James Seth Thompson: Life and Doctrine in Concert

Audio Description

James’s new co-host Maci Philitas flips the script, inviting James to share his background and passions, details about the inception and evolution of Changing the Trajectory, and what motivates his relentless drive to have an impact in and on communities of color.

Transcript

00:00 - 00:51

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

To me, I just want everybody to have the same opportunity to be successful. If I could, through the work I do, through the life I live, be that North Star, right? Meaning, follow the trail to see what the light at the end of the tunnel could look like. That's what I want to be. And I don't say that to say I am the North Star. I would say I want to be the North Star because I'm always trying to move to that same light at the end of the tunnel. So I want to be part of the ecosystem that helps bring the community up. This is Changing the Trajectory. I'm one of your hosts, James Seth Thompson, Bernstein's Head of Diverse Markets Strategy. Well, it's official. Maci Philitas is here with us today, joining me as co-host on the show. To mark the occasion and the new year, we're flipping the script.

00:51 - 01:02

Speaker 2

Yes, we are James. I know this makes you cringe, but today we're going to talk all about you, your background, what keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning.

01:02 - 01:26

Speaker 2

So, James, you started this podcast two years ago with an episode called Courageous Conversations. Now we're 26 episodes later, and we've all benefited from your passion to leverage our platform to help communities of color change the trajectory of their wealth, impact and influence through meaningful, candid conversations like ours. What drove your decision to leverage Bernstein's platform to help advance communities of color?

01:27 - 02:03

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

You know, I'm north of 23 years in the industry, and although I always have not been in the wealth management space, regardless of what role I was in and what firm I work for, I was still one of two or three who were in the room. And along the way? Whatever privilege, access, seat at the table I had, I always felt responsible to be able to use whatever resources I have just to help people who look like me come up in the industry. And it's tough, right?

02:03 - 02:34

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So when I think about my career at AllianceBernstein and moving over from marketing to Bernstein Private Wealth Management, the impetus for that was just the recognition that there's not enough of us represented in what we do and who we engage. And to be honest, my passion isn't about helping rich people get richer. It's about helping people who have those means have access to the same resources so they can have the same outcomes.

02:34 - 03:10

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

It was important for me to kind of build the right type of rapport with communities of color to make sure that we had a resonant voice and helping to close the gaps that many people of color might have, you know, in the investing and wealth management space, really, just in recognition that, you know, for the most part, there are gaps in our experiences and our education and what we have historically been exposed to. So I thought there was no better way to be able to help address those known unknowns, but to have a podcast and great guests and great partners like you to be able to bring that message forward.

03:10 - 03:25

Speaker 2

Yeah. And, James, something else that I noticed about your career is when you have a seat at the table, you've been sure to create another seat for someone who is a person of color or from an underrepresented background.

03:25 - 03:52

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Oh, absolutely. I don't know what the seats look like, but I always have that folding chair and pull it up to the table. I feel like that's a responsibility. I think that's what true sponsorship and advocacy is. And even when other people aren't at the same tables, that advocacy to speak as if they were present, although they're not, I think, is one of the strongest things everyone could do to help kind of change the narrative of the access we all have, whether it's wealth or professional, personal lives.

03:52 - 04:00

Speaker 2

So then what does that phrase there, the name, Changing the Trajectory, mean to you and what led you to this name for the podcast?

04:01 - 04:41

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I wanted to come up with a title and a platform that is focused on righting the course and changing the course. And you know, trajectory is so progressive, people can visualize trajectory. You know, if you're a little off tangent or going in the wrong direction, you actually know where you need to get to. And although I can't step in the shoes of someone and do it for them, I feel like changing the trajectory is also how to influence the things that help people get on the right path. I feel like the whole idea of changing the trajectory of wealth, impact, and influence is all-encompassing and inclusive.

04:41 - 05:10

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I've always said, you know, from a wealth perspective, wealth is pretty subjective, right? How I define wealth? Me and my family might be different than you. And it's certainly not always a no. Wealth is just simply the abundance of something you value. When I think about impact and, influence you know, the idea is to inspire and encourage people to make a difference, right? I'd like to think of myself as a change agent. To me, there's intentionality in changing the trajectory, and I think that's what the movement is all about.

05:10 - 05:11

Speaker 2

Yeah, absolutely.

