Q&A: Angela Miller-May, Chief Investment Officer, Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund

By Carol Jeppesen, Head of US, PRI and Shaska Chirinos, Relationship Manager, US, PRI

In our second interview of this series, we had the privilege of speaking with Angela Miller-May, Chief Investment Officer for the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund (CTPF).

Miller-May manages the CTPF’s $11 billion investment portfolio, supporting the retirements of a diverse group of over 88,000 active and retired Chicago teachers.

Born in the south Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, Miller-May was raised by her mother and grandmother and was a first-generation college graduate at the prestigious Northwestern University.

As a leading investor voice on diversity, equity and inclusion, in June 2019, Miller-May was one of the only CIOs and CEOs invited to testify before the US House Committee on Financial Services Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion. Here, she explored the challenges minority and women-owned firms face in trying to compete in the asset management industry and discussed legislation to increase the use of diverse asset managers by institutional investors. Under Miller-May’s leadership, CTPF has increased its investment of assets with minorities, women and persons with disabilities-owned managers to 46% of its overall portfolio.

Over the course of her career, Miller May has been the recipient of countless honors and awards for her outstanding leadership and investment acumen, including being selected as one of Crain’s most notable women in Finance for 2019 and 2020 Trailblazer of the Year from the Women Investment Professionals Organization.

Carol Jeppesen and Shaska Chirinos (CJ and SC): Angela, thank you so much for being with us, it’s an honor to get your perspectives on some of the most pressing issues around diversity and inclusion within the financial sector today. Finance has proven to be one of the toughest career paths for women to reach senior investment roles, and even more challenging for women of color. Yet you have made it to the top of your profession as the Chief Investment Officer of one of the country’s largest public pension funds. What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced professionally and how have you overcome them to get to where you are today?

Angela Miller-May (AM): I feel as though my biggest challenge from the beginning was the lack of a structural approach to gaining the knowledge that I needed to follow a CIO career path. My development was merely out of sheer determination, willingness to learn and the need for someone to step up and lead the investments department at CTPF. While I was equipped with the education and the management experience, what I lacked was a sponsor or a mentor in that role to pave the way to a leadership role for me.

If we travel back in time to 2015, I had been leading the small investment team for nearly 10 months with no Executive Director or CIO in place. It was not until Chuck Burbridge [CTPF Executive Director] was hired that I felt I had a leader, a mentor or even someone to listen to my lofty goals and ambitions. I was provided with the opportunity to take on the role of Director of Investments and it was a role in which I thrived. I guess this would have been the formative years where I learned to marry strategy and investments and to match talent to task as I built an investment team.

As I gained more knowledge and understanding of the portfolio and the role of CIO, I realized that I had been performing the job long before I received the title. I realized the only obstacles in my way were the ones that others and myself had constructed.

I think that myself and others failed to recognize the knowledge that I had acquired in such a short span of time and the work ethic that I possessed in addition to the value that I brought to the table. The table where I deserved a seat. It was not until I had the courage to speak up for myself and be an advocate for myself that things began to change. The courage to ask for what I wanted and to operate outside of a box that I had built for myself was key. The courage to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and the humility to manage others and acknowledge their talents and value was critical. That is when things really began to fall in place for me.

The other obstacle standing in my way was a consistent pursuit of perfection. I’m not sure if it was with time or experience that I was able to give up that pursuit. There is no way that everything can be done with perfection in an inherently risky industry like investments.

There are only strategies, policies, processes, methodologies, theories and being disciplined with all of them that provide surety when everything else is outside of your control.

And with all of the limitations and restraints that an underfunded fund requires, it is about being creative and courageously assertive while simultaneously being cautious and thoughtful about the investments you select. This was something that I had to learn and with every sound decision, I gained more and more confidence in my abilities as CIO.

The world of investment and finance encompasses so many challenges for women, especially minority women – from exposure to opportunity, recruitment, development, promotion and retention. As an African American woman, in my opinion, there is an inherent feeling that you have to constantly prove yourself to the world and that you have to work harder than your counterparts for the opportunity to be treated fairly or equitably.

I am certainly happy in my own skin, but it can get exhausting carrying around all of this armour. It makes some people weary and some stronger. Fortunately for me and for CTPF, it has made me stronger.

My response to the challenges has been to continue to learn, strive to be my best self, build relationships and partnerships, help other women and minorities achieve their goals and invest in my knowledge as an investment professional.

