‘Teaching Financial Literacy Is Key to Creating Equity’

financialAs a finance expert, Reshma Patel, a candidate for the post of NYC comptroller, is a rarity in the South Asian women’s community, which has very few women in high-level financial power positions and has the world’s largest gender gap in finance, according to the International Finance Group of the World Bank.

With almost 20 years of experience, 8 of which were as financial advisor to the NYC comptroller’s office, Patel has structured over $40 billion of bond issues and also has professional experience in data analytics and economic development. Currently, Patel serves as vice-chair of the Manhattan Community Board 6 budget committee and serves as president of the Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club. Patel has served as board co-chair of Chhaya Community Development Corporation in Queens, advocating for immigrant communities, and now serves on the board of Dance/NYC, helping create a more diverse dance ecosystem in New York. She is a volunteer with Sakhi, which supports survivors of domestic violence, among other things, by creating a scholarship program them.

Patel believes democracy only works if everyone participates and civics and financial education are key components to creating equity. She promotes civic engagement as a volunteer with the League of Women Voters NYC. She also volunteers to teach financial literacy. Patel is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is vice president of programming for the MIT South Asian Alumni Association.

SEEMA sat down with Patel to talk to her about her work and life and her passion for civic engagement.

Tell us about your childhood. What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Gujarat, India, and I came here as a child with my parents. I grew up in Massachusetts, outside of Boston. I have one younger sister. My grandparents also immigrated here, so we have a very large family.

We always talked about current events, and politics, and it led to this longer-term interest that I have today.

What kind of family values were important in you? 

Well, I learned that we take care of everybody who needs help. And that was a very important value that my parents taught me because, like with a lot of immigrant families, we had people coming [from India] and staying with us for extended periods of time. Often we would help them come to this country and get a job and, until they could get a foothold, stay with us. I learned that you take care of people who need help. And we always gave back to the community. Even when I was a student, I volunteered at the local homeless shelter in our town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Whenever we would have extra food, we would donate to that shelter. And so I was taught from a very early age that you should be involved in the community, and helping people in your community.

Was there a particular moment in your childhood that was a turning point for you?

I lived in Massachusetts until I was 21. I had gone through all my K to 12 education, as well as my college education. My turning point was, when I was eight, my parents became U.S. citizens. During that time I helped my mother study for her exam for her citizenship. That really got me interested in the U.S. government. I went to vote with my parents in the first election they could vote, and every other election after that. That led me on a path of really believing in civic engagement and the importance of voting.

You ended up going to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tell me about your journey to MIT.

As Indian immigrant children, we are always pushed into math and sciences. My father is a chemical engineer. So it was important to have that base. I chose to go to MIT and ended up majoring, though, in economics and political science, which is very different for MIT. It is a small program, but a good program. Almost every professor I had has won a Nobel Prize. It’s hard to choose one person who influenced me. But I had one advisor, and he was also my house master in the dorm that I lived in, Professor Charles Stewart. He is one of the foremost experts on electoral politics in the US in terms of kind of approaching it from a mathematical point of view. Looking at the data, which is what MIT does, he has led the way for that. He was a huge influence in my studies, as well as my later life.

Is there a standout moment from your days from MIT, that you remember very fondly?

I had been involved in the South Asian Students Association. That led to many different friendships, both within MIT as well as at a lot of the other schools in the Boston area. That is definitely one of my best memories: organizing cultural programs, organizing garbas, and Diwali parties. I also was class president of MIT, and I got to speak at my college graduation, which was my first foray into public speaking. That was a really memorable experience as well. We discovered Cambridge and began to give back to the creative community by volunteering at neighborhood schools. We worked on political campaigns and tried to influence the future of our country. But as we bid farewell, we use the spirit of giving, which has been fostered amongst us at MIT. At MIT, we have made friends from different religions, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, you will be able to find one of our classmates anywhere in the world. The appreciation for diversity that many of us have learned here will help us teach in an ever more intolerant world, tolerance. So I asked, take all that you’ve learned and go out there in the world, in your communities and make a difference. Thank you.

For people who don’t know, can you explain what a comptroller does? And how does your expertise in financial data analytics and economic development help in that role?

Well, the most commonly asked question I get is what is a comptroller? Very few people know and very few New York City voters know. That’s the number one issue for me. The comptroller is like the CFO of New York City – the chief auditor and the person who’s supposed to hold our city government accountable and has oversight over all the city agencies. We have a checks and balances system city – similar to our federal government – where you have the mayor’s office and the city council, and you have the controller. And the controller is one of three citywide offices in New York.

