Archived: Juan Carlos Morales and Chris Van Buren: Why 2 Top Execs Moved to TIAA-CREF

By Barbara Frankel

Morales, Van Buren

Finding high-level Black or Latino talent is a challenge for many organizations. They can learn a lesson from TIAA-CREF, which recently brought on Juan Carlos Morales,Chief Financial Officer for TIAA-CREF Asset Management, and Chris Van Buren, Senior Managing Director and Chief Risk Officer, TIAA-CREF Asset Management.

Both men were attracted to the organization because of its reputation for ethics and its inclusive client base. TIAA-CREF, No. 36 in The 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, serves 4.8 million individuals and 3.9 million clients in institutional retirement plans and had $564 million in assets under management as of December 2013.

TIAA-CREF, which has a Black President and CEO, Roger Ferguson, has stressed its inclusive culture, which includes mentoring programs for new managers and emerging leaders, and established employee resource groups that contribute to talent development. Diverse slates for senior executives are mandatory, which is particularly relevant because the company uses external recruiters to fill many top slots.

Juan Carlos Morales: Valuing Difference

Juan Carlos grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his father, an accountant, and his mother, a homemaker, raised five children. He was the first of his family to come to the United States, when he earned a merit scholarship to the University of Massachusetts.

“My first day in the United States was in September 1989. I didn’t realize how cold it was!” he recalls. “UMass had an English-immersion program and half of my courses were in Spanish.”

Juan Carlos graduated in 1993 with a degree in accounting and had offers from all the leading accounting firms. He joined PricewaterhouseCoopers, No. 5 in the DiversityInc Top 50, but after nine years he knew he didn’t want to be an accountant.

“I was more interested in strategy,” he says, and so he moved into the banking industry. One of his early assignments was in Mexico City, where he lived with his wife and two young children. “The security risk was high. We had to have armed guards. I didn’t know it would be that invasive, and my wife wanted to move back to Boston with the kids,” he says.

The quickest way back was by moving to BNY Mellon and then State Street Global Advisers, where he had a successful career leading a global finance team. In the spring of 2013, “I raised my hand and said that I needed to do something else. I wanted to work in more of a mission-driven organization.”

He met Rob Leary, the President of TIAA-CREF Asset Management, and realized the organization was a good fit. “The tagline of financial services ‘For the Greater Good’we actually mean it,” Juan Carlos says, citing the organization’s services to doctors, educators and those who really need help.

On his first day, he received on-boarding training as part of the executive management team. “I went to a meeting with the 14 most senior executives and 60 percent were women or people of color. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Chris Van Buren: A Role Model

Chris also was impressed with the organization’s reputation for inclusivity and diversity. “When I saw that TIAA-CREF was looking for someone that had my skill set, I realized this was an opportunity I had to explore,” he says.

His wife, who is a teacher, had had a TIAA-CREF account for a long time. “The audience for whom TIAA-CREF provides was a huge factor in my decision to come,” he says.

Chris grew up outside of St. Louis, where his father, now retired, was a government computer programmer and his mother is a psychologist. He attended Princeton and chose engineering as a career.

“From an early age, I had this need to take things apart and figure out how they worked,” he recalls, noting that it didn’t always work out so welllike the time he damaged the electrical system in his mother’s car trying to figure out how the radio worked.

He spent his early career as an electrical engineer and a computer programmer, but by the early 1990s he was looking for a new challenge. “I didn’t know much about the financial industry but did know that there were areas in problematic analysis, rooted in engineering,” he says. After working in fixed-income researching, he was given the opportunity to move into asset management and ultimately relocated to London.

What he noted in his career in financial services was the scarcity of Black role models. “I have tried to provide the younger people I see with a network to ensure that the organizations I worked for would embrace them and embrace diversity,” he says.

Having just started at TIAA-CREF, Chris is eager to continue to mentor others. “If you are visible and welcoming, people will come to you,” he says.

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