Putting Money in Its Place

Audio Description

Wealth can be emotionally charged—so what happens when it falls into your lap? As Jennifer Risher shares in her memoir, your childhood money story needn’t define you. She encourages women to come to terms with wealth’s impact on them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.


00:08 - 01:03

Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein. And this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Hello, everybody. I'm so excited today to be joined by Jen Risher. Jen Risher and I had the pleasure of meeting each other in South Carolina a few months back when travel seemed normal and the world was a bit calmer. We're recording this in the midst of the Omicron surge, and Jen story really fascinated me. I thought what she had to say was terrific and I was very excited about having her on the show. Her story really starts back in Microsoft in the early 90s, where she not only met her husband, but both of them became extra lucky beneficiaries of the dotcom boom. By their early 30s, they had tens of millions of dollars.

01:03 - 01:28

Jennifer wrote a really thought provoking and very personal book called We Need to Talk, a memoir about wealth. Talking about her own struggles with that sudden wealth, the angst that had come from a childhood of really not growing up that way, but also the experiences she had with her family, her friends, her social network and trying to find a place in the world. So Jen, thank you so much for making the time to sit down with me today.

01:28 - 01:30

Thank you, Beata. It's good to be here.

01:30 - 01:42

OK, so I gave the background about the book and your story, but obviously, in your words, it's a whole different story. So why don't you tell your version of the story and what your experience felt like?

01:42 - 02:34

Yeah, I got really lucky when I was twenty-five. Actually, I was lucky before that because I was born to a stable family. I had race privilege. I had access to good education, so I grew up lucky. But all that kind of added up to the opportunity to join Microsoft. And like I said, I joined Microsoft and I met my husband, and then I also got stock that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. David's stock was worth millions and six years later when we were married and expecting our first child, he took a job at this small, unknown startup that was selling books on the internet called Amazon.com. And there we were in 1997 in our early 30s, really with more money than we could wrap our heads around. And I want to say upfront, money makes life easier.

02:34 - 03:25

I am incredibly fortunate, but you know, wealth really surprised me. Like you mentioned, I mean, income inequality happens within families, and I felt that. I also was surprised that we get such a narrow view of wealth in our country. We see the Kardashians, we know the Real Housewives, we know about people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. So we were seeing the highly visible wealth and the stereotypes. But most people with wealth are so much more diverse than what we see or believe. And in fact, eight out of 10 people with wealth grew up like I did, middle class, or they grew up poor. And we're not talking about the impact that new wealth can have on identity, on relationships. On sort of your sense of place in the world.

03:25 - 03:47

And I mean, I felt this impact as a parent. How were you going to raise kids that weren't spoiled? I felt that as a sister, was my brother really resentful? I felt it as a friend because people started to look at me differently. And as a daughter, it was really painful to feel as though my parents disapproved of what we had.

03:48 - 03:50

That's a lot. That's a lot already for us to process.

03:50 - 04:18

So I think we're going to dissect some of what you've said, the fact that you talk so much about how your circumstances were different as a kid from where you ended up, I think is one of the best places to kind of pick up on your story. So can you talk about your childhood and the types of money lessons and the type of money experiences that you had as a kid? And of course, that's context for what your reaction was to the circumstances that you ended up in.

04:18 - 05:12

Yeah, I grew up middle class, saving my pennies, wary of the rich, being frugal was a virtue and something that was rewarded and important. We all have a money story and our money story starts in our childhood, and it's really based on our parents' attitudes, habits, beliefs about money. And so I picked that up from my parents, my dad. His father had dropped out of school in eighth grade, and so he remembers he's the oldest of five. He remembers rushing to the dinner table to ensure he could get enough to eat because the family just didn't have much money, and that money story stuck with him. Even though he became a successful businessperson. He was in insurance and he did very well. He still carried with him, and he still carries with him, he is in his 80s, and he still feels worried that there's not enough. So that was part of what I learned as a kid, you never know, and it's not, you never know when the rainy day is going to hit.

05:13 - 05:47

And then my mother grew up in Flint, Michigan. Her father was a prominent lawyer. Her mother was on the hospital board, but her father didn't let her mother work. It was a time when women who could afford not to work didn't work, and that was sort of the norm and they didn't talk about money. It was very impolite to talk about money when I was growing up. In fact, when I asked my mom how much my dad made, it was none of my business. So that was a piece. And so my grandparents also were really influenced by the depression. And so frugality and saving was a key piece of what I learned growing up.

