Melissa James, Vice Chairman, Morgan Stanley Global Capital Markets (GCM), likes to say that becoming a more sustainable business “is a journey, not a destination.” By which she means that companies that commit to practices that are sound from an environmental, social and governance (ESG) standpoint should see that commitment as an ongoing process, with results that don’t happen overnight. While there are both strong ethical and financial reasons to take ESG factors into consideration when making investment decisions, significant impact on the greater good is necessarily a long-term goal.
And, as with any long and successful journey, this one requires a steady navigator to lead the way. James has been such a navigator since taking on the role of head of the GCM ESG Center for Excellence (CoE) in 2019 guiding clients across sectors on strategy formulation and implementation in this area.
James’s work includes advising emerging growth companies on ESG stewardship in preparation for going public; structuring and executing ESG labeled capital raises; and helping companies think through their capital allocation decisions with an ESG lens. James sits on the Global Capital Markets Operating Committee and is a member of the firm's Climate Risk Committee as well Morgan Stanley’s Women’s Business Alliance Steering Committee. She joined the firm after earning a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Yale University and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School. She has been recognized by Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the “Top 75 Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street,” as well as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America.”
How would you describe your job to people outside the firm?
I have the privilege of working with some of the world’s most iconic and innovative companies that are at various stages of their ESG journey. My role is to help them progress their journey, no matter where they are along their path. The path to achieving their ultimate goals may not be linear and requires patience, commitment and consistency. My responsibility is to help companies visualize where they are headed and help them get there.
Whether it be advising them on their DE&I strategy or operationalizing their climate objectives, ESG considers a wide array of activities across the 3 pillars of E, S and G and is therefore a discipline that allows me to combine my passion for business and finance with the ability to affect positive social and environmental change. It’s very rewarding.
You’ve been at Morgan Stanley for over 30 years, working in a variety of capacities, including Global Head of Loan Products Group. What do you consider one of your most significant accomplishments at the firm?
I've invested a tremendous amount of time in developing our lending business, starting when lending was a nascent business line. We established a bank loan business back in 2001, and I was there at its inception and oversaw much of its growth. I was one of the architects of our lending joint venture with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ that was formed in 2009 to leverage our strategic partnership and further strengthen our combined capabilities. I’m very proud of the fact that we built and sustained this critically important business through the various credit and market cycles.
I also established our Corporate Board Initiative at the firm, which was formed to help clients identify and place candidates on corporate boards, a role that was the result of a multi-year effort capitalizing on industry best practices. This effort also focuses on identifying, cultivating and engaging with diverse talent for public company boards. Increasingly, board diversity has become a business imperative. Our role as one of the leading global financial institutions uniquely positions us to help corporate America achieve more equality of representation on public company boards. Research shows that diverse companies are more likely to financially outperform their peers, with better growth and expansion prospects for diverse teams. The tone at the top of companies matters from a governance perspective in terms of creating inclusive cultures, and the board plays a critical oversight role in helping management establish the right strategy for achieving their diversity objectives. Creating a better platform for servicing our clients in their board search efforts not only benefits them but also Morgan Stanley by creating more connectivity with our clients.
To what do you owe your success?
It’s really a range of things, including those whose shoulders I stand on, my many mentors and sponsors, and the top education my parents were able to give me. But my parents also instilled in me the importance of hard work—that you get out of things what you put into them. You get fulfillment out of taking the effort to do a good job, and you also gain mastery, which in turn helps build your confidence. And confidence and self-esteem are such an important part of success.
One of my mentors once told me that this business is really built on confidence. We’re giving advice to a lot of powerful people, and to have them trust you and respect you, you must be confident in giving that advice. One of the challenges for minorities is that if you are the only one who looks like you in the room, that in and of itself can undermine your confidence. That’s why an effort needs to be made to ensure that there is a culture of inclusion in the corporate environment, a culture that allows everyone to have a voice and enables every person to develop the kind of confidence they need to be viewed as competent.
What do you find most engaging about your work at Morgan Stanley?
Without question, the people. During my time at the firm, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with some of the brightest and most inspiring colleagues in banking. Everyone has diverse perspectives and backgrounds, but we all share a commitment to hard work and overall excellence. This permeates Morgan Stanley at all levels, but it’s always so gratifying to see it among interns and first-year analysts. They’re very enthusiastic and full of ideas, and I like to think that it’s the surrounding environment of top-flight people that stimulates their creativity.
What's next for you to accomplish?
As Vice Chairman, I feel my role now is really to work with banking teams to help provide access to those businesses that need capital, as well as establish additional connectivity. The more touchpoints we have with our clients over time, the better we’ll be able to serve their needs. An example of this is the Financial Decision Makers Conference that my team established for Chief Financial Officers and Treasurers of some of our largest clients. As head of the GCM ESG Center of Excellence (CoE), my goal is to further Morgan Stanley’s leadership position as a sustainability expert by achieving our objective of mobilizing over $1T by 2030 toward environmental and social solutions aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. By doing so, we will help our clients fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, maximizing long-term shareholder value while at the same time leaving the world in a better place for future generations.
In terms of mentorship, I believe that helping people develop is an ongoing process. Strong leaders are never just born—they’re made and cultivated over time. Helping colleagues grow professionally, often by giving them stretch assignments—i.e., those that will really make them go outside their comfort zones and broaden their skills—are key. There’s been a lot of research on this that indicates that women and minorities particularly benefit from these types of assignments, which makes perfect sense. These tasks often make them more visible and allow them to expand their networks, which is always critical in building relationships, access and opportunity.