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Alumni Conversations: Reggie Chambers ’01

“Alumni Conversations” is an interview series initiated by Xiaoli Jin and Alice Chen, both of whom were admitted to Harvard Law School through the Junior Deferral Program. Xiaoli is currently working at a strategy and economics consulting firm, and Alice is working at a financial sciences company. 

Reggie Chambers ’01 is a Managing Director and Chief Administrative Officer of the Consumer Bank of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Previously, he worked in Big Law, investment banking, private equity, the White House, and management consulting. Outside of work, he teaches the development of economic policies at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Xiaoli and Alice were amazed at the stories and insights that Reggie shared with them in a short Zoom meeting.

Why did you decide to go to Harvard Law School?

For my family, education has been our winning lottery ticket. It has given us an opportunity at creating a better life. We have gone from being slaves, sharecroppers, and farmers in the rural south with no more than a grade school education just two generations ago to attending top universities, serving a President in the White House, and becoming senior executives. My parents dedicated themselves to my education, often waking up with me many mornings at 4:00 a.m. starting when I was in 5th grade through high school to help me with my homework. The importance of education for my family was a big part of why I decided to pursue higher education for myself.

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Harvard Law-trained lawyer. I grew up watching popular shows like L.A. Law and Matlock (my mom still watches it now) and movies like The Firm. They glamorized the legal profession and, of course, many of their main characters went to Harvard Law School. Pop culture context aside, I think my family’s commitment to education and my belief in the flexibility of a law degree were the main drivers of my decision to go to law school.

Always wanting to have a varied career, I thought a law degree, particularly one from Harvard, would allow me to pursue my interests in law, politics, and business. When I researched law schools, I saw many successful politicians and businessmen and women who graduated from Harvard Law School. In fact, two of the first three black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had HLS degrees: Franklin Raines (named CEO of Fannie Mae in 1999) and Ken Chenault (named CEO of American Express in 2001).

My journey to Harvard Law was not without its obstacles. When I was in grade school, someone once said to me that “kids that have your skin color don’t go to Harvard Law School.” I remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her about it after school; she was not sure how to process it or what to tell me. But that experience fortified my resolve to achieve my goal of attending Harvard Law School. In fact, I wrote on a piece of paper (which I still have to this day): “Harvard Law 1998”—lo and behold, luckily enough, I attended Harvard Law in 1998.

We know you started your career as a corporate lawyer, but later worked in investment banking, private equity, government, and management consulting before joining JPMorgan Chase. How has your HLS education helped in your career?

HLS taught me three things that have been helpful in every job I have had: (1) being fact driven, (2) creative problem solving, and (3) client obsession.

Being fact driven is hugely important in any profession: the more you know, the more you can effectively marshal facts to make a persuasive argument. This has been important from writing memos to President Obama to preparing decks for corporate executives while at McKinsey to persuading large organizations to embrace your vision while working at JPMorgan Chase. Efficiently gathering pertinent facts and being able to craft a compelling story with those facts has been an invaluable skillset.

Second, creative problem solving is enormously important, particularly in a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex world. It is a great skillset I learned during law school and have continued to hone at every step of my career. Marvin Bower, the founder of modern-day management consulting and McKinsey as we know it today, graduated from Harvard Law and practiced law at Jones Day. As a result, McKinsey has a similar feel to law firms with its fact-based problem-solving methods to business problems. My time at McKinsey really helped me apply the training I learned in law school to solve complex business problems.

Last, but not least, we are taught in law school about the sacred relationship between attorneys and clients. Keeping the client at the heart of whatever you do is critical beyond just the law. Whether it is in government, business or social sector work, always keeping top of mind who you are serving and building trust with that constituency will allow you to be successful.

Those are the three critical things that I took away from Harvard Law, and they have been foundational to my success at each step of my professional career.

Many students see you as a role model, since you not only managed to develop an impressive career in the private sector, but also you have been able to give back to our society and create social value through innovative means. Could you share your experiences?