05:47 - 06:40

And so when I came in to all this new wealth, it served me well that I was responsible with my money and I knew how to manage it, and I was very focused on not spending. I didn't go out and overspend, but I had to really reassess kind of why was I saving money. And maybe I could pay to park in the parking lot rather than searching for hours for free parking spot on the street? Or maybe I could just pay that ATM fee instead of walking blocks to find one that was free. So I really had to teach myself and allow myself what used to be a luxury. And then it also kind of changed my identity because I thought of myself as kind of earned my parents' love, and it made me feel like I was being responsible member of society in saving and not being excessive. So those were kind of internal angsty battles that I had to go through based on how I grew up.

06:40 - 07:04

And I think it's important for all of us to think about what our money stories are because we grow up with implicit biases and to recognize it, it is hard to kind of get rid of it. You can't really escape it, but to recognize it and ensure that it doesn't control you, that you are in control, you can override the money kind of lessons that you learned that aren't serving you anymore or that aren't serving society in the way that you want to.

07:04 - 07:55

Totally. It's so resonates with us because we talk about these money lessons, too. And in fact, the foundational childhood that you talk about, and it's so hard decades later to let that go like everything else that happens in our childhood, right? Like all the things that are discussed in therapy are what happened in your childhood and it is no different with money. And then you also raised this topic around how taboo it is and especially for women. How often do you go out with friends and people at the dinner table? Well, my money story is... that's just not the conversation that comes up in a group of your mom friends. I mean, that's not what comes up when with me, right? And most often, I'll have the dads come up and start talking about the market and investing. And so I think it is really important to recognize both things, how important the childhood memories are to how you function today.

07:55 - 08:19

And then on this quest to make the whole topic of money less taboo as a conversation. So I really applaud you and in sharing a story that's so personal and also sounds really painful in a lot of ways for you to get over that shame and angst and maybe embarrassment around all of that. So I know it took a lot to publish that.

08:19 - 08:54

I mean, I wrote for 14 years and it took a lot of internal looking and thinking. And what I'm hoping is that, you know, getting my story out in the world will help other people kind of work through their own stories because I do think we learn from each other's stories. So I'm hoping that my story will help other people and that by sharing it, I can help others move more quickly out of any sense of shame and guilt and fear around their money and into a sense of real meaning and purpose, to take action with their money. And I really want to help women get more comfortable with their wealth.

08:55 - 09:13

So let's move to that point. So you've got now two college-age daughters, so let's talk about your relationship with your daughters as these circumstances unfolded. And how did you walk the line? What are some of your stories and lessons there that you'd want to relay? Yeah.

09:13 - 10:04

You know, raising spoiled kids is such an issue. It's one of the first things people ask me about, like how do I keep from spoiling my kids? How am I going to keep them ambitious and motivated and not entitled? And there's a lot of fear around that with parents, and I had that fear. I held that fear, and I believed in this idea of the spoiled rich kid. It looms so large in our country. It's a little bit more of sort of like another Kardashian or Real Housewife. It's not showing the full reality, and I think we buy into this idea that money itself is going to spoil our kids. But I don't think money or wealth spoils kids, parents do and parents can. So it's really important that you take a look at your own values and make sure you're living those values day to day, week to week. So it is important for us as our girls are growing up,

10:05 - 10:49

what we are talking about around the dinner table? How were we spending our time? What did we value? And yes, we did travel in luxury and yes, we did enjoy a lot of privilege. But I think there's a sense of the importance of attitude and gratitude that can help keep kids grounded. So if we weren't entitled ... the fact that we really kind of continually feel incredibly appreciative and grateful and respectful of other people, I think kids pick up on what you're doing, what you're saying, how you're living. And so my message to people is, don't worry so much about your kids. Take a look at who they are, but really look at who you are and make sure that you're walking through the world in a way that you want your kids to walk through the world.

10:50 - 11:39

And that is harder than it looks I like what you said about the attitude matters and the content of the dinner, because the vacations are very often a point that people ask us about. People want to travel in a way that they are happy traveling, and they've worked hard to earn it. Yet they send a signal to their kids. This is not normal travel. The kids graduate on their own. They're not going be able to afford something like that. So I like how you said that, that you took the chances to enjoy and the experiences were created and oftentimes in luxury. But there was this attitude of gratitude around it and discussions around it. OK, so kids, that's that's one way to think about it. The conversations, the values and ensuring, those are there. What about with others? What did you find with your social networks?