05:11 - 05:27

Speaker 2

And let's double click on your family a little bit. It seems like, and just by knowing you, the hallmark of your work here at the firm is changing the trajectory of families. So can you tell us a little bit about your wonderful family and what that looks like in your home?

05:27 - 06:26

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I just hit my 20th wedding anniversary. Amazing. I have a 16 year old son and a 13 year old daughter, and they mean the world to me. You know, I feel extremely responsible for my family. I feel like I owe my family. I feel I'm indebted to my family. That really defines kind of how impactful I want to be for my family, my extended family. I think I'm really blessed to have enough flexibility where I can be really present in everything they do. I'm a big-time girl dad. I'm a big-time basketball dad. When I think about my my wife, it is just a great partnership. You know, we both have things we're really good at and things that we're not good at and we know what they are and we kind of create that perfect partnership. We know exactly what role we need to play in our family. And for me, my life is all about faith, family and fun.

06:26 - 06:34

Speaker 2

I love that. And so then how does your dedication to faith, family and fun impact your effectiveness and how you invest your time?

06:35 - 07:16

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

It's just prioritization. I think the fun is the output of the faith and family piece. We believe that our faith drives our effectiveness as a unit, and that kind of signals the importance of the family unit and how we need to operate, how we need to show up for one another. I think what keeps us sane is the fun, just trying to be really spontaneous, just trying to be ourselves, which is a lot of silliness and immaturity. But at the end of the day, I think every family needs to have its own crest of perspectives. And for us, it's rooted in those three Fs.

07:17 - 07:17

Speaker 2

That's good.

07:17 - 07:40

Speaker 2

So I'm a relatively new mother. James, you and I have had so many conversations about just the unique considerations we have to take when raising our Black sons in America. Mm hmm. So how have your life experiences, and specifically the events of 2020, impacted the decisions you and your wife make when raising your 16 year old son?

07:40 - 08:05

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I try to instill in my son some street smarts, I guess, that he doesn't have, that I definitely have, you know, grown up in New York City. I feel responsible to help my son recognize how to strive and thrive. But more importantly, survive. And that's the unfortunate part. When I think about 2020, in my own personal experiences, I won't go into many details.

08:05 - 08:44

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

But my dad was a victim of a police shooting. And I remember when my son learned of that incident and then started to internalize that, you know, just because I'm a 6'4" Black teenager who might wear clothes that others, you know, see as intimidating, that can negatively impact my walk. You know, so as a dad, I feel like I have to make sure he feels comfortable knowing that he could be himself and safe, but at the same time, it is tough, right, at the same time.... So you can't trust everybody. That sucks.

08:45 - 08:46

Speaker 2

It does. You

08:46 - 09:06

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So that's, that's one of those things where it's just an ongoing life lesson. My son said the most powerful thing the other day, literally, dropped him off at school because he missed his bus. He got out the car, said, Dad, I'm glad you're my dad. Like, this was literally two days ago. I'm like Yo, I'm about to cry.

09:07 - 09:10

Speaker 2

Yeah, especially for a 16-year-old to say that, that's huge, you know?

09:10 - 09:38

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

But to me, that was an affirmative, right? That's an appreciation of the work and the time and energy that I put into my son, he's at the point now where he finally appreciates the wisdom. I get less of the eye-rolls, you know? But again, there's some things that just happened in our family, from COVID to death, to my father. All that stuff has just shaped a view for him that I think is really impacting him, and he's starting to really figure it out.

09:38 - 09:39

Speaker 2

Mm hmm.

09:39 - 09:46

Speaker 2

And so with your daughter, have you taken a similar approach or is the way you raise her different? And if so, how?

09:46 - 10:40

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Oh, goodness. So, you know, for my son again, it's about striving, thriving and surviving. But with my daughter, it's just about protecting her, you know, not that I don't want her to strive and thrive and survive. But, you know, I think most dads would agree, especially if you have really tight relationships with your daughter, you are the protector. I feel like with my daughter, it's what do you want? Not innocent of spoiling, but like, what is it that you actually need to feel that you are protected, right, and that you have the air cover you need to do the things you want without having to worry about what life has in store for you. You know, and again, I think I have that same thing for my son, but I think the priorities are switched. You know, it's just a different type of relationship where you've got a daughter. I don't see it changing anytime soon.

10:42 - 10:46

Speaker 2

Well, as the daughter of a girl dad, it doesn't really change.

10:46 - 10:50

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Yeah, I already know it. I already know it.

