Angela Miller-May’s Long Road to the CIO Seat


Angela Miller-May (Courtesy photo)

“You get up every morning, you put on your armor and you come in and you do your job, and you try to do the best job ever,” says the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund executive, one of the few African American women CIOs at U.S. public pensions.

In 1968, civil rights activists Earnest and Beatrice Miller became part of what is known as the Great Migration, moving their five children to Chicago from a tiny town in Mississippi, the state that has been called the heart of the civil rights movement. In Shaw, where the Millers had been raising their family, prejudice against the Black population was so institutionalized that the town would later be sued as part of a landmark civil rights case.

“I can stay here and continue to fight this, or we can decide to move up North for better opportunities,” Beatrice would say, determined that her children and grandchildren get the kind of education that had eluded her when she was forced after sixth grade to leave school to work as a sharecropper in the fields of the Mississippi Delta.

Beatrice made good on that promise. Soon after the Millers landed in Chicago, their 18-year daughter, Jeannette, gave birth to their first grandchild, Angela. A single mother, Jeannette went to work for the U.S. Postal Service (where she retired 37 years later) and left Angela in the care of the family matriarch — who both pampered and protected the child.

“She vowed that I would be the first to graduate from college,” says the granddaughter, Angela Miller-May, proudly noting that Beatrice was part of the famous Freedom Riders, activists who rode interstate buses in the South in mixed racial groups to challenge segregation in seating.

“I was her job,” Miller-May recalled in a recent Zoom interview with Institutional Investor, saying she thought she was “getting away” from her grandmother when she started kindergarten. But no, her grandma informed her that she had taken a volunteer job at the school so she could be by her side. Starting at that early age, Miller-May says she “didn’t have a choice” but to be a good student.


It paid off. After attending a prestigious Chicago Catholic high school, Miller-May studied medicine before switching to economics — later getting an MBA to learn the basics of investment management after the global financial crisis upended the banking industry. In a career that has spanned three decades, she rose from a bank teller to her current position as chief investment officer of the $52 billion Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, the best-performing pension fund in the state.

“She has done everything,” says her current boss, Brian Collins, the executive director of IMRF, referring to the spectrum of finance jobs Miller-May has held. Collins hired her away from the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund in 2021, a volatile time in the markets that forced Miller-May to immediately rebalance IMRF’s investment portfolio, slashing its equities and increasing private credit. After losing about 4 percent in 2022 — but still beating its benchmark and vastly overperforming the broader stock market — IMRF bounced back in 2023 with a 13.22 percent net gain.

“Angela came in and very deftly put a program in place so that we were in a much better position to go through that period of market turbulence on the equity side,” says Collins.

He also commends her commitment to public service, an essential ingredient for anyone working in the pension system that retired employees depend on for income.

Miller-May, one of a handful of African American women CIOs at U.S. public pension funds, has a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is a prerequisite in Illinois, whose state legislature mandates its investment managers strive to have at least 20 percent of their assets run by women, minorities, or people with disabilities. Given that white men dominate investment management, it’s a tall order — but one Miller-May has managed adroitly. At CTPF, she built out an analytical capability to find managers with expertise in such esoteric and overlooked assets as African private equity, an investment that won praise from USAID, the agency for international development. When Miller-May left, 45 percent of Chicago Teachers’ $12 billion was invested with diverse managers. These aren’t charitable endeavors. According to Miller-May — and numerous studies — diverse managers serve to both de-risk a portfolio and to add to its performance.

“It is vitally important to have the voices out there that can offer a clear, rational, logical reason for the exposures that they’re putting in their portfolios and to show their success,” says Kirk Sims, head of the emerging manager program at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. Sims, who got to know Miller-May when he was a senior investment officer at the Teachers’ Retirement System of Illinois, says she serves “a vital role” in that regard.

But Miller-May’s rise to prominence in the world of public pensions was hardly a given.

A former top student at St. Ignatius Academy, Miller-May thought she had made a less-stressful career choice when she switched from premed to economics after two years of studying medicine at Northwestern University and volunteering during her sophomore year in the pediatric ward of a Chicago hospital.

“I was too emotional. I couldn’t be detached from people,” she says of her time in the hospital. “I was in tears a lot of times.”

When she began to rethink her future, Miller-May looked hard at the dry science of economics. “I loved math,” she says. “I loved understanding how money worked.”

Plus, she says, “I thought I wouldn’t really have to deal with people or people problems.”

But reality began to hit when Miller-May graduated into a recession in 1990.

“I got into banking because banks are always going to be here — so I thought,” she says. “And I thrived. I started off as a teller, but then I went to a larger financial institution. I managed over 55 people, and I found that managing people was a strength of mine.”

Then another shoe dropped — the financial crisis.

“It was only when we got to 2008, when we had to start laying off people, that I realized I’m back in this emotional state with people because it was so hard,” she says, recalling handing out pink slips to people she had worked with for more than a decade. “I came out of that really not knowing what I wanted to do next.”

Miller-May decided to go back to school for her MBA, taking night classes at DePaul Kellstadt Business School in downtown Chicago while keeping her job as an assistant vice president at Northern Trust/Fiserve, where she oversaw the back office.

