• Women Financial Advisor Forum

On a Mission to Make a Difference: Marilyn Booker Empowers Communities

Marilyn Booker, Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley’s Urban Markets Group, is a passionate advocate of improving prosperity of urban communities.

Marilyn Booker didn’t realize it at the time, but at 23 and fresh out of law school, the then-public defender had found her passion. Assigned to a courtroom in one of Chicago’s under-served communities, she remembers: “I was making a difference and giving back. My mission was to do the right thing and help these young folks get back on track and break the vicious cycle of crime and poverty.”

Her Motivation

Making a difference is something Booker, Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley’s Urban Markets Group, still contemplates each morning as she updates her daily to-do list. “That motivates me to make sure I’m having a positive impact,” she says.

Based in New York, the Urban Markets Group was founded in 2011 to promote financial health and expand the prosperity of inner-city urban communities as a whole by teaching money management and finance to individuals, families and organizations. Once in the field, she and her team quickly discovered a lack of information and knowledge about basic financial management. “That led us to build a robust financial education program,” explains Booker, who now spends time traveling around the country to teach. Her goal is for the group to reach as many states as possible, giving those with very little the knowhow to eventually turn what they do have into wealth.

Booker was the very person Morgan Stanley needed to lead this new group. “It was a blank slate to begin with, since the firm had never done this before, but I leveraged existing relationships to get the word out about Morgan Stanley’s efforts,” she says.

A Number of Firsts

Those relationships were built over time, including her 17 years in Human Resources at Morgan Stanley, in charge of diversity, HR policy and recruiting for some time. In fact, she launched the first work-life program at Morgan Stanley in 1997, the first supplier diversity program in 1998, and was the firm’s Equal Employment Opportunity Officer. Recruiting, training, mentoring and scholarship programs were all ways in which Booker steered the firm to “proactively put things into place to change the makeup and complexion of Wall Street.” In fact, 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the firm’s Richard B. Fisher Scholarship Program, an internship recruiting effort to attract minority college juniors and sophomores. “Other firms saw what we were doing and soon followed,” she says.

Despite industry progress with respect to gender, she still sees a “bench issue” in that there are just not enough people of color ready to move up the ladder. “Diversity is everybody’s responsibility,” she says. “If you’re not doing the right things to develop people, you’re going to have attrition.”

Having served on the boards of multiple foundations, including the Morgan Stanley Foundation and New York Urban League, Booker’s contributions are too numerous to mention but all have a common denominator: a commitment to positive change. As such, she’s been recognized as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America,” “100 Top Executives in America” and “25 Influential Black Women in Business.”

Driven to Serve

She attributes her gumption to her father. “Like him, I’m a workaholic,” chuckles Booker, whose parents migrated from Alabama to the south side of Chicago in the 1950s looking for a better life. From car washes to laundry mats, dry cleaners to packaged goods stores to bowling alleys, Booker and her siblings helped out in all of her parents’ businesses and “got a chance to see firsthand what it was like to run a small business, to serve the community, and to deal with all types of people,” she recalls.

So driven was Booker that she graduated high school at 16, college (Spelman in Atlanta) at 20, and law school (Chicago Kent College of Law) at 23. Everyone assumed she’d attend law school because she was drawn to her uncle’s law office and spent so much time sitting in chambers and courtrooms when he later became a judge. Excelled at law she did, and after years as a public defender she decided to follow the traditional path into corporate law. But it wasn’t for her, she says: “I was bored out of my mind!”

Wanting to try something new, she joined her mentor, Jim Lowry, at his consulting firm, James H. Lowry & Associates, in Chicago. Her very first client was none other than Morgan Stanley, which had hired her employer to develop one of the first formal diversity programs on Wall Street. Booker spent the next two years between Chicago and New York building the Morgan Stanley program, then was recruited by Morgan Stanley in 1994 to run it from New York. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined they’d offer me the position and I’d move away from my family, but it was a phenomenal opportunity,” says Booker.

Nearly 25 years later, she’s still at Morgan Stanley, and loves what she does. Reflecting on her diversity and recruiting efforts over the years, Booker thinks of the women who are now movers and shakers and the minorities who now run hedge funds, private equity shops, companies and more.  She recalls how she “saw something in a lot of these kids that most people didn’t because they didn’t fit the mold. What if I had not given them that opportunity?”

A proud mom of three college-aged children, Booker offers this advice to those just entering the workforce: “Find your passion as early as you can. You want to get up every morning and look in the mirror and be able to say, ‘this feels good.’”