Alumni of the Richard B. Fisher Scholars program reflect on its impact in their lives and careers and its still-critical promise of access and opportunity for students today.
Alice Vilma knows firsthand how follow-through matters more than first impressions. As a freshman finance and accounting major at the University of Miami, she arrived at her first Morgan Stanley Summer Internship information session 20 minutes late and found a roomful of other students in business attire, while she had dressed relatively casually.
Vilma tried to make a low-profile exit, but a friendly Morgan Stanley representative convinced her to stay. “Definitely one of my better decisions,” Vilma, now a Managing Director at the firm, says with a smile. As it turns out, she secured the summer internship and was also accepted into Morgan Stanley’s Richard B. Fisher Scholarship Program (RBF), where she met fellow intern Nailah Flake-Brown, another ambitious young African-American woman who would also become a Managing Director, before leaving to join Brookfield Real Estate Partners.
Their careers and friendship of more than 17 years began with the RBF program, which was established 25 years ago to help outstanding African-American students like Vilma and Flake-Brown realize their full potential through mentorship, guidance, and opportunities for success.
“It was opportunities for talented African-American students that then-CEO Richard B. Fisher had envisioned in 1993,” says Susan Reid, Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion. “He believed in education as a pathway to mobility and success, and that Morgan Stanley could make this a reality for exceptional African-American students with generous scholarship assistance and access to firm leaders.”
The program was first organized as a partnership between the Morgan Stanley Foundation, the firm, and the United Negro College Fund, with Fisher also personally contributing. Eligible students were chosen from the pool of candidates already accepted to the summer internship program. They would receive $5,000 in scholarship grants toward their tuition and, beyond their usual summer internship program, meet regularly with firm leaders who could provide an additional level of experience and advice.
“The expectation was that, over time, future cohorts would add to the number of African Americans in leadership roles at the firm and beyond, as well as inspire future program participants,” Reid says. In time, administrators expanded the program to include other underrepresented groups, such as Hispanics, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ community.
Twenty-five years later, RBF has become one of the most impactful of Morgan Stanley’s diversity programs, with more than 600 alumni, and continues to deliver on its promise of access and opportunity for exceptional talent from underrepresented groups. Now fully funded by the Morgan Stanley Foundation, the program has about 50 scholars each year who receive $15,000 toward their undergraduate tuition. Since inception, RBF has distributed close to $11 million in scholarship funds. More than 80% of the program’s scholars returned to the firm as full-time Analysts after graduating from college. Many credit the program with giving them the critical introduction to the world of finance, as well as creating the community and access to leadership that nurtured their talent and hard work, essential conditions on their paths to success.
“If I didn’t experience the program as a sophomore economics major while at Spelman College, when my career aspirations were starting to solidify, I wouldn’t have had the exposure to people who would later become part of my network, and who provided valuable inspiration,” says Flake-Brown.
For Vilma, the RBF program was an invaluable point of entry. “I was a finance major whose family wasn’t particularly steeped in the language of Wall Street, so having the opportunity to meet with and learn from people who looked like me was critical, as I made the decision to enter the field,” she says. “RBF was the pebble in the water that created ripples of possibility for us and so many of our colleagues,” she continues. “Over time, it’s those ripples that move oceans.”