It’s hard to imagine that life for Larry Berman, founder and Chief Investment Officer of ETF Capital Management and host of BNN’s nine-years-running Berman’s Call, began as anything but bright. Now a business owner, teacher, and public speaker who travels the country offering guidance to powerful investors, Larry’s personal story began in Toronto’s child welfare system, far from wealth and privilege. Given-up at birth by a single mother whose family would not allow her to keep him, Larry was placed in foster care and adopted four months later.
Unfortunately, his adoptive parents did not offer the safe, stable home that so many birth parents envision for their children.
“I was adopted into what turned out to be very abusive home,” says Larry of his explosive father, who frequently attacked both him and his mother, a woman who battled severe mental illness. When Larry was only three or four-years-old, his mother became an in-patient at a care facility that is now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Larry says that “for about a year I remember going to visit her with my father, and when they got back together there’d always be a fight and I’d go live with my aunt.”
As their only child, Larry was just 12 when he became his adoptive parents’ primary caregiver after his father fell ill and could no longer work. “My mother could never hold down a job because of her mental health challenges, so I actually paid the bills for a while.” Although the family lived in an upper-middle class neighbourhood, they bordered on poverty and Larry was expected to pitch-in for everything from daily necessities to birthday gifts. The majority of his friends’ parents were doctors, lawyers, and business owners, and he credits being exposed to their stable, affluent lifestyles as an experience that led him to develop a strong work ethic and independence long before many of his peers.
“When I look back now, I see that some of my friends who had [money and privilege] when they were young didn’t try as hard in life. I think when you come from adversity, it could be thought of as ‘why me’, but it makes you tougher and stronger. For me, it made me work a lot harder to get where I am.”
When Larry left home to move in with his then-fiancée (now wife), his parents finally separated. “I was [my mother’s] pride and joy and the reason she kept coming back to my father,” he says. “She wanted me to have a house and home even though she suffered.” Soon after the split, his father became deeply depressed and although only 61, Larry had no choice but to place him in a retirement home. His mother continued to live in and out of mental health facilities and frequently stopped taking her medication. During one such episode, Larry, who was living in the U.S. at the time, received a late night call from the police after she was found wandering the winter streets in nothing but a nightgown.
Despite the abuse, Larry says that his upbringing not only made him hungry for a better life but also encouraged him to be a better father. He references a specific incident when he was about six-years-old and lost track of time playing hockey after school with some friends. His father came looking for him and once he found him, began to beat him. “I remember thinking ‘why is my dad hitting me? What did I do?’” He calls upon these memories as a sort of reversed pay it forward when interacting with his own children. “The first rule in the book is do unto others,” he says. “If my kid isn’t calling or texting me, you say ‘just let me know’. It’s nothing to be mad about or lose your top about.” These early experiences also made him an advocate for the “80/20 rule” – a philosophy that emphasizes doing your best 80% of the time with 20% left for improvement – as a way to allow yourself to make mistakes while still striving for more. “I don’t think [my father] was a bad man,” Larry adds. “I think he had mental health issues and he just couldn’t control himself.”
Fatherhood also played a major role in Larry’s decision to reach out to his birth mother. Concerned about unknown health risks that could be passed on to their children, his wife encouraged him to begin the process. When Larry eventually made contact, the reality of his birth mother’s life quickly sunk-in. “Had I been with her, [it] would’ve been worse than what I was brought-up in because of severe abuse.” Larry remained in contact with her until her death and also met his half-brother, whom he’d been unaware even existed. Although an overwhelming experience, it gave him a sense of his own history and identity, which had been absent throughout his life. “Physically, I was nothing like [my adopted parents], mentally I was nothing like them. So, there was always something missing, especially because it wasn’t a great [adoptive] family life.”
Looking back, Larry says that even though his adoption wasn’t perfect, he is eager to use his experiences to encourage other young people from the child welfare system to reach their full potential.
He believes abuse is more prevalent than people think and that it’s important for young people to share their experiences. “There’s people [and places] like CAF that care and will help you through those difficult times,” he says. Larry also wants them to pursue something they love and set goals. “What I do on BNN is something I love doing. In a sense it’s me giving-back, I love teaching… You need to challenge yourself, you need to grow. I was curious about how things work. And I’m not sure you can teach that, but I think you can frame someone’s outlook a little better. Being goal-oriented helps tremendously, [even if] it’s little goals.”
In fact, Larry is so dedicated to this idea that he recently established The Berman Family Scholarship at the Children’s Aid Foundation in support of youth from the child welfare system who are pursuing post-secondary education. As someone who is regularly sent resumes by students, he knows that if a candidate doesn’t have a post-secondary education, they’re going to have a tough time standing out.
“You’ve got very successful people out there who came from very modest backgrounds; it’s doable,” he says. “That’s one of the great things about Canada, unlimited potential for anybody – it doesn’t matter who you are.”