MAKER Kalena Griffin Costa Leads with Purpose in Empowering Others

Some days, underneath his Catholic school uniform, Kalena Griffin Costa’s four-year-old son is wearing his favorite superhero outfit. Hidden from sight and doing his best to conform, yet he wants to show his friends his secret powers. Those days are strong reminders to Kalena of the inner often secret hidden power in all of us.

“If everyone genuinely believed in their own distinct inner power that is theirs to share, a lot more people would feel they have purpose,” she says.

Today, she is focused on understanding the needs of our top clients while identifying and executing on key strategies to develop the Private and International Wealth business.  

Her peers include the 25,000 people of wealth management, and in particular advisors managing clients with $10 million in net worth.

She also serves as the Vice Chair for the Global Giving Latin America Fund, on the Wealth Management Culture Committee and on the Firm’s National Diversity and Inclusion Council, a role that has great meaning for Kalena as someone of mixed heritage, like both of her parents. “They taught me to take comfort and pride in each aspect of my mixture as well as the mixture itself,” says Kalena.

Growing up in Western Massachusetts the oldest of five siblings, Kalena remembers her parents being very conscious of passing on their cultures, as well as of understanding other cultures and religions. “We grew up on rice and beans, ate with chopsticks, listened to Gospel, Salsa and Country music, danced merengue and the hula, attended powwows and every local ethnic festival from Polish and Portuguese to Greek,” she says. “We’d watch the travel channel and talk about what we’d do as a family once we got to those exotic places. This was their way of inspiring our imaginations. Having kids of my own now, I realize how special all of this was.”

Kalena’s father was Black and Hawaiian. Her mother was Black, Mexican, Irish and Blackfoot Native American. “I am fascinated by people, by the harmony of our differences and sameness,” she says. “This full appreciation is something my parents gave us. I learned how to embrace my complexity, opting to choose more than just one box. To this day, it surprises me when people are uncomfortable with someone identifying as mixed and feel the need to pressure me into choosing one, as though I am being disloyal.”

At every stage of her life, Kalena has dealt with “never fully fitting into any one group,” she says. “I found this to be an advantage versus an impediment.” In grade school, for example, she started a girls’ cheer team “because there was only an all-male basketball team.” In high school, she started an international club because “I wasn’t Latina or Black enough for a significant role in the other ethnic groups.”

Such drive stems from “growing up in a family that would debate, and everyone had a voice,” she says. “We were competitive and played a fierce game of Monopoly.” Her mother was their primary advocate. “She taught us the importance of not only standing up for what is right, but also of giving back,” says Kalena, who remembers donating her toys and preparing free lunches for neighborhood children each summer.

Their entrepreneurial dad was a grand master of martial arts and local celebrity. He built a successful business, but moreover created a community of positive, strong men and women who thrived with his support and coaching. For Kalena, learning martial arts provided a fundamental sense of accomplishment. In fact, at 12 years old, she fearlessly competed as an adult and took home trophies taller than she was. “We grew up with a sense of mind over matter,” she says. “Dad taught us that we could be anything we set our minds to, and that as girls, brown girls, there might be times we would need to do things a little better and push past a little resistance. He made us feel that if we weren’t happy with something, we could change it, and that we had a responsibility to make the world better for others.”  

Thinking she was going to be a doctor because she was good in math and science and “genuinely liked helping people,” Kalena attended Bowdoin College in Maine. After completing her pre-med requirements, she added a sociology major. In her senior year, she made her way into an advanced economics course and fell in love with concepts like supply and demand. A student representative on the college’s board of trustees, she had signed herself up for the Peace Corps and was about to go to Thailand when she got an offer to work at KPMG in New York City from one of the trustees.

She took the job, then got hired away to California in 2000 to work on a dot-com project. The company was acquired shortly thereafter, and she was pink-slipped. A job search led to an offer in 2001 from Merrill Lynch to become a Financial Advisor. “I was fascinated with the idea of helping people while building my own business with the backing of a bigger brand,” she says. Kalena built her book focusing on the needs of small business owners and the often overlooked “millionaire next door”, a segment that was certainly close to home. She took the next natural step and earned her MBA on an academic scholarship from Georgetown.

After returning to Merrill Lynch, Kalena quickly rose through the ranks in roles from strategy in the private bank, to business development in consumer banking, to strategy and business development in the office of the COO in investment banking. But in 2008, she took a leave of absence to care for her ailing father whose life was sadly cut short by an aggressive cancer. With her mother ill as well, she took in both of her adolescent brothers, Ezequiel and Kalaii, who were only 11 and 13 at the time. The financial crisis had hit, and Kalena had to start over. She moved her new family unit to the D.C. area and launched a business venture with three partners from college.

“We broke even after year one and built it into a multi-million-dollar business,” she says. But eventually she was doing just about everything as one of its founders, except getting any sleep, and realized it just wasn’t her passion. So she and her partners parted ways. Not quite ready to retire, Kalena, with encouragement from her husband, went to work for a non-profit, something she had always wanted to do. In 2012 she joined First Book, a non-profit social enterprise that provides books to children in need. Ten months in, she got the call from a former Merrill Lynch colleague asking Kalena to consider a position at Morgan Stanley. She and her husband Ben—a “true partner,” she says—agreed to make the move to New York City and within a year were pregnant with their son, Leonardo.

Now, five years later, they also have a three-year-old daughter, Leilana. Kalaii is now an honor student and plays football at the University of Texas, EL Paso. Ezequiel has a full-time job, his own apartment and is pursuing being a fire fighter. “They make me so proud,” she says.

Taking care of her parents then younger brothers only strengthened her passion for advocating for others. “It gives me purpose—the idea of empowering others who for one reason or another may not be empowered on their own” she says. “I have come to accept that I was given a gift to lead and to empower others. That’s key to my inner power. When I have moments of doubt, I simply imagine my superhero parents standing right beside me.”