I firmly believe having a variety of experiences and exposure to differing leadership styles across the social (e.g., non-governmental, non-profit activities), public (e.g., government) and private sectors will enhance your ability to be a more well-rounded and effective leader. As a result, I have been intentional about seeking out a range of experiences both inside and outside of work, including teaching, serving on nonprofit boards, and working in government. These diverse experiences have enhanced my leadership capabilities, allowing me to be a more impactful leader that can take on complex problems and bring together diverse stakeholders.

I want to start by talking about my teaching experience, which has been my major commitment in the social sector. Given how important education has been for our family, I have always wanted to pay it forward and help to broaden the educational opportunities for our next generation. My first teaching role was at New York’s Brooklyn College. There, I taught an entrepreneurship class with a focus on social impact. Despite the class being on Friday nights and being more than an hour away from my home in Harlem, I was committed to doing what I could to help make a difference in the lives of students. At that time, I was still early in my career and extraordinarily busy running financial models and pulling together decks, but I made sure to prioritize this teaching commitment. Being able to leverage my real-world experience to help these students was my most rewarding extracurricular activity. I used my teaching salary to help fund a business case competition for my students to allow them to turn their dreams into reality.

I also have been teaching classes at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs about the importance of having more leaders that understand the intersection of the public, private, and social sectors and can apply that understanding to solve intractable societal problems (e.g., income inequality) that are too large and complicated for any one sector to solve on its own. Next-generation leaders that can marshal resources across all three sectors will make a significant impact on the world going forward. Helping to develop these tri-sector leaders has been hugely rewarding for me.

Pivoting now from my social sector experience to my public sector experience, I will always cherish my time serving in the White House. I was appointed by President Obama as a White House Fellow, serving at the White House National Economic Council. I worked on a variety of policy areas ranging from small business to energy and infrastructure to capital markets, with one of the most significant initiatives I was able to help get done being the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act). This piece of legislation helped to democratize access to capital by updating the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the realities of the digital age of the 21st century. In addition to serving in the Obama White House, I also did some work on Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign helping to develop her small business policies and helping with her Presidential Transition team as a Senior Advisor.

The last example I will give will be from my private sector experience. During my time at JPMorgan Chase, I have continued to focus on how I can use my platform to positively impact society. As the Chief Administrative Officer of the Consumer Bank, I have a wide remit. I am responsible for building and managing our ~5,000 branches, ~17,000 ATMs, our branch innovation labs around the country, and all of the software and hardware our 50,000+ branch employees use. I have been able to use this platform to develop a new concept to take our community banking to another level. Last year, my team and I helped develop Chase’s first community and innovation branch that is not only outfitted with the latest banking technology, but it also has flexible community space to hold community events focused on financial literacy, workforce development and technology capability building. Additionally, we allow local small businesses to use our space for free at the front of the branch facing Harlem’s main thoroughfare (125th Street in upper Manhattan) as pop-up shops to sell their goods and services and to connect with the community. The branch’s performance after a year has exceeded all expectations, and, most importantly, we have been able to touch the lives of thousands of Harlem residents with our community programming, which we have continued to do during COVID with virtual events hosted by the branch team.

We are expanding this community branch concept nationwide with the second location having recently opened in September in Minneapolis near where George Floyd was killed. We expect this branch to be a beacon of opportunity as the community looks to heal and rebuild after the recent unrest that resulted in significant damage to the community.

What is your advice to aspiring, current, and graduating law students?

First, lead a life of purpose and intention. With all that is happening in the world today and the various injustices we are seeing with greater frequency, it is even more incumbent upon the talented students and alumni of Harvard Law to play an active role in shaping our future. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” HLS students and graduates have the platforms and capability to bend the curve and expedite the realization of a more just and righteous world.

Second, approach life with a growth mindset. As Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, once said, “if you take two kids at school, one of them has more innate capability but is a know-it-all. The other person has less innate capability but is a learn-it-all. The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all.” Students need to be intellectually curious and life-long learners, especially with how fast the world is evolving and transforming.

Last, but not least, be flexible with your career. Careers often are not ladders that go straight up. Be open to embracing paths less traveled, as those unexpected paths can often lead to more fulfilling careers.

Filed in: Alumni Perspectives