The controller manages the city’s pension fund for its retirees – that’s $250 billion – as well as the city’s capital program – which is $118 billion over the next 10 years. All infrastructure in this country is really financed through the issuance of debt, which a lot of people don’t realize. Its similar to when we go and borrow money to buy a house or buy a car. City and state governments are borrowing money from the public markets to finance the building of bridges, schools, roads. That’s what a lot of my primary work experience has been. That’s a big role of the comptroller’s office.

Another big role of the comptroller’s office is processing all the city contracts, and then auditing all 55 of these agencies, which I’ve done a lot of that kind of work in my data analytic side of my work experience, where you’re trying to collect data and making sure that a program is really giving its public value. I want to bring that to the evaluation of our city agencies. Despite being the richest city in the world, despite our city budget being so large, we haven’t been able to take care of all New Yorkers, people should not be struggling to stay in their homes. We should not have people waiting in long food lines. We need more accountability from our city government.

I want to be New York City’s next comptroller because I want to make sure that as we rebuild, we have a city government that is more nimble, more innovative and more inclusive. The rent burden is just too high for a lot of people. We need better logistics management so that resources are spread evenly, so that we are better prepared for the next crisis. We’re checking on seniors. In the community, we need to innovate to create an environment that can sustain small businesses in all our communities.

To truly prosper, we need to create growth that includes every New Yorker, I hope this will be the tipping point for our community. I have been fighting for our city to some of New York’s most difficult times, I created new ways to finance much needed projects, and to generate budgetary savings after 911 and the 2008 financial crisis as a community leader, and a volunteer with nonprofit service providers, I have been an advocate for everyday New Yorkers. We need to make sure that every one of our community members gets counted so that we have access to affordable housing, integration services, language access, and much more. Now, I want to help lead New York City to our next big recovery.

Stewarding the city’s finances is a big job. Good luck to you. You’ve also served as a board co chair of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation in Queens, advocating for immigrant communities. Why was that important to you?

It was important because there are a lot of other immigrant groups in NYC. When immigrants came from Europe to New York City – when they came from Eastern Europe, specifically, in the early 1900s – there were these organizations called settlement houses. One of the very famous ones received a settlement on the Lower East Side, which was there to provide support for these immigrants when they came to help them find housing, to help them get education, to find jobs, to really create this environment where they can get a foothold in the United States. A lot of these organizations exist for other communities, but not a single one has existed for the South Asian community.

We have this image of our community being very well educated and wealthy. But there are a lot of people who come here without the same skill sets and resources. They were often abused by landlords who would charge them rent, but [not provide] hot water or other services. They needed someone to advocate for them. Chhaya CDC started off as an organization helping with tenants rights, but we expanded to helping people with immigration rights, and people who needed help with ESL. We help with tax prep, with financial literacy, and many other things – helping people buy their first homes, as well as stay in their homes. Because in times like this – what we’ve seen in the last year- some people aren’t able to stay in their homes. They’ve lost their jobs, and they can’t pay their utility bills. We’re working with them to avoid foreclosure. I thought that was really important to help our communities.

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Helping communities seems to be part of your DNA. Similarly, you’ve also worked in supporting survivors of domestic violence.

My whole career working in finance, and in banking, as well as a financial advisor to city and state governments, I always felt I needed to do something outside. One of the first things I did when I moved to New York City is volunteering for Sakhi, an organization that supports women who are victims of domestic violence. That led to my teaching English classes for that community – as well as computer literacy classes. Then I decided that a lot of these women who are coming out of these bad situations, in order for them to get a foothold outside of that relationship, they needed to have some kind of skill set. And so I worked to help set up a scholarship fund in the memory of a friend who actually passed away on 911, who was a fellow volunteer. It’s giving people the resources so that they can build a life on their own.

Wow, that’s admirable. You know, and especially now with Covid, domestic violence has taken a turn for the worse. So it’s great to see that being addressed. In addition you also are a big supporter of the arts – of dance in particular. So talk to me about the connection between dance, finance, mathematics and data analytics.

They are completely different. As an Indian, as a Gujarati, I grew up loving dance. Because garba was always important. Growing up in a time where there weren’t that many other Indians in Massachusetts, that was the thing we celebrated. We always danced, and so dancing was important for me from a young age. I also studied classical Indian dance. I studied ballet as a child. Even now, until I started running for controller, almost every day, I was taking some dance class. So it’s something that I love. And I serve on the Board of Dance/NYC. Arts is one of the reasons why people come to the city, its culture. It’s important.

You believe that democracy only works when everyone participates, and that civics and financial education are key components for creating equity. Talk to me about why they are important and why and how they create equity.

We have two levers of power in this country. Either you have money, or you have your vote. What I have seen in my work, as a volunteer in many communities that are marginalized, is that the poorest communities are also the ones that vote the least. Something that I’ve always done is vote. So whenever I have a problem, I pick up the phone and call my elected official, and I can get that problem solved. But a lot of people don’t know they can do that. They don’t believe they can do that. When we talk about equity, we also need to talk about having people be advocates for themselves, having their voice heard in our democracy and participating in our democracy.