11:39 - 12:19

Yeah, that was tough. I mean, you know, when David joined Amazon and suddenly we had all this Amazon stock, we also have this new baby and that world opened to me the world of parenthood. My heart went out to our daughter. I went to a mother's group and I was with a bunch of women. All of us were experiencing this incredible joy and questioning. And you know, we shared so much like, how are we going to get our babies to sleep through the night? How are we dealing with in-laws? What about it baby weight that we wanted to lose and being mothers, we shared so much. We had so much in common and in that space, you know, I really felt bonded with all these other women.

12:20 - 13:03

And I also had this other curtain open. This other world of do-wealth had had happened to me as well. And in that space, there was really silence. And I didn't want anyone to know about our wealth. I kept it hidden. I did everything I could to keep it hidden in the name of being connected to this group of other new moms. I wanted to be and I felt like just another new mom. And I was worried about being judged. I was worried that people would think that I couldn't relate to their problems or that I didn't have any problems of my own. And I spent decades keeping our wealth hidden, and that was part of the process of writing, of kind of coming to terms with

13:03 - 13:26

And looking back, I think, wow, in the name of connecting with other people, I really wasn't sharing what was really going on for me. And that can be very exhausting. It can be depleting. And wow, now I wish I had been able to show up a little bit more with more transparency and really kind of brought that issue that I was grappling with to the group.

13:26 - 13:30

And did your husband have similar feelings or did he have a different experience?

13:31 - 14:01

Money is very emotional, so you know, he has a mom. She has attitude towards money. So there's a lot of different issues that have come up, and I think men grapple with these things too. But women are so interested in connection and community, and I think for me, I carried around a lot more angst about it for a lot longer than he did. And it was just in the name of trying to connect to people and to be part of community and not to be seen as other or to be judged or criticized or to feel like people were jealous. It was tough.

14:01 - 14:44

Now, when it comes to my really close friends, I don't feel like wealth has really come between me and people I'm closest with. For the most part, it's not an issue, but then it kind of creeps. It can creep in. But now that I'm out with my book and talking more openly and trying to get other people to talk more openly, there's been some funny situations, like during COVID. A group of us had kind of wanted to get together to celebrate some big birthdays, and we were just four of us. We're going to go to this on this weekend and go hiking, and we cancelled it because of COVID. And then in the fall I texted them, it was a time when everything seemed like it was opening up and I texted them and said, Let's do it, let's go to this nice resort for a couple of nights and go hiking.

14:44 - 15:24

And one of the women sent me a note. I said, Oh, Jen, that is so generous of you, and I hadn't intended to pay for this, right? And then another friend who is like, You know, I think you were suggesting that you pay for it. And then I just found it funny. I felt like because I trust those friends and I'm pretty open with them. I just thought. Well, you know what, I am so fortunate, I'm just, this is on me, I'm going to pay for the hotel and it was, it wasn't a big deal just because it didn't feel like a burden to me and it didn't feel like I was being taken advantage of or I just felt like something, a privilege that I got to share with with my friends.

15:24 - 15:52

That is a funny story, but as long as it doesn't happen every week, right, that it's going to work out. But you talk a lot about the influence that wealth has. I mean, we've talked about the angst and the insecurity and those negative feelings that harkened back to your childhood and then were lasting when the wealth occurred. Let's flip the switch. Let's talk about all the positive that has come from really you owning it and stepping into it.

15:52 - 16:13

There is so much positive. I feel that it's been a great journey. One of the things that happened also in the time of COVID is, you know, obviously there was incredible need out in the world and my husband and I were sheltering in place and looking out and saying, What can we do? I mean, we have this privilege. We want to use our wealth for good and to make a difference in a positive way.

16:13 - 16:41

My husband started a nonprofit 12 years ago, so he's the CEO of a world reader, and he's he was kind of recognizing that funding was drying up and people were very uncertain during this time. And our hearts are really going out to nonprofits in general, like how can we help? And I had doubled down on places that I already gave to, and it kind of accelerated those three year gifts but we wanted to do more to really support nonprofits, and we also wanted to inspire others to join us.

16:41 - 17:16

And so, you know, when we we thought about giving, we thought we could give. But how can we amplify that? And we were very aware of money sitting in donor advised funds, and we wanted to inspire more giving. So we created this. This was becoming a little bit of a movement to try and get people to to move their money and give big and gift out by inciting people to join us. So we put up a million dollars and we said anyone who commits to halving their DAFs, spending out half of the money that's in their donor advised fund by the end of September, this is in 2020, we would match grants they could give wherever they wanted.