10:50 - 10:58

Speaker 2

Yeah. How is the way that you approach your kids different from the way your parents raised you? Or is it different at all?

10:59 - 11:31

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Well, spanking was legal back then. You know, the way I was raised definitely influences me and my kids. My life growing up was different because of the incident my dad had. My dad was home all the time. Bright, very bright. Carpenter. My mom worked a lot. But as a dad, my dad was always there. He went to all my basketball games, all my baseball games, all of the bowling matches. But at least growing up, I felt like I had to do the same thing.

11:31 - 12:15

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I was fortunate to have in my neighborhood, you know, both of my parents, I think.... I have a group of best friends we called the Spades crew because we were in that class in high school, [...] your office and play spades and take money. But you know, when I think about the kids in my neighborhood that I grew up with, to be honest, I was the only one, I won't say dad, because not everyone, every situation is different. But I was certainly the only one that benefited from a strong father figure in my life. And. I don't take that for granted. Right. There's instances where people lose their parents, unfortunately early in life, but sometimes there's other guys that kind of step up to give that guidance. So I think I benefited from that.

12:16 - 12:43

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

You know, I think about my uncles, I think about my grandfathers, I think about the matriarchs in my family. You know, I just had a roadmap, to be honest. Because I had the roadmap, I don't think I had the opportunity to steer off course. So all of those experiences definitely influenced and impacted how I and my wife collectively raised our kids. But to be honest, like the last thing I'll say about that is, there's this thing in me where I don't want to let my dad down. Hmm.

12:43 - 13:20

Speaker 2

It looks like and it sounds like being in an involved father was modeled for you throughout your entire life. And when I think about a lot of, not just Black men, but also like first-gen wealth creators, right? They are often, especially those with family, find it difficult to find that balance, right? Like, how can I be calm and overachieving professional while also finding time for my family and my kids? What advice would you give men in your shoes and men who are having that, that battle of trying to create wealth while also trying to being involved

13:20 - 14:10

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

father? You have to advocate for the environment that will help you thrive both financially and with your family. Remember, my priorities were faith, family and fun. There was no F called finances. Because I think if I do those things right, the finance part will come. Look, there are certain places I won't work. There's certain jobs I didn't take because it would literally take me away from my family. It's just a consideration, right? And it won't, it won't be perfect, but you have to fight for that. You have to be so intentional and deliberate where at least you have to make an educated decision on what you need to do in that moment. And I've seen too many careers break up too many families, to be honest. Mm hmm. And I just never wanted to be one of those statistics.

14:10 - 14:22

Speaker 2

That's such good advice. I hope all of you young dads out there were taking notes, but it's also important for us women as well who are also chasing after those careers and finding that balance.

14:22 - 14:57

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So a lot of time and consideration is about the kids. But before we had two kids and then we just had one. It was what did I need to do at that time to give my wife the space any opportunity to do the things that she thought to be important in her professional life as well? So that's the, that's the bond. I feel like every couple of years, you know, we go back and forth like, Hey, it's my turn to get mine and it's your turn to get yours and my turn to get mine, your turn... You know, but that's how we work. You know, we just. we just know when the other has to step up and address the gaps while the other one is pursuing something.

14:57 - 15:03

Speaker 2

Yeah, the Obamas actually have a similar situation or setup. It's clearly the blueprint that works.

15:03 - 15:08

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Absolutely. I'll take credit for teaching them that. Yeah, exactly. You're welcome, Obamas.

15:10 - 15:29

Speaker 2

So we're going to talk a little bit about your career now, as many of our listeners know, not only have you been a bouncer and bodyguard before, but you also started your career in the music industry. Can you share with us a little bit about your early career and what catalyzed your transition into wealth management?

15:29 - 16:00

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So growing up in New York, there was a program, I believe was called Yes to Jobs. I applied for this program. I was 16 and I got accepted into the program. So my first internship was at Warner Music Group with a business lawyer, and he had some amazing clients, like red carpet clients. The next summer came around and he said, OK, we're going to put you in the marketing artist development side. You're going to be at BMG records.

16:00 - 16:32

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I'm like, Yeah, I want to go there. Why? Because the greatest rap group of all time was there, Wu-Tang Clan. So here I am, 16-17 years old, working with a marketing and artist development team, Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, SWV, PMD. When EPMD broke up, they sell it to our [...] it was just crazy. Yeah, I went on a tour bus once in a while. [...] My mom said, you're going to die. They're going to kill you. You're gonna die. I'm like, It's worth it. I'm going to do it.

