One of the things Shawn Kelley, Managing Partner at Northwestern Mutual, says he’s most proud of is the company’s diversity. This year alone, 35 percent of the company’s recruits are from a variety of populations.

Ashlee Bridge and Adrianne Johnson, for instance, are two African-American women who have each made their unique mark in the world of financial planning while making a difference in their communities. Bridge, a Cincinnati native, attended Vanderbilt University on an athletic scholarship.

“As a student athlete at the collegiate level, it’s a whirlwind,” says Bridge, whose basketball team made four NCAA appearances while she was there, including winning an SEC championship. “I loved traveling across the country and around the world. But then you wake up one day, it’s the second semester of your senior year and you have to find a job!”

Following graduation, Bridge, who studied human and organizational development (HOD), began her career at the Cintas Corporation, a company headquartered in Cincinnati. Though she was hired on the spot and was quickly promoted, corporate America was not the right fit for her.

“I had skills and intangible assets that I wasn’t able to exercise in a corporate setting,” says Bridge, who sought a career that was more entrepreneurial in nature.

“I wanted a job where my efforts would directly impact my success.”

She started at Northwestern Mutual in May 2014, right after earning her master’s degree. In her first year, she didn’t feel comfortable in a commission-only role, so she worked for a senior advisor at the company. In August 2015, she ventured out on her own — an experience she describes as “life changing.”

“Having that year to learn this business with training wheels helped me understand how business cycles flow, the products and our platform for investments. I learned how to correspond with clients and how to follow up,” says Bridge. “It conditioned me to have more confidence. Being a financial advisor has been the best, most gratifying feeling I’ve ever achieved from a personal success standpoint.”

Prior to entering the business, Bridge admits, she was motivated by the economic benefits of the job and the fact that she could set her own schedule. It didn’t take long, however, for her to see the transformational impact she could have on the African-American community, and from that point forward, that was the driving force for her success.

“I understood what an opportunity it was to tap into my market and help build financial literacy in my community. That’s been more gratifying than I ever could have imagined,” says Bridge. “It’s so exciting working with young professionals and young diverse clients who have the opportunity not only to change the trajectory of their families but their future families as they build wealth.”

Though Bridge had other job offers, she gravitated toward Northwestern Mutual because she believed in their unique business model, which enables financial planners to influence people’s lives at a much younger age. So many big financial service corporations won’t grant clients access to a financial advisor unless they have access to $250,000 of invest-able assets.

“In such companies, those clients wouldn’t get to talk to us until they’re in their 50s!” says Bridge. “I love the fact that Northwestern Mutual enables me to work with young professionals who are my age. I get to watch them grow and progress in their career and be an asset for them.”

Kelley praises Bridge for building a nationwide practice.

“She has clients all over the place, not just Cincinnati,” says Kelley.

Bridge is also the first black female to meet the five-year advisor milestone.

“Male, female, black, white. It doesn’t matter,” states Bridge. “That’s an accomplishment for anyone to make it to the fifth year in this business.” She did it by not being afraid to call colleagues and contacts who were four times her age.

“Yes, I came in as a younger person, but I’m just as good as anyone who is double my age,” says Bridge. “In fact, you’d probably prefer to work with me because when you’re in retirement, I’ll still be here making sure things are going as planned.”

Moving forward, Bridge aspires to become a certified financial planner — “the Ph.D. of personal finance,” she says. Down the line, she would love to brand Bridge Financial via Northwestern Mutual and hire an all-female staff of financial advisors, many of whom would be African-American.

“That’s a long-term vision of mine,” says Bridge.

Johnson, originally from Akron, Ohio, moved to the area in 2000 to attend the University of Cincinnati. After graduating with a degree in psychology, she entered the field of banking. With 14 years of wealth management experience under her belt, she joined Northwestern Mutual last year because she sought a personal interaction with clients. Something else attracted her, too.

“In my last couple of roles, I was the only woman on the team and the only African-American person in the building,” says Johnson. “I didn’t grow up hearing money stories as a kid at the dinner table, so I have a passion for educating African-Americans and providing them with representation.”

Johnson calls joining Northwestern Mutual the scariest thing she’s ever done. She adds, however, that it’s the best career decision she’s ever made.

“As scary as it was walking away from a 9-to-5 structure, I appreciate having the freedom to impact the world and impact people in my community,” says Johnson. “That’s a win-win for me.”

Johnson likes being that friendly face who helps clients feel comfortable discussing a sometimes- sticky subject.

“Not everyone wants to talk about money, but we give people options that are relatable and doable,” says Johnson. “Being able to build a business around that [motto] was my reason for coming to Northwestern Mutual.”

Johnson provides a step-by-step philosophy of financial planning that anyone with any salary can follow.

“Thanks to my psychology classes, I can navigate any conversation and work with any group of people,” says Johnson, who gathers information in initial client meetings so that she can have a better understanding for how they think. “That helps me know if I need to call them every day to move them to action or let them sit on something for a few days.”

She sets big meetings with her clients every six months and celebrates small milestones along the way. “It’s worth five or 10 minutes of our day to celebrate the things that the client did,” says Johnson. “That gives them the momentum to set the next milestone.”

In the past, Johnson has worked with high earners and those with ample assets or inheritances, but the trend she’s seeing are new business owners, newly married couples and those starting families. “Sometimes in life, we just need a blueprint of where to start,” explains Johnson. “I want to help clients build a solid foundation when it comes to finances and risk protection.”

Prior to joining Northwestern Mutual, Johnson met Bridge at one of the company’s events. The two became fast friends.

“Just having someone who looks like you and took the same jump you took — that’s a big deal,” says Johnson. “I imagine how I feel when I see Ashlee is how my clients feel when they see me.”

The two women push each other, hold each other accountable and celebrate their successes. Kelley maintains that the hardest part of the career is getting started since advisors start with zero clients and work their way up. Bridge and Johnson, however, were not the least bit deterred.

“Adrianne brought in more new clients in her first six months as a single mom, working through this pandemic, than any other advisor during their first six months,” says Kelley. “And Ashlee was named the number one female advisor in the state of Ohio who had less than five years of experience in the field. They both have a massive future with our firm and in our industry.”

For more information on Northwestern Mutual, call 513.366.3600 or visit Cincinnati.nm.com.