an accounting of the overt and systemic racism that still seems to circulate just under the surface of our society on all levels. When you look around at what’s happening right now, how do you think corporate America has handled this, and what needs to happen?
Renee Baker — “Obviously, there’s a lot going on, and there was already a lot going on with COVID-19, so it’s a defining moment for all of us. It’s not natural to watch someone get murdered live on television. We all watched it. It’s heartbreaking for everyone, as a woman, as a black woman, as an American, as a human being. Honestly, for the black community, it’s not new and it’s not shocking. It’s a reality. When you look at the outrage that’s happening from a global perspective, the good that might come from all of this is that we are finally paying attention to it. We are finally acknowledging that this a problem. When it comes to corporate America, we have to acknowledge that there has been some progress. We are no longer in the Jim Crow era, but we still have a long way to go. There are still many impediments and gaps that we still face. Corporations have realized that this is a problem. I appreciate those corporations that have been very specific and targeted in addressing the challenges in the black community. We need to continue the conversation in order to continue the progress.”
CMO Club — The New York Times recently published an article whose premise was that corporate America has failed the black community. Do you feel that’s accurate on some levels?
Renee Baker — “I read that article. I would say that when you know better, you do better. I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and I know my personal experience. There are countless stories of black corporate executives and black corporate professionals who have had similar experiences. Now we recognize the challenge. Now we have an opportunity to say corporate America has a responsibility to get closer to the black community, not just on the corporate level, but all the challenges that black America faces every day. We need to ask what can be done on education, on social justice, on criminal justice reform, mental health, and overall economic inequality. We know more now and are open to listening right now more than any other time. Our responsibility to understand and help move our country forward.”
CMO Club — Does this feel different than other moments in the past when racism reared its ugly head?
Renee Baker — “Absolutely. This is the first time in my lifetime and in my career that this has had this much attention. This is the first time I’ve seen a public corporation make a public statement around a commitment to the black community. We’ve seen programs around women, the LGBTQ community, but we’ve never seen this kind of commitment to the black community. When you talk about diversity initiatives, I’m sure most corporate executives will tell you, that has mostly excluded blacks. While diversity and inclusion are important across the board, right now the black community is the one who needs our help. I heard an interesting quote last week. “It’s easy to tell someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but then you make the assumption that they have boots.”
CMO Club — Specifically, as a marketer, how do we avoid those worn-out platitudes about how everyone matters, and get down to the issues at hand?
Renee Baker — “Not to be cliché about it, but unprecedented times require unprecedented approaches. I acknowledge those organizations that are taking the time to listen to the black community and seek to understand. As marketers, we’re all about listening and responding to a need. If we truly listen, that will go a long way in avoiding platitudes. One thing that has been intentional is making sure that black voices are represented at the table. If you’re making a decision about a particular community without bringing them into the discussion, you’re going to get the same thing that you’ve always gotten. Don’t be so quick to respond, but to really listen. It’s OK to pause and step back, to understand that this going to need a long-term approach, not something that will disappear with the next news cycle. In order to be responsive, you can’t just put all that problem-solving on the shoulders of that very community you’re trying so hard to help.”
CMO Club — Do you feel that can happen?
Renee Baker — “It will happen for those organizations that are truly committed. It’s easy to write a check. It’s much harder to align your corporate strategy and your marketing and communication efforts to address structural racism, and the systemic biases that black Americans face today.”
CMO Club — Switching gears, what kind of challenges are the new generation of marketers facing that your generation did not face?
Renee Baker — “I think the pace of everything, digital and social engagement especially, is so fast and there’s so much change nearly every day. If you think back over the last ten years, how quickly things have changed, it’s astonishing. The level of competition is so much more than before, and the effort needed to stay on top of everything is immense. Also, the perceived value of traditional advertising is waning and so they are going to have to come up with different ways to communicate that we haven’t thought of before. On the bright side, there’s so much more of an ability to share content, to engage customers, especially during times like these. When I was working during 9/11, and the credit crisis, we did not have that ability as we do now. Less fancy logos and flashy advertisements and more data and analytics, that will be much more critical going forward.”
CMO Club — If you could go back and give your 20-year-old self some advice from where you sit right now, what would that advice be?
Renee Baker — “Just go for it. When I was younger I held back on some things I should have gone for, so I say from the perspective of who I am as I talk here with you, there are no limits to doing what you really want to do, especially now. In our world, you can go to bed in one reality and wake up in a totally different one. There’s no need to wait. Take that risk. Just go for it.”
CMO Club — What are you most proud of achieving?
Renee Baker — “Other than family and raising my daughters, it’s watching the many people I worked with achieve their goals and dreams.”
CMO Club — “What are you most passionate about outside of work?
Renee Baker — “Two things. I sit on the board for Community Action Stops Abuse, a domestic violence shelter here in Florida. We help people find their voice in a world that sometimes doesn’t have time for those voices. It’s an empowering, safe program that strives to end domestic violence. My second passion is live theater. I love it, especially community theater. I sit on the board for the American Stage Theater Company, here in the Tampa Bay region. I get to be part of that experience, teaching young people the benefits of live theater. It’s wonderful.”
CMO Club — “What’s something that not a lot of people know about you?
Renee Baker — “I did standup comedy. I wanted to put myself out there, so I did a stint in Philadelphia while I was living in New Jersey. I spent most of my time talking and telling jokes about my family and kids. I think the funniest thing was the shock of all of my family and friends being there in the audience while I stood up there. They thought it was just a night out until I left and soon reappeared on the stage. People to this day say to me, “I can’t believe you did that. The fact that you were up there telling jokes was crazy!”
CMO Club —What gets you angry?
Renee Baker — “I don’t like judgment. The danger in judging people is that you don’t ever give them a chance. It’s an unconscious bias, everyone being so quick to judge. We can all overcome that. We don’t know everyone’s story and what they are going through, so we sometimes create the story and then judge on that. I see it all the time, someone not getting the opportunity they deserve because of someone else’s judgment. It makes me angry.”
CMO Club — On the flip side, what gives you the most joy?
Renee Baker — “I think it’s young people. They represent hope to me. I love it when I talk to a young person who has a dream and the hope and fortitude to follow through on that dream. It makes my heart smile.”
CMO Club — What has the CMO Club meant to you?
Renee Baker — “The CMO Club has been a game-changer for me. It was the first opportunity I had to meet other CMOs that were like-minded after moving to Florida. It’s such a welcoming place. From the very first dinner after I joined I met so many people that have helped support me, guide me, and have helped me become a better CMO. I want to specifically acknowledge Trish Mueller, who has become my mentor, my friend, and an inspiration to me in so many ways. During times like this, just having the CMO Club, hearing from industry leaders who have been helping people stay informed, providing insights and strategies, and helping CMOs manage through times of crisis like these, I can’t say enough. Just having that sense of global community, being able to reach out to other CMOs just to check-in, the value you receive, it means so much. Even as I transitioned to my current role, I felt so supported. In my opinion, there is no better organization for marketers.”
CMO Club — What’s one thing you would like people to remember you for?
Renee Baker — “Inspiring people to achieve their potential.”