16:32 - 16:35

Speaker 2

it. At leasrt I'll die happy.

16:35 - 17:01

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

And, you know. So that happened. It was a great experience, but that's where I got my love for marketing, and I went to Temple University. A couple of people got to resign there and they put me to work in Philadelphia. So I was still working for the hosting events, doing things on college campuses. I was kind of the local marketing rep for the new artists they were bringing to the table and then me and a couple of guys from the spades group from

17:01 - 17:39

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

New York City, we all went to Temple together. We created Spades Entertainment. Really? It was a sound and DJ company. I made more money throwing parties than I did, like my first five years in financial services. You know, I interned with a lot of people today who are like billionaires. And I'm like, How did I miss out? But I wanted to go to college, so I went through my four years there and at a career fair. This woman from financial services firms said, We love your background. What you know about my background? You know, give me a routine lyric right now, like what you know about my background?

17:39 - 17:40

Speaker 2

I want to hear bars.

17:41 - 18:19

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

And you know, that was my first entree. You know, it was like a broker dealer role, very entry level. But what I appreciate about that opportunity is, the woman said, we're going to get you on a trajectory to marketing. And I said, All right, I'll give it a shot. And it worked, right. I mean, I've been in financial services for 23 years. I've been at three firms, right? I think I'm averaging seven years at three firms. And it just really worked out where the background, the creativity, the relationship management, the business development skills actually all factored into a very successful career trajectory in financial services.

18:19 - 18:47

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

And along that journey, a decade or so later, I landed here at AllianceBernstein. But my experiences in music and related to entertainment is so transposable to the work we do today. We just have to learn how to engage different people at different starting points or who have different backgrounds. I really think that added a lot of value to what I do today and the successes I've had so far. As a retired DJ myself,

18:47 - 19:11

Speaker 2

We might have to have a battle sometime. We should definitely get some merch that promotes the fact that we were former DJs, now podcasters. So James, in your current role, it's abundantly clear that you don't take your powers and influence lightly. You have a goal of being a north star for people in your community, and I know you largely do this through your work in the firm as well. What is your motivation behind your work?

19:11 - 19:42

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

The motivation behind the work is really centered around the idea that everyone deserves the same access and opportunity. Like it's literally that simple. Once you understand that we all had different starting points and that there may have been different struggles or challenges along the way. What are the exact resources to bring to the table to meet that person's exact place? That's what meeting people or clients where they are is really about.

19:42 - 20:17

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So again, you know, as I think about the synopsis of people of color over generations, it's the access and opportunity that's made all the difference in the world, whether it's how you create your wealth, how you sustain your wealth, how you transfer your wealth, you know, how you get a job, how you source a job, how you keep a job, you know, all of that stuff has been influenced. Even where we work, how we work, where we travel, how we travel, the social climbing. All of that stuff is influenced, right? And a lot of times not influenced by our own hands.

20:17 - 20:50

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

So to me, I just want everybody to have the same opportunity to be successful, if I could, through the work I do, through the life I live, be that North Star, right? Meaning, follow the trail to see what the light at the end of the tunnel could look like, that's what I want to be. And I don't say that to say, I am the North Star. I would say I want to be the North Star because I'm always trying to move to that same light at the end of the tunnel. So I want to be part of the ecosystem that helps bring the community up, really focused on health and wellness and mental stability.

20:50 - 20:53

Speaker 2

And so how do you hold yourself accountable in this area?

20:53 - 21:43

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Talk, you know, for anyone knows, I'm an open book. I say what I say. I mean what I mean. Where I have a collective of people who help me be accountable to self first, and that allows me to be accountable to others second I'm very fortunate that my job today is a profession that's led by passion and purpose, you know, because I think if you're passionate about something, if it's purpose filled, you will persevere through anything. But everything I do with work, with family, with the relationships I build is all built on a premise of intentionality, the deliberate acts and transparency and vulnerability. I think the ability to be vulnerable really opens you up to people and really pulls people in and asks the stuff that builds trust.

21:43 - 22:05

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

You know, not to pull religion into this, but if you think for me and my family biblically, your life and doctrine has to. Absolutely. The life I live must match the words I speak, and if I would highlight something that drives the accountability is that life [...] one piece, whether it's spiritual, whether it's personal, whether it's professional, that's what drives accountability.