Among other things, “I managed check returns, check investigations, and check redeposits,” she says. “So, if you had an error with your checking account, you called the bank and they would reconstruct your deposit and give you copies of all your checks.” Technology and downsizing would eventually eliminate such jobs, leaving the young bank executive in search of something else.

Miller-May had never had a mentor to guide her, but she got hooked on investing through the coursework at DePaul and, as a newly minted MBA graduate, began looking for whatever was available in investment management. In 2010, she landed another entry-level job — as an operations analyst at CTPF. “Everything was a learning experience. I learned public markets, private markets, securities lending, proxy voting — things that I had never touched before. I got to learn from the ground up.”

The team at CTPF was small, giving Miller-May as many opportunities as she could handle. “Whatever they put on my desk, I just went at it.” Three years into her time there, she had advanced to become an analyst when an opening for the interim public markets portfolio manager arose.

“I acted in that role for seven months until they hired someone,” she says. As she started training the new person, “her question to me was, ‘Why didn’t you apply for this job?’ And I didn’t have an answer.”

The question stuck with Miller-May. “The next time an opportunity came up, I raised my hand. I said to myself, ‘I can do this. I know the expectations. I know what to do. I know how to conduct due diligence. I understand all the processes I’ve written, all of the procedures.’”

She was hired. But it wasn’t until Chuck Burbridge came on as the fund’s executive director in 2015 that Miller-May finally had a mentor. He quickly promoted her from private markets portfolio manager to director of investments. “I’m going to give you a chance,” he told her, to which she replied, “That’s all I need. I just need a chance.”

After two years Burbridge, made Miller-May the CIO.

“I saw somebody who was well grounded into the day-to-day operations of a pension fund, and then also had the breadth of knowledge to work at the strategic allocation level,” he recalls. “She is a very, very diligent, measured individual. She won’t be the first person to come and answer the question, but when she does answer the question it’ll be a good answer.”

But Miller-May had to be coaxed into the public aspects of the job.

“There’s enough people there that’ll be trying to put a cover over you, don’t do it yourself,” Burbridge says he told her, advising her to work on her ability “to get up on stage, get into a public presence, and convey your thoughts succinctly, so that what you know gets out to the public.”

She followed his advice, and soon became a sought-after speaker at industry conferences.

The inside-outside combination was a boost to Miller-May’s career. “Not only did she do everything on the career ladder inside the four walls of the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund, where she had an outstanding reputation,” says Collins, “but during that entire time, she was constantly taking herself outside and becoming involved. You couldn’t go to a seminar or an industry event and not see Angela.”

At IMRF, Miller-May’s public profile has grown. “She has continued to be able to be in the spotlight as a thought leader on investments and that doesn’t really come to IMRF historically,” Burbridge says. “That’s really Angela taking [it] to another level.”

The red-haired Miller-May is by all accounts quiet and even-keeled. “She is a calming influence,” Burbridge says.

Those attributes served her well at CTPF, which was undergoing turmoil at the board level during her tenure and was, as Miller-May says, a “toxic environment.” When, in a public meeting, one of the trustees questioned her expertise and wanted to hear from someone else, Miller-May says, “Inside I was fuming. I was just so upset and I did everything I could do, not to let my voice crack or let it show that it really bothered me.” She says she took a deep breath and continued her presentation. It was an important lesson in navigating difficult situations and managing conflicts.

“Kudos to her for being able to navigate that kind of turmoil and still deliver on what she’s getting paid to do,” says Fernando Vinzons, who succeeded Miller-May as CIO of CTPF. He calls her “levelheaded” and credits her for “identifying and nurturing talent” within the organization and hiring people “so that she was able to build a team that was able to deliver results.”

Miller-May says she was “torn” about leaving the pension fund, despite the turmoil there. “Everything that I learned served as building blocks to the CIO role, even navigating the toxicity was a learning opportunity.”

Soon after Miller-May joined IMRF, the stock market took a nosedive and she faced another type of turbulence that called for a steady hand.

“I started in August of ’21, and things were humming, life was good, everything was great. And then we ran into the end of ’21 and it felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me,” she recalls.

The markets were challenging, but Miller-May was fortunate that IMRF was almost fully funded. At the same time, the portfolio was overallocated to growth — “positioned for a market that was going up,” as she puts it. “In my second week here, we did a huge rebalance. We had to move about $2 billion out of growth into other asset classes.”

“We have to pay pensioners every month,” Miller-May explains. And because the markets are changing so quickly, she implemented a three-year allocation policy — ultimately lowering equities to a target of 32.5 percent of the portfolio. “I feel like equities are running a little hot now. Are we taking advantage of that? Of course. But we’re pulling back the equity allocation a bit. We want to try to manage our risk but position ourselves to take advantage of any opportunities if they come.”

Miller-May moved some of the equity allocation into private credit, which is now up to 4 percent of the portfolio from 0.5 percent originally.

Private credit is one of the hottest areas for allocators these days, and Miller-May agrees with the rationale driving its popularity. “We’re getting equity-like returns with lower risk,” she says, noting that IMRF primarily invests in senior secured loans. “We put together a portfolio with mostly direct lending, but some asset-backed lending, some distressed lending. We are really building a portfolio for the long term and we’re doing it over three years.”

