Morgan Stanley

MAKER Michelle Ward Encourages Others to Take It One Step at a Time

Michelle Ward Encourages Others to Take It One Step at a Time

One step at a time. That’s how Michelle Ward explains how she built her International Wealth Management practice.

It’s also how she describes climbing her first mountain–and every mountain after that.

She vividly remembers ascending Iliniza Sur, a mountain in the Andes of Ecuador, her homeland, over 20 years ago. Heading out in the middle of the night with her headlamp illuminating the way, Michelle and her climbing partner tackled the 5,263-meter glaciated mountain. “The stars were out, and I was enjoying the cool air,” Michelle says of her first technical climb. “Then, it started to hurt. There’s less oxygen, it’s cold and you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I wanted to turn back.”

But the key, Michelle realized, “is to go one step at a time, set a smaller goal, get to it, and repeat.”

Eventually, she made it to the top, just like, eventually, she became a successful wealth manager after doubting herself many times. “In the beginning, you’re trying so hard, but it is difficult,” she reflects. “Then, someone puts their trust in you, and that gives you the courage to keep going.”  

Exploring the World

Growing up in Ecuador, the oldest of three sisters, Michelle always had a longing to explore the world. “I wanted to know the world outside of Quito.” Her adventures began in high school, when she went to summer camp in Vermont with a friend. After graduation, she spent a gap year in Belgium, before enrolling in college and studying economics in England. While in the UK, she interned at a bank in London—and loved it. 

Her first job was trading currency at a Dutch bank in Ecuador. In 2000, a financial crisis that had started in Asia in 1997 had spread to Latin America. Ecuador’s economy collapsed, there was a run on the banks, and the Ecuadorian government changed its currency to the U.S. dollar. Her job was eliminated.

Having to reinvent herself, Michelle was drawn to the excitement of Wall Street during the dot-com era. She and her husband, an American entrepreneur who was working in her country, decided to move to New York. She first landed at a hedge fund coordinating debt swaps for the development of emerging market countries.

In 2004, confident with her experience in the financial markets, Michelle applied for Smith Barney’s financial advisor trainee program. She thought the switch to Wealth Management would be easy but found there was much to learn and many obstacles to overcome. “You have to fail a lot,” she says of her early years. “But you eventually figure it out.”

Akin to climbing a mountain, she says, building a book of business requires endurance, and it needs to be done one step at a time. Michelle started leveraging her global contacts. She traveled to visit prospects “before Google Maps,” heading into foreign cities with just a paper map, not knowing how long it would take to get from meeting to meeting.

After 15 years of working with clients from several different countries, Michelle now reflects on how the most important thing is to understand their needs. “Everyone works hard for their money and wants to preserve it for future generations,” she explains. “I am able to help them make decisions about their wealth in ways that will add meaning to their lives and will help the communities in which they live.”

Lifting Others

Michelle is one of only a few hundred International Client Advisors at Morgan Stanley who advise those living outside of the U.S. She has been a member of Morgan Stanley’s International Wealth Management Council since 2016 and served as the council’s co-chair in 2017 and 2018. She has been a member of Women in Wealth LIFT, the NY Metro Women’s Business Development Council, since 2015, where she currently serves as President. She also spends her time mentoring summer interns. She’s been named to the to the prestigious Financial Times Top 400 Advisors list, and to Working Mother and SHOOK Research’s Top Wealth Adviser Moms list. In 2018, she has been named to Forbes Magazine’s inaugural list of America’s Best-in-State Wealth Advisors, and most recently a Morgan Stanley MAKER, joining a group of trailblazing women of accomplishment nominated by their peers.

“I love working with women—the energy they bring,” she says. “To me, it’s a joy.” She sees women as already empowered. “What we need is to let go of the conditioning and preconceived ideas about women’s roles in the workforce.”

Looking to the women in her own life, Michelle’s mother always balanced working as a freelance interior designer while staying home to raise her children. Michelle’s grandmothers were independent and knew how to take care of themselves financially. Her great-grandmother on her father’s side was one of the first women to go to college in Ecuador. “Men, literally, threw stones at her,” Michelle says of her brave relative.

Today, Michelle works out of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management’s 399 Park Avenue Complex in New York City. She shares her love of rock-climbing with her husband and two children: Daniel, 11, and Olivia, 8. They spend part of the summer rock climbing and hiking in Switzerland, and they have “a little bouldering room in our house,” reveals Michelle.

Just as she did, her children and her mentees are learning that, one step at a time, “eventually you get to your next top. Those are the moments that keep you going,” she adds. “Just take your time, with every step.”

The Financial Times Top 400 Financial Advisors is an independent listing produced by the Financial Times [March 30, 2017]. The FT 400 is based in large part on data gathered from and verified by broker-dealer home offices, and, as identified by the FT, reflected each advisor’s performance in six primary areas, including assets under managements, asset growth, compliance record, experience, credentials and accessibility. The rating may not be representative of any one client’s experience and is not indicative of the Financial Advisor’s future performance. Neither Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC nor its Financial Advisors or Private Wealth Advisors pays a fee to The Financial Times in exchange for the rating.