Wendell Fuller, electrical engineer turned financial advisor, founded and operates Fuller Wealth Advisors, a fee-only firm offering financial planning and investment services to clients locally and nationally. He not only sits on the Community Foundation’s Professional Advisor Council, but he also personally participates in philanthropy through board service and as a member of the Ujima Legacy Fund giving circle.
We spoke with Wendell about how he transitioned into the field, how he approaches philanthropy with his clients and how he views cultural competency in financial planning, wealth building and philanthropy.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get into financial planning as a career?
I started my career as an Electrical Engineer with Altria (then Philip Morris) about 35 years ago. While with Philip Morris, I was later lured away by a software company offering stock options and the chance to travel the world. When the company was sold and the stock options vested, I realized I needed financial assistance. My wife and I sought out a financial advisor, specifically a fiduciary. We found a firm and were clients for three years before I then joined the firm as an advisor.
When our advisor asked about our goals and objectives, I expressed my desire to ultimately do what he was doing because I could not find many people who looked like me in that role. I am now in my 21st year as a Certified Financial Planner™ professional. I find it to be a vocation for me, not a job or a career. I absolutely love what I do.
I currently practice as a solopreneur advisory, with ultimate aspirations to grow the firm. I manage a portfolio of 60 clients, some local and others spread out across the country. I am fee-only, which I always differentiate from fee-based, given that I am only compensated by my clients. I sell no products and receive no commissions. I have chosen this approach because I believe it provides a comfortable environment to work with my clients. There is no other motivation than to recommend what best meets their goals and interests.
How did you become educated about the profession?
I did not grow up in an environment talking about stocks or mutual funds, primarily because my family and peers were never exposed to that environment. I have always been interested in investing and learned that it serves as a catalyst to wealth building and generational wealth.
People often ask me about making the transition, but it’s probably the engineer in me and always curious to solve problems. Although quantitative in many aspects, financial planning is a people business first and foremost. Being able to help those who want help in solving their problems is very rewarding to me. I always could grasp the mathematical concepts and calculations, but doing the homework and putting the theory into practice is where many stall and need help. I would love to say I had a mentor, but I didn’t. Most of my journey has been trial by fire. I also studied feverishly and constantly, reading articles and industry content and learning from peers when given the opportunity. Growing up in Tennessee, where I was often the only Black student in my advanced classes, I became used to being the “only one,” and it fueled a drive in me. If not me, then who? I deeply believe in continuous improvement, and throughout life, you always want to learn and expose yourself to new things.
How do you incorporate philanthropy into conversations with your clients?
At the onset of the relationship, we start with goal setting. It’s a matter of drawing out through dialog and discussions whether someone is charitably inclined rather than simply pursuing philanthropic endeavors for tax benefits only. I believe it needs to be innate, the desire to help others. If they state that one of their goals is to provide something for their alma mater or an organization that holds special meaning, or if they feel they’ve done enough for their children, that opens the conversation to additional beneficial philanthropic opportunities.
I strive not to come off as passing judgment in my engagement with clients. It may be that a client simply has not been exposed to the personal and financial benefits of charitable giving. When clients inquire about philanthropic opportunities, it can open a conversation regarding taxes. It’s not a preferred way to lead into the discussion. Still, it can be a good way to position it to learn about charitable options that are available and the personal benefits even beyond the tax component. It allows them to come to their own conclusion on the subject. If they want to pursue it, I help them put together some projections to see how it fits into their overall plans.
How do philanthropy and service play a role in your own life?
An aphorism that resonates with me is “Lift as we climb.” It’s often associated with underrepresented populations to describe a person pulling someone up the proverbial ladder. That’s what drove me to even be in this industry. In many instances, you don’t know what you don’t know. But when you know better, you do better. Once exposed to the world of investing and learning how to approach, strategize and execute within the environment, I found the inspiration and drive to move forward and share the knowledge with others. I can do the same thing with philanthropy. If I can expose, in many instances, other people who look like me to things like promoting the welfare of others with the resources I create, I want to do that. The thought of building wealth and generational wealth is well within reach of many people when opportunity and preparation meet.
I consider some of my philanthropy as board service, which includes Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR) because I believe their approach to developing community leaders is engaging and transformative, and Virginia Council of Economic Education because I am drawn to educating and exposing youth to financial education programs.
I am also a member of the Ujima Legacy Fund, a powerful opportunity to give back and work with like-minded philanthropic Black men. I love the Ujima Legacy genesis, born from a premise that Black people don’t participate in philanthropy other than receiving. But here we are in possibly the largest Black male giving circle in the country in Richmond, VA. I get energy from that – from like-minded people who are willing to pool their resources and uplift non-profits serving the Richmond area. It all comes down to agency, the capacity of individuals to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential. Simply recognizing I can do this, learn from this, and positively impact Black lives within my community.
Tell us about your involvement with the Giving Black study. What were your takeaways from the experience?
I had the privilege of participating on the Giving Black Advisory Council and submitted many clients and friends to participate in the Giving Black study. Although the survey brought to light many new revelations regarding community philanthropy, much of the survey confirmed what I already knew to be true about Black philanthropic people who live in Richmond.
Some think Black people lack the wealth to participate in philanthropic endeavors, but that’s so far from the truth. Those that tithe, for example, are philanthropic, contrary to some thinking. I have many clients that we’ve set up donor-advised funds and endowments at universities around the country. We give and always have and give very freely to the causes we believe in and support. Yet, in our industry, it is often thought that Black individuals or families don’t have the wealth or magnitude of wealth to even talk about philanthropy. And by thinking that, many advisors may not even ask the questions that might initiate a philanthropic discussion.
I believe the perceived notion of Black people being less prominent in philanthropic endeavors stems from the harrowing wealth gap. Black families are playing catch up. We have to look beyond what exists today and think about what it takes to build wealth and, more specifically, generational wealth. While I will be able to pass monetary gifts and philanthropic legacies on to my daughters, the concept is something that my parents and grandparents would never have thought possible. Exposure is key to participation. Black people have the agency to leverage the resources we have to improve our lives and help others. I think there has always been philanthropy in the Black communities, we just haven’t had the generations of compounding to build large-scale transferrable wealth, but we’re on a path to getting there.
What is the importance of cultural competence in philanthropic and financial advising?
Black people, and people of color, may not always have the resources to be philanthropic, even though they may have the desire. As a financial planner working primarily with African American clients, I have found that we will help our own without fail. Clients will often give resources to their family, cousins, friends, etc. In many instances, we realize a shared struggle. As an advisor, you have to have the wherewithal to recognize a trait engrained within the Black community. And, of course, it’s not exclusive to the Black community. But if we can help our parents, siblings, and family, many will do it even to the detriment of their financial plans. It is philanthropic, and we all know that charity starts at home. I like to build that into financial planning. A willingness to help the family may be one of their goals, and we will work towards building resources to make that possible and lifting others while we climb.
Individuals working in the field may not be aware of the cultural differences and nuances, but they may have to step outside of their comfort zones to learn more. It’s important not to paint everyone with the same brush or assume that everyone operates the same way. So many Black people aspire to give back and will give even if it’s not in their own best interest. But the times are changing, and so are people’s resources. That’s our opportunity as advisors to show empathy, listen with care, and truly understand our clients and what motivates them.