22:06 - 22:17

Speaker 2

It sounds like you have a really strong community around you of friends, colleagues, mentors, sponsors. What's one piece of advice that has guided you?

22:18 - 22:52

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

It's just purpose in everything I do, and that helps me kind of prioritize all the things that are going on in my life. I think that's the key for me. If you have the ability to do what you do to make people feel like they matter. You know, I think that's the key to all of this stuff. And there's a certain level of humility and humanity that comes with that. And that's what keeps me committed to doing whatever I can to do as much as I can for people who are under-resourced.

22:52 - 23:41

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Again, it's not just the wealth piece and the managing money, it's the students that we hire, and as associates who never thought that they would be in financial services; students that we hire from HBCUs who have never been in big cities like Chicago and New York City. You think about going from a community that might be all-Black to an institution that is all-Black. And in coming to an industry like ours. Yeah. That's traumatic sometimes. So I just try to take all of that into account. You know, this idea of being under-resourced doesn't always have to do with money and poverty. You could be under-resourced just because of the experiences you haven't had. Right. And I want to be able to close those experiences, whether it's through what we do from a wealth management perspective, coaching, mentoring, nonprofit, volunteerism.

23:41 - 23:51

Speaker 2

It influences all that stuff for me. And it sounds as though a lot of that is legacy building. So with that in mind, what do you want your legacy to be?

23:51 - 24:20

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

What do you want to be remembered? That I gave it all for everyone. But that's, you know, that's my broad legacy. But for my family and my kids, I want them to be north stars. That's it. I want everybody to be on that trajectory where they are living a life of life and doctrine in concert where all you really focus on is leveraging what resources you have to make sure that you, your family and your community are straight.

24:20 - 24:32

Speaker 2

I really like what you said, life and doctrine in concert, and also just something to keep in the back of your mind as we all make decisions about what to do and the potential impact or consequence of every decision.

24:32 - 24:40

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I want people to think about life and doctrine, not as a spiritual or religious thing, but as a guiding principle. Right? That's how you walk the walk.

24:40 - 24:55

Speaker 2

Now we're going to move on to a fun part of our conversation. We're going to test out a new round of rapid-fire questions. So James for this, I need you to give us the first response that comes to mind. And it's OK if you make a few enemies with your answers.

24:55 - 24:57

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I'm going to, for sure.

24:57 - 25:10

Speaker 2

All right. So given how you and your family like to have fun? Which show would you rather go on, Family Feud or Family Double Dare? Family Feud. OK. Nas or Jay-Z? Nas. LeBron or Jordan?

25:11 - 25:16

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Jordan? These are too easy. We could do a whole episode as to why. But these are really easy for me.

25:16 - 25:26

Speaker 2

All right. So then I have a really important one, and there's only one right answer here. All right. OK. Ketchup or mustard? On what?

25:26 - 25:28

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

See? Oh! I gotcha.

25:29 - 25:31

Speaker 2

I got you! A hotdog.

25:33 - 25:34

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

Oh, I'm in trouble. Ketchup?

25:36 - 25:37

Speaker 2

? I don't know if we can be friends anymore.

25:38 - 25:44

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

No, I'm ketchup all the way. I can't eat a hotdog without ketchup.

25:45 - 26:02

Speaker 2

I can't eat catchup. It's disgusting. Oh my goodness. Well, James, this has been so much fun. I'm glad our listeners had a chance to get to know you and your life a little better and also be inspired by your journey and also, you know, have some things to think on, like the fact that you like ketchup on a hotdog.

26:03 - 26:12

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I used to see Nas rap and freestyle in Queens after school, so I am biased. But to me, he's the G.O.A.T., so I'll leave it there.

26:12 - 26:35

Speaker 2

OK, I'll give you that. That's 5. This condiment has thrown me for a loop. Well, in any event, I'm still grateful that you have decided to share your platform with me, and I'm really looking forward to all that we have in store for our audience this year and beyond.

26:40 - 27:01

James Thompson, James Seth Thompson

I hope you enjoyed today's episode. We'd love to hear from you, so please e-mail your thoughts, questions, and feedback to diversemarkets@Bernstein.com. Be sure to share, subscribe, comment on and rate us on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts and check us out on Twitter at BernsteinPWM.

Host
James Thompson
SVP—Head of Diverse Markets Strategy

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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