September 10, 2015 


By Dr. Valerie Wardlaw 

Contributing Writer



I am very passionate about leadership.  There is a genuineness that comes from the way that I see leadership.  I genuinely care and have a strong belief in building a great team.  At Merrill Lynch, I know that one person cannot have the success a group can have when there is collective thought.  When I’m working with my team, I want their input.  I want to know what my team is thinking, and feeling. It is important to process what I’ve heard and it begs the question:  how can I take what I’ve heard and make our company better?


Results…its important to have them.  As the President of Merrill Lynch says, “its table steak.”  I am very fortunate that I get to work with amazing leaders everyday.  At Merrill Lynch, I get to bring my whole self into the workplace and that provides a tremendous sense of security. That is the hallmark of good company and a good leader will encourage balance and wholeness throughout their team.


I wake up every morning and enjoy what I do. As a leader, I am consistent, responsible, and an achiever.  I seek results daily.  Recent studies have shown that when women are in leadership roles, things happen very differently.  We stop, listen, and pay attention.  We are thinking about your kids, and how things are going for you at home.  We think about the total person and I have benefitted from that type of thinking.  Those qualities are welcomed and sought after in my workplace so the focus is on the strengths that leaders bring individually and ones that ultimately benefit us collectively as a team.


Mentorship is a core component of leadership.  I speak with my mentors often.  Merrill Lynch values mentorship and it undergirds our thinking as we strive to strengthen our community ties.  How can we build trust with members of the community?  How can we educate future generations about the financial services industry?  The answer is found in our ability to teach, to nurture future leaders, to mentor.


As chair of the African American Leadership Team at Merrill Lynch, I see the need for mentors.  I value the wisdom of my colleagues.  The financial services industry needs African American and Latina women.  There is nothing better than taking what I’ve learned in my 17 years at Merrill Lynch and sharing it with kids from the Boys and Girls Club, with mentees from the National Black MBA’s Leader­ship of Tomorrow group, the LA Urban League Youth Professionals, the Southern California Black Professional Group and through our program, Better Money Habits.  Every employee at Merrill Lynch is strongly encouraged to volunteer and give back to the community.  Personally, I want other women of color to know that if I can succeed in the financial services industry, they can as well.  There is no truer statement, “if I can do it, they can certainly do it.” 


Merrill Lynch is one company that is committed to mentoring, and providing resources for emerging women leaders in our local communities and around the world.  I’m happy to be a part of a company that doesn’t just talk about leadership but is progressive in its thinking and in its role as a leader in the financial services industry.


I have learned in my years at Merrill Lynch that people are always paying attention.  When I wake up in the morning, I want to be comfortable with the person that stares back at me in the mirror.  I want to leave a legacy for my children, for other children, for Black children. 


I’m proud that Merrill Lynch seeks out leaders at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  We have an amazing recruiter program where we are looking to identify young talent.  If I have the opportunity to speak with college students, I would tell them that great opportunities await them at Merrill Lynch.  I also tell them to be mindful of social media and their personal branding.  I want young people to be careful about accumulating unnecessary debt.  My advice is to put money aside, and invest in themselves - they don’t need all the ‘stuff’ when they are in college.  It’s more important at a young age to invest in yourself and the ‘stuff’ will come.


Self-care is important as a leader.  I spend time with my family, especially connecting with my 14-year-old daughter.  I am conscious that my behavior needs to be reflective of what I want her to be as a young woman.  I am conscious that I am leading her; I am her mother and a role model.  Women are leaders not only in the workplace but also in the home.


As a leader in the African American community, it is important to me to be involved in the Taste of Soul.  Fortunately for me, Merrill Lynch shares that same sentiment.  The Taste of Soul gives us a tremendous opportunity to connect to the community, with the people we serve.  Our involvement says a lot about who we are as a company.  We cannot impact and change lives without being out in the community, “you absolutely cannot lead from behind a desk.”  I say “we need to lay eyes on one another,” and as my boss says, “people buy people.”


Words About Michelle:


“What I appreciate about Michelle Avan, is the manner in which she demonstrates a healthy balance in her professional and personal life.  She operates from a place of over-all confidence in her expertise as an executive in the financial industry, in her grace, compassion and integrity as a Black woman with intrinsic value to the community at large.”  Barbara A. Perkins, Mentor.


“Working with Michelle is always insightful as she always offers a unique perspective I hadn’t thought about before.  She is always available to partner with me when I need her expertise and I trust her instinct implicitly.”  Sherrie Holland, Director, Market Client Relationship Manager-


Note:  Michelle Avan is one of the honorees at the 10th Anniversary of the We See You Awards sponsored by Sisters at the Well, Sunday, October 25, Skirball Cultural Center.  For information, visit 


For information on Better Money Habits:  visit

Category: Business