17:16 - 17:40

So our Half My DAF movement moved $8.6 million out of DAFs into nonprofits in just five months, and it helped raise awareness of money stuck in DAFs. It also got me and David working together. We built a website and we talked to nonprofits and we had webinars for nonprofits. Talked to them about DAFS. We talked the press. So it was really enjoyable to to kind of do this as a

17:40 - 18:24

And then our daughters got involved as well because at the end of 2020, we got the most amazing Christmas gift from our daughters, who kind of said, you know, we want to be part of this Half My DAF. And they gave their own money for Half My DAF 2021. So they were.... and my older daughter did all of that work behind the scenes this past year, and we've now moved $19.2 million out of DAFs into to nonprofits. That's a very specific answer to your question about kind of how the positive side of money, and it's really feeling that purpose and feeling like, yeah, I can make a difference. It's work and it's required a lot of work. But the fact that we can put up a million dollars and kind of rally people it's a part of the privilege, but in such a positive way.

18:25 - 18:33

Yeah, you said $18 million over the two years. 19. Yeah, I mean, that's great. Are you continuing it for 2022? Gearing up for 2022.

18:33 - 18:36

We haven't figured it all out yet, but yes, we're planning to continue.

18:36 - 18:45

That's great. So where can people find more information about this initiative? So if you're going to be matching in '22, is there somewhere we should send people

18:45 - 19:05

Yes. Just go to our website, www.HalfMyDAF.com. And right now you can see all the places that people donated to in 2020, as well as in 2021, which organizations we matched. We hope to announce kind of the dates and details of 2022 soon.

19:05 - 19:10

And you're in the Bay Area. How much of that influence extended beyond the Bay Area?

19:10 - 19:30

It's kind of rippled out. I mean, we definitely had people join us from all across the country. They gave to nonprofits throughout the country, as well as the national nonprofits. A good majority of people are here in California, but really there's people in New York and in Florida and in, you know, throughout the country. So you can see that too when you look at the website. That's terrific.

19:31 - 19:54

Well, you probably have a very easy answer to my last question, which is this question that I ask every guest, the idea of how do you define investing with intention? You know, for some, it's really about being intentional about financial decisions. For others, it's about prioritizing what's meaningful for them in their time. Investing means lots of different things to lots of different people. What does it mean to you?

19:54 - 20:42

I have not been very interested in investing financially. It hadn't really appealed to me until just this last year when I was out talking about money I was looking at the world and recognizing how income and racial inequality is such a huge problem and as much as I can give philanthropically, I have this huge portfolio of money and where is it invested in; making sure that it's not invested in things that are doing harm. That it's not invested in prisons or oil or the companies that is invested in are fair to women. And so I started to look at that in a new way. And then I also have taken money and actively been investing in brown and Black women fund managers. I mean, women get less than three percent of venture capital money, so women of color get much less than that.

20:42 - 21:04

that. I've invested in three different women fund managers and excited to be funding people that don't normally get funding and who are looking at the world and creating products and thinking about products for communities that are underserved. So I've been very much more actively investing, and I think of the investments as financial investments, but also social investments as well.

21:04 - 21:52

That's terrific. You and millions of other people have come to that conclusion because the inflows into socially responsible investments have been just record-breaking over the last couple of years. It's accelerated in an enormous way, and we do think the pandemic and just the climate around the world has really led people to think the same way. So we've had many of our guests answer the question the same way. So that's terrific. It's been so great to sit down with you again and really great to hear your story. Congrats on not only the book, but Half My DAF. I'm looking forward to seeing '22 play out for you in that movement. Is there anything else that we didn't get to, Jen, that you want to leave our listeners with, kind of last thoughts on how do you lead with gratitude and attitude?

21:52 - 22:16

Oh, thanks, Beata. I do just hope that people, you know, instead of kind of avoiding the conversations around money that come up within families, that people can find the courage to get a little uncomfortable and have these kind of conversations. And I want to encourage people to step into conversation. And because on the other side of that conversation, it can be such a sense of relief and connection, as well as a way to learn.

22:16 - 22:26

That's great. And I'll just highlight, the book is called We Need to Talk, a Memoir About Wealth by Jennifer Risher, so thank you again for joining us. Thank you.

22:30 - 22:44

If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribed to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you listen to subscribe and rate us. You can also find us on Twitter at Bernstein PWM. Or find me, Beata Kirr on LinkedIn.

Beata Kirr
Co-Head—Investment & Wealth Strategies

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