Impact Voices | March 8, 2024

Sonya Dreizler, CHOIR: Build a bigger table

Sonya Dreizler

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Guest Author

Sonya Dreizler

Editor’s Note: On this International Women’s Day, we’re pleased to share important moments in the lives and careers of five women in impact investing, in their own words. The stories are excerpted from “The Social Justice Investor: Advance Your Values while Building Wealth,” by Andrea Longton. Pre-order the book and RSVP for the April 23 launch party at LISC’s headquarters in New York.

“I can do this. I am prepared and ready to say my piece.” My silent pep-talks held my nerves from freefalling as my pre-stage nervousness kicked in like clockwork. 

I peeked around, anxious that someone might see my knee nervously twitching.

Nope. Mistake. Looking around made it worse. 

The other people seated around my table were focused on my friend and mentor George, who was addressing the crowd of 800 financial professionals from the main stage. 

The main stage in this giant hotel ballroom full of people. Not just any people. MY people. My colleagues and mentors, my clients and prospects, industry gatekeepers. 

My other knee started shaking. 

I had been invited as a keynote speaker at the 2018 SRI Conference, renowned as a top-tier industry event for leaders in the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry. Finance and investment professionals attend this event for insights about how to move their clients’ money into portfolios that better reflect their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) values. The leaders seated around this ballroom had collectively defied the expectations of traditional investors by insisting that returns are measured by more than just financial earnings. They had built an investment subculture by listening to their clients’ desire to move money according to their values. 

I have huge respect (and more than a little awe) for the people in that room. 

And me? I was about to walk onto that stage, presumably to give a talk about my insights as a “next generation” impact-investing leader. But what I was actually going to use my 15 minutes for was to challenge the crowd’s self perception of race and privilege. 

But the wired microphone taped up my neck kept slipping off the top of my ear. 

“You can do this. It’s only a 15-minute speech. You’ve given plenty of talks before. You’re a pro!” 

I knew why I was nervous. 

Another deep breath. George was wrapping up the introduction. My intro duction. I glanced down at my Fitbit. 

Huh. Never seen my heart rate that high before. 

Ok. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. 

Deep breath in. Deep breath out. 

I was out of time. George was wrapping up. “. . . happy to introduce my friend, Sonya Dreizler.” 

I had to consciously remind myself how to press down into my feet and straighten my knees before willing my torso to rise from the chair. I smiled and placed one foot in front of the other. Somehow, I made it onto that stage.   

I leaned hard on my instincts and public speaking experience to launch into the speech. I had been sweating over every phrase and dramatic pause for weeks. I had even enlisted a few friends to help give feedback on the talk, something I don’t typically do. 

When I started speaking, I didn’t recognize my voice. My heart was still racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. 

But I kept going. 

After introducing myself, I quickly shifted to the uncomfortable topic at hand: convincing the audience that when it came to racial equity it was time to take a look in the mirror. If we want to address racial inequities and racial justice issues with portfolio companies, we needed to start by looking at our own industry, our own companies, and yes, even ESG and SRI companies. 

I began gently, asking the audience to spend 20 seconds thinking about the very first time they were hired into a financial services job. After giving them a moment to collect their thoughts, I asked them to write down the top three factors that contributed to them being hired for that job. 

Then I shared my own story of privilege—how I had climbed the corporate ladder, starting with a successful interview for an executive assistant position that ultimately led (many years later) to being CEO of a financial services firm. 

While I got the job on my own and I did well on my own, I reminded the audience that the opportunity was due to my privilege. I landed the interview for the executive assistant role because my dad was kind enough to introduce me to the firm’s CEO. The university listed on my resume was enough for my interviewer to overlook the fact that I had no experience working in financial services. My privilege allowed me to jump into the deep end without any prior experience. 

I rounded out that story with a call to look internally about how “privilege grants you access without credentials.” 

Deep breath in. Here comes the hard part. I’m about to talk about race to a room of—mostly white—finance and investment professionals. 

“I want you to look around the room and look around your table. I want you to notice who is here. And who is not here. What I mean is: Why do we have so few Latinas in this room? So few Black women? Why are there hardly any Indigenous folks in our community? Why are there very few people of color in our community in relation to the American population? “

We’re missing a big piece. And we need all of those perspectives at our table in order to solve the problems that we’re working on.

“My generation wants equity, inclusion, and justice centered in all we do. We want your help. 

“To make an inclusive community, there’s no ‘Easy’ button. It requires action on everybody’s part. One person at a time. One action at a time.” 

By now I was in the groove. My heart was no longer racing and I was enjoying being on stage. But also, like clockwork, my mouth had gone completely dry. 

Water. Water would help. I made my way to the podium and took a sip. 

Deep breath. 

And back in. 

“We need to turn the mirror on ourselves. Some of my colleagues and I have been collecting data from socially responsible investing companies about how diverse we actually are. We’ll put out a paper on our findings, but I want to give you a little preview.

“We have a lot of work to do.” 

I steeled myself for the first call to action. 

“I want you to expand your circle. And here, I’m mostly talking to the white folks in the room. If everybody you listen to, the people whose opinions you value, the people you talk to every day . . . are white, I’m asking you to intentionally expand your circle so you’re getting more perspectives in your circle. 

“When I’m talking about diversity, I’m not trying to take anything away from the white men in the room. I don’t want to take away your seat at the table. What I want, and what my generation wants, is to build a bigger table. A table that welcomes everyone. 

“My generation wants the firms that we work with and work for and the communities that we invest in to be reflective of the communities we serve and, more broadly, of the United States. 

“I’m asking for your help. Let’s build a bigger table together. Thank you.” 


Phew. It was done. I believed everything I’d said and if there were negative career consequences, so be it. I told myself, It’s ok. Just put the presentation clicker down and go down the stairs. 

I almost dropped the clicker when the audience started clapping. I had to remind myself to stay on stage for a moment, accept the applause with grace, and take the moment in. 

They kept going—clapping for what seemed like a very long time. I don’t remember walking down the stairs, but I do remember the big bear hug from my dad. He had been in the audience and was likely the one clapping the loudest. 

Today, I no longer work as a consultant in the ESG space. Instead, I’m proudly building that bigger table, working to lift the voices of women, nonbinary people, and people-of-color financial professionals on conference stages and in the media. In 2022, Liv Gagnon and I launched Choir, a diversity tech platform that includes the Choir Certification™, the financial industry’s first benchmark for conference diversity and representation. Our goal is to make conference stages across all sectors of finance representative of the US population. 

We’ve been listening to the same voices for too long. No one is expected to give up their seat, but you may need to lend a hand in building a bigger table.

Sonya Dreizler is the cofounder of Choir, a financial services diversity-tech platform.