CJ and SC: Over the past few months, deeply-rooted social issues such as systemic racism, economic inequality and disparities in access to healthcare have come into much greater focus for many of our PRI investor signatories as material ESG risks that impact business and investment outcomes. What role do you think large institutional investors like CTPF can and should play in addressing these challenges?

AM: I believe that everyone has a role to play, whether it’s a public pension plan, corporate pension plan, endowment or foundation. As an institutional investor or allocator, I think that CTPF should continue to do what it has done over the last 30 years – and that is to encourage diversity and inclusion; and continue to select and contribute to the growth of talented and diverse managers that invest in diverse businesses operating in underrepresented communities. We should also carry on increasing the pressure on majority-owned managers to recruit, hire, retain and promote more diverse candidates; encourage increased diversity on boards; and to hire and utilize diverse CTPF teams to manage and grow assets for its 88,000 members.

Apart from this, CTPF has begun to collaborate with more institutional investors in assisting and advising on how to create diversity policies and programs. I think this will be a way to not only enhance our own efforts but help others too.

CJ and SC: You are responsible for the retirements of over 88,000 Chicago teachers. There is a lot riding on your shoulders, particularly in times like these. You have long been a leading proponent for investing with diverse managers but what is the business case for this and how is it good for investment returns? How does it support your fiduciary obligations to your beneficiaries?

AM: It is important as an investor and a fiduciary to invest in the best outperforming strategies that we can identify and I see diversity as one of those many strategies. Diversity has to be a part of what we do, our core values and culture.

It is because of my fiduciary obligation to CTPF’s beneficiaries that I am a proponent for investing with diverse managers. There are numerous studies and research that have proven that diversity improves returns and leads to better outcomes.

CTPF has outperformed its actuarial rate with a long-term 35-year return of 8.42% and a 25-year return of 7.85% and CTPF’s minority and women owned management firms have contributed to those returns.

The business case and the performance are driven by how we utilize diverse managers in the portfolio. It’s all about asset allocation, portfolio construction, manager selection and managers executing strategies and outperforming their benchmarks.

Diverse managers work to diversify the portfolio and complement larger mainstream managers. With their unique size and solutions, they can provide CTPF with exposure across middle to lower markets and identify growth opportunities they can take advantage of in a less competitive space. Many provide defensive strategies that were our saving grace in the 1st quarter of 2020. It is about differentiated thought and one way to get there is through increased diversity. Acknowledging, respecting and taking advantage of diverse thoughts, life experiences, backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities, age and gender makes for better investment decisions.

Fiduciary duty and diversity are aligned concepts. We strive for diversification in our portfolio especially with the current market environment of uncertainty and volatility.

Diversification usually refers to asset classes, but when you think about investing as a risk-taking exercise, diversification is a powerful tool that an investor can use to protect against making mistakes in any one area. We cannot afford to tactically take bets in any one direction. Our best bet is to maintain portfolio diversification and diverse managers contribute to that goal.

CJ and SC: It is estimated that less than 1% (or $700 billion) of the $70 trillion in professionally managed assets are managed by minority and women owned (MWO) asset managers. If investing with diverse managers is good for returns, then why is this number so low? What are some of the most challenging obstacles that MWO managers face when competing for mandates with institutional investors like public pension funds? Are there challenges that are perhaps less obvious and more insidious?

AM: In my opinion, there is an unconscious bias that is prevalent. There is an unwillingness to focus on the benefits of investing with diverse managers or hiring diverse candidates and rather focusing more on the perceived risks.

The perception of risks mixed with the market environment and increased volatility has served as a hinderance. The pandemic and the rising trend of reups is also becoming an obstacle for emerging diverse managers. When, in fact, the current market environment and the pandemic is more of a reason to invest with diverse managers.

The nimbleness and unique solutions that diverse managers offer lend themselves to repositioning in an advantageous way in times of market stress. They act as natural diversifiers in a portfolio and yet investors are hesitant to carve out mandates for these managers to complement those large mainstream managers in their portfolio.

Obstacles include the trend of investors increasing their passive mandates or even bringing more investments in-house for expense reasons, among others.

Challenges also include investor requirements to have larger assets under management and longer track records, which act as barriers to entry and eliminate emerging diverse managers from participating in searches or winning mandates.

