As impact investor, CEO, and educator, James Rhee empowers people, brands and companies to fulfill their true potential by marrying capital with purpose. He creates value through values, transformation through self-reflection, and reinvention through Kindness and Math™. The story of the whys and the hows of the remarkable transformation of Ashley Stewart under his leadership has inspired millions of people, as well as the world’s leading businesses and organizations, to do better by being better.
James has dedicated his life to making knowledge, opportunity and capital accessible to all. He is currently shaping the arc of leadership through his role as Visiting Lecturer at Duke Law School, Senior Lecturer at The MIT Leadership Center, and Council Member of JP Morgan Chase Advancing Black Pathways. His lectures on Money, Life, and Joy marry capitalism with spiritualism and offer listeners a playbook on how to drive dramatic transformation through the delicate interplay of soul and brand, servant leadership and people-centered technology.
The unprecedented transformation of Ashley Stewart is proof of how trust and joy, grounded in math and amplified through digital marketing, can overcome impossible odds and fuel individual and enterprise-wide innovation. It is a reminder of the power of collective action and the extraordinary of the ordinary, as well as a commentary on a potential way forward for the co-existence of humanism, capitalism and technology. At its core, it is also the story of an unlikely friendship between a first generation Asian-American private equity investor (who raised his hand to become the self-described “least qualified CEO”) and a predominantly Black female employee group who placed their mutual trust in each other, learned from one another and then proceeded to quietly shock the world.
In a divided and harried world, James tells a story that bridges us to innovation and hope through generous and patient leadership, and his journey holds actionable wisdom for those who have the courage and humility to live and lead from the heart.
James lives a life focused on multi-dimensional transformation, the intersection of capital and race/gender, and values-based investing and leadership. He has achieved success within multiple industries and communities, and he leverages these connections and learnings to help others be their best selves by encouraging the formation of unusual alliances amongst seemingly disparate ideas and peoples.
He has managed billions of dollars of capital at elite institutions, and his investment platform, FirePine Group (founded in 2009), has stewarded the capital of some of the world’s most sophisticated investors. In 2013, James challenged orthodoxy by parachuting into an insolvent Ashley Stewart as CEO, a retailer that had quietly served plus-sized, Black women in neighborhoods across the country since 1991. While fighting against crippling odds, ridicule and adversity, James authored and led a complement of marketing, philosophical, and mathematical changes that challenged societal conventions and simultaneously transformed a twice-bankrupt, insolvent brick-and-mortar retailer with decades of operating losses (and no Wi-Fi!) into a cutting-edge industry leader. His inspirational and metaphoric story has been featured in media outlets such as the Good Business Issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Thrive Global, USA Today, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Women’s Wear Daily, Morgan Stanley’s Access and Opportunity Podcast, ABC News, and the Huffington Post.
James is a regional winner of the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the winner of one of five 2016 Power Player Awards granted by the National Retail Federation, the recipient of the 2017 Black Retail Action Group Business Achievement Award, the 2018 Temple Fox School of Business Information Technology Innovator Award, the 2018 Essex County Urban League Centennial William M. Ashby Award for community building and a 2019 One To World Fulbright Award. He is a former member of the board of the National Retail Federation, where he served as Chairman of the Innovation Advisory Committee.
James received his AB with honors from Harvard College and his JD with honors from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. He is a former high school teacher.