Barbara Roper ’77 was getting ready to retire last year when Gary Gensler, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, asked her to serve as one of his senior advisers. “When he reached out to me, I was not only surprised, but I was kind of ungracious,” Roper laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh God, no. Why would I want to do that?’”
In 35 years of working at the Consumer Federation of America, most recently as director of investor protection, she says, she had never entertained the idea of working at the SEC. Roper came around, though, and decided she wanted to work with Gensler again after enjoying the work she did with him on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Dodd-Frank Act while she was at the CFA.
Her responsibilities now include advising Gensler on issues related to retail investor protection — particularly those involving the standards that apply when brokers and investment advisers provide advice and recommendations to retail investors. Her generalist portfolio includes a wide range of other “eclectic issues,” about which she gives the chair her views. “I’m really glad I took the opportunity,” she says. “It’s been a terrific experience.”
Roper is aware that readers of this article might be surprised to see her name associated with this position. “No one who knew me at Princeton would expect me to be in this job,” she says. As an art history major, Roper didn’t graduate with a background in public policy or economics. She assumed her career would mirror the museum project she conducted for her thesis, but since she ended up not loving that work, she came up with a plan B after graduation: journalism.
She worked for the Colorado Springs Sun and the Colorado College alumni magazine before moving to Washington, D.C., for her husband’s work and finding a job editing newsletters for the CFA. The CFA’s executive director at the time saw Roper’s potential and committed to helping her grow and take on larger responsibilities.
The beginning of Roper’s career at the CFA coincided with the early stages of what she calls “the democratization of the markets,” when the markets were starting to see retail investor participation grow rapidly, from about 12-15 percent of investors at the start of the 1980s to about 50 percent by the 1990s. “So I sort of came in early on that wave and saw that evolution, and I just sort of stepped into a void,” Roper says. She wrote a report on abuses in the financial planning profession and quickly became the “consumer movements investor protection person.”
“There was no one else doing what I was doing,” she says.
She has since spent her career standing up for the underdog — the average investors who “go to financial professionals and expect that they’re going to act in their best interest,” Roper says, noting that that expectation has not been standard for many years. During the current market fluctuations, she says, her focus continues to be on protecting investors from the things that aren’t part of the normal riskiness of markets, such as being exploited by financial advisers.
While she’s a self-proclaimed policy wonk, Roper also strives to make an impact on people’s well-being. “You don’t have to spend very much time hearing the stories of how devastating it is to people when they’re taken advantage of, when they lose their money, to start to see the human side of these issues. I do care about that.”