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Portland investor and TEDx speaker shares vision for restoring city, hope

Rukaiyah Adams, the chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, is set to speak at TEDxPortland on Saturday, May 28. She's a seventh generation Portlander.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Rukaiyah Adams, the chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, is set to speak at TEDxPortland on Saturday, May 28. TEDxPortland returns for its tenth anniversary after a pandemic pause.

Adams is a seventh generation Portlander. She has watched the city change, but despite its issues, she sees reason to hope.

She spoke with KGW Sunrise anchor Brenda Braxton about her vision on remaking Portland and restoring hope. 

On TEDxPortland

Adams' TEDx talk is a combination call-to-action and love letter to Portland.

As the chief investment officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, Adams helps grow a $1 billion endowment, left by retail magnate Fred G. Meyer, to fund everything from education to the environment. 

"My job is very simple," Adams said. "I make money from money for everyday people. So, I think of myself as Robin Hood."

Adams has a law degree and an MBA from Stanford University and she's worked for the biggest firms on Wall Street, but her roots are in Portland. Her family has been in the Rose City for seven generations, and that informs who she is and how she invests. 

"I bring to it the feeling of being a girl growing up in public housing in Northeast Portland, right? I bring to that experience an awareness of how women are underpaid, so the women on my team are not underpaid. I bring with it a sense of urgency, so I don't just invest for the long-term future and harvest wealth for myself or our institutions," she said.

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Portland's future

Adams is optimistic about Portland's possibilities, even as the city faces a crisis of crime and homelessness. 

She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous line: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Adams said she saw that play out in Portland in 2020 during protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.

"Watching people cross the Burnside Bridge and lie on the ground for the same period of time that it took George Floyd to die under the knee of a police officer, that was the city of Portland grabbing that arc and bending it our way. As a Black Portlander I felt it deeply," she said.

When she's out and about in the Rose City, Adams said she's pondering several things. She's reminded of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement that began in Zuccotti Park, in New York City's Wall Street financial district. At the time, she ran the investment practice at The Standard and walked through the Occupy encampments in the morning on her way to work. Adams said she often listened to what the protesters would say.

"At the time, I was open to their point of view," she said. "Now, none of them knew I was operating a $6 billion dollar investment fund, but I was sitting there thinking deeply about the role that investors play in generating unaffordable housing, in creating cities that extract wealth from people and diminish community good. I was thinking deeply about that and that took me three or four years to reflect their activism in our portfolio."

Adams said that experience and the social justice protests of 2020 caused her to think about how Black Lives Matter or Me Too might be reflected in her portfolio.

"Do we commit anti-Asian bias or violence with money? And so, it's taken me a while to think about how we can move from listening to activists to action, and how we allocate capital to drive more equity," she said.

Adams continued, "I also think people see the disorder in the city and the protests as destroying property and disrupting our lives — and they certainly did on the outside — but we haven't had enough time to express the deep fortitude and renewed commitment we have to this place as a result of it."

She said that commitment could include more affordable housing, removing freeways that have torn apart communities of color, renaming streets and rehabilitating rivers.

Adams said great cities aren't made, they're re-made by each new generation.  

"I think what we are coming to see as Portlanders is that we must remake this beautiful city. We've inherited a bit of structure, but we have to bring it to life with how we love each other," she said.

 As Adams steps on to the TEDxstage, she'll be holding two competing truths: She sees Portland as it is, but loves it anyway and she's challenging people to the same.

"I would like Portlanders to stop and look around at the many ways that strangers are expressing tenderness to each other, because there's so much pain that we see," she said. "There's so much anger at failure or inaction. There's rage at the way some people in the community are treated. All those emotions are on the surface. What I think we need to see more of is the tenderness and love expressed around us."

Watch: Extended interview with Rukaiyah Adams

Editor's Note: Below is a Q&A transcript with more of her interview. RA signals Rukaiyah Adams' responses, BB signals Brenda Braxton's questions. 