It is also the thought of compromising returns and skirting fiduciary duties that make market participants pause when it comes to investing with diverse managers.

The reality is that they are held to a longer and more stringent measuring stick than mainstream managers, and historically, minorities and women cannot be “just as good as” to obtain equal opportunities. They have to be “better and almost perfect and still hope for a chance”. I think that we need to recognize the inequity in this, challenge it and intentionally create those needed chances.

If the decision to increase diversity comes from the top, then boards have to be more diverse and they have to hire more diverse leaders.

Majority-owned managers must increase the hiring of diverse candidates, allowing them the opportunity to gain a track record of sourcing deals and executing strong exits – creating a pipeline to building a larger universe of diverse managers.

The asset investment industry is reactive and needs to be proactive and intentional in creating a progressive and systematic solution for more equitable access to capital.

There are many reasons for the inequities, but there are also many solutions.

The investors that intentionally explore these solutions and address the unconscious bias in their organizations, governance structure, policies, leadership and manager selection will be the ones experiencing long-term outperformance and sustainable investments.

CJ and SC: Whether looking at it from a health or economic perspective, the burden from the ongoing pandemic has fallen disproportionately on black Americans and other people of color. How has the pandemic impacted the already challenging fundraising environment for diverse managers?

AM: I touched on this before, but the number of reups has increased during this time, challenging less known and new diverse managers that have not had the opportunity to establish relationships with investors.

It has extended the due diligence period, but many of my colleagues have said they are open to investing with managers they have not met in person. Investors are relying on their consultants and more referrals than they would normally and are more cautious to invest.

So, the pandemic has made it more difficult, but not impossible. What has helped is the amount of opportunities resulting from the dislocation created by the pandemic. Managers with strategies that take advantage of sectors thriving in this market environment have an edge, as investors are searching for increased alpha when return assumptions have been lowered.

I think if diverse managers continue to manage intriguing strategies and work toward deepening existing and fostering new relationships, then it can only be a positive when we move through this pandemic.

CJ and SC: How important is public policy and legislation in increasing the use of diverse asset managers by institutional investors?

AM: Public policy and legislation are very important to supporting, encouraging and accelerating the utilization of diverse asset managers.

Support and buy-in from the top, setting intentional diversity policies and goals and regularly measuring progress is the first step to changing an organization’s culture and direction. The implementation of policy is critical to the cultural transformation of an organization.

The next step is holding people accountable for adhering to those approved policies. It has definitely been effective in the State of Illinois and it certainly helps that there is also diversity in the legislature. 

The final step is ownership. If diversity is linked to performance expectations and performance appraisals, it becomes part of your job, just as the mission of the organization is part of your job.

CJ and SC: Taking a look within, what does equity, diversity and inclusion look like at CTPF? How are you walking the walk?

AM: CTPF is a leader in encouraging diversity nationwide. Diversity is one of our core values.

CTPF provides retirement benefits for a diverse population of approximately 88,000 active, inactive and retired members.

Since the early 1990s, CTPF has led pension and retirement systems throughout the United States in ensuring that investment firms owned by minorities, women and persons with disabilities have access to opportunities to conduct business with CTPF. In addition, we continue to encourage diversity and equality among our employees, vendors and investment professionals.

Our approach to investing with diverse managers has evolved over the last 30 years. Per the Illinois Pension Code, we have a 20% target of investing with minority, women and persons with disabilities (MWDBE) managers.

As of June 2020, we have far exceeded this target by investing 46% – or $4.9 billion of assets – with diverse managers through adhering to our diversity policy and strategies, as well as our MWDBE Brokerage Utilization Policy.

To have diverse thought, experience and background is not only possible but is what is needed to meet the challenges of today’s markets.

Our philosophy on diversity and inclusion centers on a few beliefs that we think are important for success, such as:

  • Diversity and inclusion yield positive outcomes and those who support it will benefit.
  • Every stakeholder has a role to play in advancing diversity and inclusion. We are all responsible for our behavior, practices, and policies. If you want to be inclusive, you can be.
  • It is a part of your fiduciary duty to invest the fund’s assets in a prudent manner. Investing with diverse asset managers that demonstrate outperformance and deliver strong returns is more than prudent.
  • Diverse managers perform competitively when compared to non-diverse managers. They are a key source of diversification as they complement large managers seeking larger assets and deals.
  • Having diverse managers in your portfolio brings diverse thoughts, improved decision making and solutions in a current market environment that is challenged.
  • With an actuarial rate of return of 6.75%, CTPF maintains long-term outperformance of policy benchmarks, with an 8.42% gross return for the 35-year period and 7.85% gross return for the 25-year period. CTPF’s diverse managers have been a positive contributor to this long-term performance.
  • As a prudent investor, it does not make sense to not take advantage of the unique opportunity that investing with diverse managers presents.
  • CTPF recognizes that knowledge, exposure and understanding of diversity is the cornerstone of who we are as an organization.

