MAKER Lori Villagas Will Always Find Ways to Lift Up Other Women

Lori Villagas doesn’t rely on a plan “B”. “When I get my mind set on something, I’m going to do it,” she insists. “My stubbornness really comes through.”

Many would agree that this tenacity—along with her intelligence and determination—is a driving force in her success as a Morgan Stanley Wealth Advisor over the last 25 years.

Like when she got a college internship at Dean Witter in an office full of men and assured herself she could do what they did. She was a business student at the University of Delaware, not far from Baltimore, where she grew up with her mom, dad and older sister, surrounded by lots of supportive family and friends.

After two and a half years in that internship role, Lori took a full-time job offer at her hometown Dean Witter (a Morgan Stanley predecessor firm), two weeks before graduation. She was told by her managers that she was among the youngest women to be hired there..

“I’ve always had a love for the markets,” says Lori, who was contributing to a 401K even from her first hourly retail job as a teenager. “And rather than just sit behind a desk, I wanted work that connected me and built relationships with others. So it was truly a perfect fit.”

With four generations of Lori’s close-knit family historically living there, Lori loves Baltimore and its people, which “drives my philanthropic side too,” she says. “I love making a difference in my community.” She does so by serving on the boards of the United Way of Central Maryland, The Society for Leadership for Women in Investment, Women for Business at The Center Club and the Believe in Tomorrow Foundation, an organization that works with terminally ill children. She reads regularly to children in low-income area schools and mentors young girls, empowering them to know their worth.

“It is my responsibility as a human being to find ways to help create a better life for others,” says Lori, expressing gratitude for all life has to offer. “I want to live the best life I can, and that means helping others to live their best lives as well.”

Lori and her husband—originally from Texas and who was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy when they met—share their passion for philanthropy with their children. Now 11 and 12, their children also volunteer at soup kitchens and helping with many fundraising initiatives. “It's incredibly important to raise responsible, kind children who will become responsible, kind adults. I want them to understand that not everyone has been afforded the same blessings we have, and to be empathetic. All it takes is one person to make a huge difference in another’s life.”

Named to the Circle of Excellence of Maryland after having three times been awarded one of the state’s Top 100 Women based on sustained achievement professionally, in the community and through mentoring, Lori is proud. “These women not only excel in business, but also in the community while advocating for and empowering other women.”

Doing so means a lot to Lori, who 25 years ago stepped into a male-dominated field and found few women eager to offer support. Now, she spends a lot of time focusing on being “one of the yeses in their worlds, because there are so many no’s in this business. It’s a hard road, and I want to do anything I can to help open doors for them.”

She also leads the Women of Morgan Stanley for Maryland, a career networking group that supports both employees and clients. Having been told when she began her career that she couldn’t have it all—that she’d have to choose between family and career—Lori never wants any woman to think that way. “You can have it all,” she insists. “It might not be perfect and all things at all times, but what in life is perfect?”

While she worked long, grueling hours for many years, there was a point when she learned to do things differently. “Once I had children, I realized I could work smarter, and people recognized and appreciated that I had other priorities besides my career.”

Her inner strength and confidence likely come from the other strong women in her family. Her mother (a schoolteacher), grandmothers and great-grandmother all worked while “running the family unit and living really full lives. They did whatever it took to make sure family was taken care of.” She also credits her mom for passing down her empathy and kindness—and credits dad, a salesperson, for her “sense of humor, tenacity, love for business, and my competitive nature.”

In recognition of all she does for others, Lori has earned 2019 Most Influential Marylander, YWCA Tribute to Women Award, and Morgan Stanley’s prestigious John Mack Leadership and Culture Award. Lori’s humbled by having most recently been named one of Morgan Stanley’s MAKERs  a class of trailblazing women of accomplishment nominated by their peers—and sees a new level of responsibility to continue to “to lift other women up.”

She’s not afraid to share with them what she would have told her younger self: First, don't be afraid of risk. “Take the leap, and great things can happen.” Second, believe in yourself and stop worrying so much about what others think of you. "You are already great. You don’t have to convince anyone but yourself.” Seeing how often women limit themselves, she wants them to see “how big their future is in this field.” Based on Lori’s successes, it’s a future that’s bright indeed.