Being a Black woman in high finance

RA: "The intersection of being both a woman and of color have presented different challenges at different times in my life. I think the 'of color' part was a big challenge getting into the industry and starting to move up. I have found that as you move into the executive suite, the color piece kind of fades off a little bit and gender roles start to rise as being a bit more of a challenge. I have found, once you make it to the C [chief] suite, and you're smart and you're in the right place, some of those traditional barriers fall. I would say I've learned to be in places that are highly competitive. They just don't have time to discriminate.  As there's dynamism, then equality is kind of forced because of the competitive nature of it. It's really kind of the placid, slow, sleepy institutions that are the biggest challenges. Some say government would be in that category or whole sections of finance and insurance might be in that category, but I have found that for ambitious women of color at that intersection, if you're in the right environment some of the barriers you think might be disadvantages are actually advantages." 

RA: For me in finance, for example, being Black and female meant that I got more information than other people so, being an 'information node' when you're in an industry that has to make quick decisions, having more information is really valuable. What's perceived as a social disadvantage in a high stress, high pressure environment, actually is an advantage. I've just learned to work with my advantages and lean into the ways that people communicate with women differently. They share more information. I lean into the fact that sometimes people are intimidated by me because that sweeps away a lot of nonsense out of my life.

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Code switching 

RA: I'm at the point now where people have to 'code switch' to me because they know I have the information. That has happened just because I think of positional power and some technical skill and maybe luck that I'm coming of age at this time when people are more open to it. And I have more Black women in the public sphere with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson being promoted to the Supreme Court and having a Black woman vice president. I feel like at this moment, there's a little crack in the façade and I'm going to kick it down and just walk through it.

RA: Sometimes [code switching is] clumsy. In meetings people will say things like, 'Oh, hey girl!' I'm like, 'Hey,  that's not the switch that I want.' Or [they'll say] 'Hey sis,' in language that is too informal. Or urban slang is used with me. Or in the case of people really trying to impress me, they'll bring food that they know would comfort me, right? A sweet potato pie or other soul food-related treats. That stuff happens when you control the capital and other people have to petition you for investment. There's a switch to the person who has the power to allocate capital. Some of it is where we meet, right? I had someone suggest that we meet at a new coffee shop in Northeast Portland that's owned by a Black woman, and they were signaling to me that they were thoughtful about where we'd meet and where they thought I'd feel comfortable. Now, those people don't know I'm a member of the Arlington Club, too, so we can meet there. But I do appreciate the privilege of having people feel the need to switch to me, or at least be thoughtful about the words that they use and the places that we gather and the food that we eat. I feel it. There's a lot of switching. It feels to me like it's an expression of respect and when someone crosses a boundary, I just let them know that you shouldn't call me 'sis.' Or no, I will not 'marinate' on that idea. We'll think about it and talk about it later. But I do appreciate when people are trying to show respect.

Politics

RA: What people call politics, I would say public capital versus private capital. At some point, I hope that the ideas I express in pools of private capital, I will have the opportunity to express in pools of public capital because there's a whole other scale, right? You can impact so many more people, but I still feel like I'm learning the craft of capital allocating and doing it in $100 billion pools instead of $1 trillion pools. There's still time for me to learn. I need to mature a bit before stepping up into larger pools.

BB: Mature in what way?

RA: Listen. Sometimes I'm thinking, 'If you don't get out of my face right now-.' Or I'm learning to manage my response and behavior in ways that will be suitable for the public theater, and I think that takes time.

BB: We don't see the fiery side of you in the public sphere, do we?

RA: No. I have learned to be very careful with that because the one downside of being at the intersection of Black and female is that sometimes anger and rage or even sadness is misconstrued. So, when I express emotion, I narrate what I'm feeling. I've just learned to be very careful with really showing what's happening because people receive how you feel or behave with their own biases and their own preconceived notions. So, in meetings I've learned if I express frustration, I don't just bang the table and expect people to deduce frustration from that. I have to say, 'I'm frustrated with this and these are the reasons why' instead of giving people space to misinterpret my emotions. Anyway, rarely do I just let it rip. And if I do, 'Danger, danger," Adams said laughing.

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