In addition to this:

  • Our Board of Trustees is diverse.
  • Seven of our eight senior leaders are women – four are African American and one is Asian American.
  • CTPF’s staff is a mosaic of different ethnic groups, genders and ages. This aligns with our diverse members who represent the city of Chicago. 

CJ and SC: You have credited your mother for inspiring your tremendous work ethic and your grandmother for your drive to succeed. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of role models and particularly their importance for women of color aspiring to leadership roles?

AM: It is critical that we have role models or women of color in leadership positions to show what can be and to encourage other women of color through mentoring, sponsorship and the provision of opportunities for the next generation of minority women.

I was lucky and blessed to have such driven women in my life that loved me enough to want more for me than I could have imagined. It is now our responsibility to help others and work to pave the way for more opportunities for women and to eliminate the barriers that prevent the advancement of minorities or women.

I often say expand your network from both sides…the people that you seek help from and the people that you provide help to.

CJ and SC: Investment is about looking towards the future. So, looking beyond the current social, economic and political uncertainties, what makes you optimistic? Do you expect that the pandemic and other recent events will compel institutional investors in the US to become more socially responsible in their approaches?

AM: I am very optimistic about the future. I have to be. I am a glass half full, never stop trying until the referee blows the whistle and the clock is at zero, type of person.

I am blessed to work for a fund whose long-term thinking aligns with mine. One day in the future, we will look back not only on the pandemic, but also on the civil unrest. This is a moment in time when our actions, whether good or bad, will reflect who we are as a society and as investors.

Change is not easy and often uncomfortable, but it is inevitable. With the momentum that the US currently has and its new-found awakening, I think that institutional investors will become more socially responsible in their approaches. I think they have seen a glimpse of how ugly it can get if the inequality and inequity for minorities continue to be ignored. We have witnessed a pandemic that has changed life as we knew it, unrelenting fires on the West Coast, a marathon of hurricanes in the south and destructive tornadoes in the Midwest. Climate change is real and if you doubt it, it is 73°F [23°C]in Chicago in November.

These are the things that we must resolve for ourselves and future generations.

The economy will otherwise continue to move through cycles of growth, stagnancy and recovery. It is critical that we are aware of where we are in that cycle.

US politics will remain a reflection of the sentiments of its citizens. The exercising of rights and participation in the election, whether they voted Democratic or Republican, was impressive and hopeful. It was a vote for democracy.

We must expend the same kind of energy we did on the election to make our industries – whether it be the finance, investment, medical or legal industries – more inclusive, diverse and socially responsible. The idea of contributing to this makes me optimistic.

CJ and SC: You’ve undoubtedly made many very real contributions in pushing the bar higher for institutional investors on diversity and inclusion and your outstanding investing track record speaks for itself. When you look back on your career 20 years from now what do you want your legacy to be, what do you want to be most known for?

AM: That’s simple, I want to be known for just that…my contributions to increasing diversity in this investment industry and my outstanding investing track record. I want to leave CTPF better off than when I first arrived at the fund by selecting great managers that will sustain the returns of Chicago teachers long after I’ve handed over the torch to the next CIO.

I want my legacy to be the leaders that I developed and the people that I mentored and helped. I want to be remembered for my challenges and how I overcame them and learned from them and how I always tried to do the right thing.

I want people to remember me as a great, authentic and compassionate leader. Great leaders come from great leaders.

This Q&A was conducted by PRI staff members and guest contributors. Our goal is to contribute to the broader debate around topical issues and to help showcase some of our research and other work that we undertake in support of our signatories.

Please note that although you can expect to find some posts here that broadly accord with the PRI’s official views, the Q&A participants write in their individual capacity and there is no “house view”. Nor do the views and opinions expressed in this Q&A constitute financial or other professional advice.