By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
After speaking to Betty Ross, you realize the power that comes with being honest and straightforward and that sometimes, a frank approach is the best approach. So let’s begin: What are the chances that a young black girl growing up in the segregated South during some of the region’s most tumultuous times would persevere and make a grand life for herself after growing up in low-income housing to parents with eighth grade educations? Are her chances even further diminished when she becomes the woman of the house after her mother passed away when she’s just thirteen, baring her with the full brunt of domestic responsibilities for her father and four siblings? What are her chances when she becomes a teenage bride and mother for the first time at eighteen, and a divorced mother of two at twenty?
For Betty Ross, a seventy-year-old financial advisor currently with Sapient Financial Group, who grew up in an area where high school was the height of education, succeeding and going beyond what was expected of her was never a choice, but rather the only option – no matter how long it took.
In 1971, Ross left San Antonio, Texas – where she was born and raised and currently lives today – just seven years after the city had officially been integrated, though it was still experiencing a great deal of racial unrest. “I decided that being in Texas wasn’t good for me or my sons; it held too many painful memories and the city was slow to progress,” Ross said. “I wanted to provide my sons with a different outlook on life.” If you’ve encountered Ross – even for a moment – you’ll understand that her sons would have turned out just fine without the change of location because her strong spirit, fearlessness, and tenacity are enough to facilitate any change necessary.
A Tenacious Spirit
Ross will openly say that she is set in her ways; very determined just like her mother was – and always has been. These qualities have gotten her through times when she was made to feel “less than,” but she knew better. “I always had this notion, even during times of segregation, that no one was better than me – even though that was being taught in my community,” Ross said. “I was so stubborn and convinced that I knew it all from such an early age. I even noticed that girls were raised differently and I always felt like it was wrong and unfair for us to be excluded. My thinking has always been in opposition to what society is telling me to think and be. I have always questioned authority and the things I was raised not to question. To me it was just common sense: Trust what you think.”
It is exactly that attitude that got Ross through. Many women would have been overwhelmed at the thought of raising two young sons alone (which isn’t to say that Ross wasn’t overwhelmed at times), but she trusted her instincts and her abilities and did whatever it took; sometimes working two or three jobs at once. She even found the time to take the occasional class here and there at local colleges while working in human resources in California, among other jobs she had during that time.
Then, in a rather shocking and courageous move, Ross decided to fulfill her life-long dream of attending college and obtaining her degree… at the age of 52. “I thought my brain was fried when I went back to school! It was definitely a leap of faith, but I wanted so desperately to make that leap because I trusted that it was the right thing to do,” Ross said. “It wasn’t just an issue of attaining higher education, though that was a big part of it. Quite honestly, I also wanted to make more money.”
And make more money she did. After graduating with her B.A. in business administration, her salary doubled in less than a year. Ross later went on to earn her MBA from University of Phoenix in San Jose, CA and hold multiple, high-ranking corporate positions.
Admittedly, the pursuit of wealth can sometimes seem trivial, but Ross’ degree and subsequent pay raises gave her the confidence she needed to continue pursuing her dreams later in life than most. “At first, I only had the maturity and the confidence, but after college I had that third leg to stand on: the degree,” Ross said. “After that I was able to grow by leaps and bounds. People had to view me differently; they had to look beyond the color of my skin and see the content of my character.”
Life Lessons for a Financial Advisor
The loss of Ross’ mother to cancer was a devastating blow that left her with a hole she was never able to fill. Ross endured many hardships as a result of having to mature earlier than most. It obviously wasn’t easy, but these trying times gave her important life lessons many women don’t have the privilege of realizing until much later on in life – for example, self reliance. “When I was young my aunt would pay me 75 cents to clean her whole house and each time, I’d want to hang on to that money and not spend it,” Ross said. “I wanted to save all of those quarters and buy myself a car or a home. I wanted to have it all, but I instinctively knew that I was the only one in life who could give me those things; not a boyfriend, not a husband, not my father or other family members – just me.”
This early realization is part of the reason Ross so thoroughly enjoys her work as a financial advisor, which often enables her to reach out to and teach young women of color growing up in the same kind of neighborhoods and under similar circumstances as she did. As a matter of fact, she still encounters some of the people she grew up around in her housing projects. Unfortunately, a great majority of them are still in similar predicaments.
“I know that ‘financial advisor’ is a stuffy title, but I also know in my heart that teaching people what I’ve learned about money and training them to do differently than they were taught will help break the cycle. People don’t have to grow up not knowing the importance of money and investments,” Ross said. “Many people of color grow up going to church – like I did – and hearing that money is the root of all evil. Now that I know better; now that I know money is necessary and capable of improving your quality of life and helping you take care of you and yours, I want to sing it from the rooftops! If I can teach young women that they can give themselves everything they’ve always wanted without depending on a man or the government, I’ll consider myself a success. Women like Suze Orman are getting rich teaching what I taught to myself – and now I want to pass that knowledge on to people in my community.”
Making a List – Advice for Women
Money, of course, is good for what it can buy you, but being able to earn it, keep it, and take care of it also provides people with a sense of self-worth, which Ross believes is the driver for everything else. This is why she recommends that women make a list, similar to the one she first created when moving herself and her sons to California after leaving Texas.
This list, or plan, should include small steps they can take week-by-week, month-by-month, that will lead them to a larger financial goal, like paying off debt, purchasing a car, or putting a down payment on their first home. “You can achieve anything if you can dream it,” Ross said. “Break each goal down into small steps and when each goal comes to fruition, you know you have the power and the determination to reach your final goal.”
Ross had many goals that she accomplished using her list system and some she accomplished without it, like raising her two sons successfully. More than the lists, though, was a certain, constant driving force – and that was her mother.
Despite her passing, her mother’s death was at the root of every goal, every achievement, and every personal success throughout her life and of all the great moments, Ross cites being able to provide her mother with a headstone as her most crowning achievement. “When my mom died, my father didn’t have enough money to get a marker put on her grave. It took me a long time to be able to do it, but at thirty-three I was finally able to buy her a headstone and thinking about it now, all of these years later, still makes me smile,” Ross said. “My mother’s death catapulted me to be successful because I wanted to make her proud, but it doesn’t take such a drastic event to get your life in order and set goals for yourself. I want young women to know that they deserve more, they deserve better and so do their children, and it’s never too late to make things happen.”