And financial literacy? I had been working in finance for such a long time and certain things that I just understood… very simple basic things, like compound interest, are not taught in our schools. There are a lot of people who don’t understand that. That’s why we have financial crises, like what we had in ‘08 – because people don’t understand that the mortgages that they were taking on, they couldn’t take on that burden. I believe that in certain communities, we also don’t have banking services. People go to cash checks at expensive places where they are charged a fee. They’re never able to build wealth because they don’t have access to certain services. They don’t know where to go for those services. Teaching financial literacy and making people aware of how they can access banking services is a key component to creating equity.

You were talking about financial literacy. I wanted to ask you about that as it relates to women. Women traditionally are not trained or encouraged to manage their finances or learn the complicated aspects of it. What is your advice for women and financial literacy, especially women who want to be more financially literate?

It is a very unfortunate fact. A lot of women who are entering into their senior years are faced with poverty because they either are widowed or divorced, and they haven’t had access to financial literacy and didn’t have control of their own money. So I would encourage women to pay attention to their finances from a very young age and to take control of it. Lots of different organizations are trying to help women, not just with basic financial literacy, but also learning investment, and paying attention to their portfolios. I would encourage them to join groups like that. Elevate is one of them. There are so many different groups that are really focusing on making women more empowered by taking charge of their own finances, and not being afraid to talk about money, because there’s also this taboo about talking about money. I think that women face that more than men do.

That’s very true. Now, about your vision as a New York City comptroller, what do you hope to accomplish?

As you know, New York has been through a lot this past year, with the Covid crisis, you know., New York City being the epicenter. We need to rebuild, and we need to really have a recovery. I think that’s going to be different. A lot of people ask, oh, you know, is New York ever gonna get back to the place it was? I think it will. I think we can do it better, right? Because when we had problems, even before this pandemic. A lot of the people who were impacted, a lot of the pain that we saw, was in people who are already living paycheck to paycheck, and who are now having a hard time surviving. When we have this crisis, they weren’t able to make it through. We need to build back so that we don’t have that situation. We have an ability to take care of all our cities, you know, residents, as well as we have a more efficient city government, because there’s also a lot of waste that happens. And a lot of the different agencies and different parts of city government are siloed. They weren’t talking to each other. And I feel that for the next pandemic, if it happens – or the next crisis. It could be anything. We could have another Superstorm Sandy – we need to have a city government that’s able to react quicker. I hope, as controller, I can make the city more efficient. So we are able to do that.

Talk about how people can get engaged in civics and become more engaged members of society? Any advice for how people can volunteer?

The key is to vote because not enough people vote – so getting out to vote. But it’s more than that, because it is being a citizen advocate for yourself. So join a community group and talk about issues. If you have an issue that impacts your community, speak up and talk to your elected officials and hold them accountable. I serve on my community board, which in New York City encompasses about 100,000 people. It’s like our lowest level of city government. It’s an appointed position. I’m on the budget chair, in a budget committee, and we figure out what our community needs are, and we talk to people in the community and then bring those [discussons] to our elected officials. I encourage everyone to play a role. I think the only way that our country in our democracy gets better if everyone plays a role in it.

What’s next for you? What does the next five years look like? What about 10 years on?

Right now, I’m focused on the next two months, because the election is June 22. I need to get a lot of votes by June 22. We have early voting in New York City as well. I need to fundraise in order to get to June 22. If I win, the general election will be in November. It’s a four-year term. You’re limited to two terms. So then I would need be reelected again. So that’s the next eight years. Who knows what happens after that.

Well, we wish you all the best in your candidacy. Good luck to you.

Thank you, Seema. And it was great speaking with you today. If anyone is interested, my campaign website is reshma2021.com.

My family immigrated from Gujarat, India, when I was a baby. My parents became U.S. citizens when I was eight. I vividly remember the day my father got his newly minted U.S. passport with great pride. He said now my life counts. America takes care of all its people.

This past year, I have thought of these words often as certain people, certain communities have suffered more from this pandemic than others. It would be great if the city could allocate more funds for social services, I painfully realized our government has failed many of us.

In the years ahead, we will need pragmatic leaders who can make our budget stretch for every person in our city, not just entrenched interests. We will need to hear from diverse voices from people who understand the private sector and people who understand our communities to create an equitable recovery, one that will lift up everyone, one where both small businesses and workers flourish for New York to truly prosper. It won’t be easy, but I know we can do it. Take all that you’ve learned and go out there in the world and your communities and make a difference. Thank you. Let’s all rise up. Together.