By Jess Washington
I had the chance to sit with Michelle R. Thomas, Executive Director of Global Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase, at the firm’s client center in downtown Dallas. Immediately, Michelle welcomed me with open arms as I was offered a coffee from the cafe. I reveled from the view that was far different from my day to day cityscape. As my team set up, Michelle pulled me to the side to chat. Yes, I was sitting in front of a graduate from University of Oklahoma with a degree in business education and an MBA from Dallas Baptist University in Finance. Yes, she leads and manages philanthropic and community efforts for one of the largest firms in the world. But Michelle is also a Dallas native, so talking to her felt like chatting with my neighbor. And I say that on purpose because even as the Executive Director of Global Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase, she knows exactly what’s happening on the other side of 30 and down 35. I recall my first time hearing Michelle speak during a meeting with executives, community leaders and the Chase CEO, Jamie Dimon. Although erudite she’s firm and not to be messed with.This is why I was so happy to hear Michelle’s story for this year’s Women’s History Month special edition.
We started from the beginning. Thomas dived into her background, coming from a family of educators with decades of service in the Dallas Independent School District. I was curious what piqued her interest to work in the finance industry and it all stems from her love of education. With teacher certifications both in the state of Texas and Oklahoma, Thomas was primed to be a game changer. But she knew the best way to be truly effective was to get into the banking industry. Thomas still worked in education with special needs children, which she is very passionate about instruction and supports the student’s unique needs.
Last November, I witnessed her passion for education during an exclusive meeting with CEO Jamie Dimon, illustrating the success of the 2018 Commit Partnership. This was a $3 million investment in the Commit Partnership in support of Dallas County Promise to expand pathways to high quality careers for students leading to post-secondary access and persistence, through partnerships with local colleges. One of the institutions who benefited was local HBCU Paul Quinn College, who had President Dr. Michael Sorrell and alumni Evelyna Rosario – now a DEI Officer for JPMorgan Chase – speak to the success of the partnership.
Her career in banking has always been about philanthropy. A typical day for Michelle Thomas is creating strategies that have “a robust market strategy focusing on the most critical and economically challenged areas.” Considering her oversight of Oklahoma and Texas along with $16 million in grants under management that require constant attention, Michelle is consumed with developing and implementing solutions for the people who need it most. She even goes on to list a myriad of issues,
including equipping people with the skills they need to advance in the labor market, bridging the wealth divide by providing underserved entrepreneurs access to capital and technical assistance, and supporting revitalization efforts in underinvested communities facing gentrification.
“The partnership is real. There’s a lot of non profit organizations out there, but we need to be intentional about supporting non profit organizations that are led by people of color and serve people of color. Residents of these communities are well aware of the disparities that exist, and they will often tell you that they are tired and fatigued from being surveyed”…“we just want to see action happen.”
As a resident and business owner in one of these communities, I overwhelmingly appreciated Thomas’ recognition of the people’s frustrations. Thomas made it clear, she’s here to find the solutions.
We talked about leadership and what it means to be a woman in these positions. Thomas echoed what I have heard so many times from other great executives like Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. Thomas acknowledged that she has seen a lot of progress, but we still have a way to go. She believes women of color should create opportunities for others to follow, but she also challenges those who are not women of color, to do their part.
“Talent is created equally but the opportunity is often not.” – Michelle R. Thomas
We took a turn to the personal side of Michelle’s life. She shared her experience as the Chair of the Black COVID Economic Recovery Committee, which she was appointed by Councilman Casey Thomas. It’s no question that during the COVID pandemic, a lot of businesses and families had to pivot, and in some cases suffered during the economic decline. Again, Michelle came out the gate with the hard facts.
“As a financial institution, we are aware of the disproportionate economic impact from the global pandemic… but even before that, we knew there was a resource gap in the areas of capital for entrepreneurs of color… the pandemic simply exasperated the issue.”
In 2020, three organizations came together to create the Revive Dallas Small Business Relief Fund. Those organizations were The DEC (Dallas Entrepreneur Center), Communities Foundation of Texas and LiftFund and raised $5 million to offer loans to support primarily minority- and women-owned small businesses. JPMorgan Chase supplied a $250,000 grant to Revive Dallas in order to help build the structure of the Fund. Even though PPP (payment protection program) and the SBA were supplying relief to small businesses, Thomas and other members of the COVID Committee knew these program’s funds were not accessible for businesses that may not have the legal and financial documentation to meet the requirements for funding. Thomas even stated that for the Relief Fund, about 40% of the applications submitted were incomplete. But instead of allowing these businesses to decline, this was an opportunity for the COVID Committee to help those businesses who needed it the most by offering mentorship and technical assistance.
Outside of Thomas’ work on that committee, she is on the Board of Directors for the Dallas Museum of Art, Methodist Health System Foundation, UT Southwestern Medical Foundation Advisory Board and Austin Street Center. I know from my own recent experience that being a board member takes a lot of your personal time and requires dedication. So it’s clear to see why she gives back the way that she does. It’s not just in her DNA, it’s who she is. It is so important for all of us to give back and share our experiences to create a more equitable environment.
For all the little girls and young women out there, Thomas proves that you can stay true to who you are, stay grounded in your passion and have a successful career. She sits at a lot of tables making multi-million dollar decisions to uplift underserved communities. Politicians and executives seek her advice when making decisions for the community. The rules are simple for Thomas, she simply asks herself, “what side of the equation do you want to be on?”
One of my favorite things about my chat with Thomas is how unapologetic she is. She doesn’t mince her words when talking about the overdue attention needed to areas like South & West Dallas. She knows you can’t talk about women’s issues without a woman at the table or academic solutions without an educator at the table. We all learned in chemistry class that elements and compounds need to complement one another, and “fit” in order to see a solution. Well that’s what Thomas does every day, working like a mad scientist for those in need. Whether it be through her 20+ years of work in philanthropy at firms like JPMorgan Chase or the work she does with the many prestigious organizations she supports. Simply stated, Thomas is the pure definition of what it means to advocate. It’s not what you say, but what you actually do.