IMRF has invested in 13 private credit managers, including Angelo Gordon and Jefferies (for direct lending). It has kept its commitment to diversity by hiring managers including MC Credit Partners, founded by Ashok Nayyar, and is investing in European managers such as Pemberton Asset Management. Private equity has been one of IMRF’s highest-returning asset classes over time, in both venture and buyout strategies. But private equity funds have been criticized for not marking down their portfolios enough, and Miller-May says, “We’re allocating money at a slower pace as a result.”

“It’s starting to kind of pick up now,” she says. “Many of our managers did not mark down their portfolios and we were not shocked, but they also can choose to hold assets and not sell them” until the market recovers. Because the funds have a life span of ten years or more, she says they have the flexibility to “manage those assets and to exit at the most appropriate times.”

At the same time, she has increased the proportion of IMRF’s portfolio run by diverse managers to 26.9 percent from 21.7 percent when she joined.

And if Miller-May thinks managers aren’t doing enough in that regard, she puts them on notice. “We’ve explained that we don’t see a lot of diversity with your organization — when it is time to invest in your next fund, if we don’t see any changes we feel like you’re not listening to us,” she says. If interests are not aligned, she adds, “we make the decision to forgo reallocating to the manager.”

While the state of Illinois has a firm commitment to the principles of diversity, she recognizes that the term “DEI” has become politically divisive. The January resignation of Harvard’s first Black president, whom hedge fund manager Bill Ackman characterized as a diversity hire unfit for the job, has brought the issue home to women of color such as Miller-May. Ackman, the Pershing Square Capital CEO, has since mounted a broader crusade to kill DEI altogether.

“You get up every morning you put on your armor and you come in and you do your job and you try to do the best job ever,” Miller-May says. “But it creates this ‘I can’t fail’ mentality. I can do no wrong. I can’t make a mistake.” That leads one to think, “If I make a mistake, there’ll never be another Black woman in this seat,” she notes. “You have to give yourself grace, and you have to give yourself room to make those mistakes because you know, in making mistakes, you learn from those mistakes.”

Only 15 out of about 650 CIOs at endowments, foundations, hospitals, public pensions, associations, and charities Charles Skorina’s executive search firm follows were Black in 2020 – “a minuscule two percent,” he wrote at the time. Only seven of them were also female, including four CIOs at U.S. pension funds. (It’s unclear whether the numbers have improved, since at least two Black women on the list have moved on.)

“The dismal reality is that an African-American woman working in institutional investment management has a better chance of storming her way across the Korean DMZ than becoming a chief investment officer at a major American endowment or foundation,” Skorina wrote in his newsletter.

Miller-May fears that the pushback on DEI will make things even harder. She calls it “a systematic way to decrease the diversity efforts,” which she believes is “simply a value proposition for better financial outcomes. If you have people that have different thoughts, different backgrounds, who can provide different voices, different solutions, is that not best for decision-making? You’re not caught in a tunnel of hearing your own voice and believing that you are the smartest person on Earth.”

Part of her strategy has been to invest in emerging managers with minority founders and help them grow. One success story at CTPF was its investment in Farol Asset Management, founded in 2011 by Robert Azeke, who had led the private equity co-investment business for Parish Capital. Farol is now on its third fund.

Still, the political environment will present challenges not just for her -- but also the next generation. “I’ve raised my children to think that anything is possible. They can be anything,” she says. “But they are telling me, ‘Mom, what you told me is not the reality of what’s out there.’”

To increase the opportunity set, one of her commitments is to make diverse hires through an IMRF summer internship. “If we can’t identify a pool of diverse professionals to hire, we’re going to develop them. We’re going to start younger. We’re going to train them from the ground up.”

Such commitment wins praise from her peers.

“You can’t reach for something you don’t see,” says Ellen Hung, the newly appointed state investment officer at the Nebraska Investment Council who previously was deputy CIO at the Illinois State Universities Retirement System. “She’s always willing to give her time,” even if it is “just an ear to listen,” says Hung, who has known Miller-May for years.

“When I started out in the business many, many years ago, there weren’t that many women in the field, let alone diverse women. You would never see a CIO. They were all white males back then,” she recalls.

Every woman of color has stories of racism to tell, and Miller-May is no exception. Several years ago, at a real estate conference, she was searching for a seat at the luncheon and noticed an empty chair with a briefcase on it. “Is this seat taken?” she asked the white man seated next to it. He quickly answered, “Yes.”

“Then I walked to the next table, still within earshot of that table, when a white man walks up and says, ‘Is anybody sitting here?’ To which the same man said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ And I was just stunned: ‘Oh my god, did that just happen?’

“I sat there in my seat for just a while, like trying to believe, ‘Are we still there? Is that where we are?’” she recalls.

These days, she doesn’t have to worry about being denied a seat at the table. When attending conferences, Miller-May says she’s more likely to be mobbed.

“They know who I am. And that I manage 52 billion.”

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Interviews with Angela Miller-May from II Week 2023