Lisa Morris Jones joins us in celebration of Black History Month. Lisa is an alumna of the undergraduate program here at Haas. She is a CFA Chartholder and a Master of Business Administration – MBA focused on Finance and Entrepreneurial Management from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she is the president of the LMJ Group, a real estate management and development of commercial and residential properties throughout California.
In this episode, Lisa shared a little about her origin story, her interest in finance and entrepreneurship, and her extensive career. She is a strong professional with a demonstrated history of working in real estate development and management, investment management, and community development finance.
She also talked about what it was like being a Black female in finance back in the 80s when she started working and what inspired her to push forward even with some roadblocks. Currently, she is supporting the Haas MBA fellowships program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Another passion for Lisa is helping underserved and distressed communities. She is working on how to provide the needed capital to be able to help these communities thrive.
How Haas helped her make her way through Wharton
So much of what I learned at Haas, especially in marketing, accounting, and finance, those fundamentals were just absolutely essential in helping me go to Wharton, to be able to do other things while I was there and to really enjoy that experience.
On her experience as a Black woman in finance in the 80s
There were definitely people that discouraged me and many, many roadblocks. Lots of people telling me, “Maybe, you should focus on another discipline. This would be too challenging, too hard.”
You can’t really control how people think about you. It’s what you think about yourself that’s really important. You have ways to really reinforce who you are and build yourself up. I always said that if I’m prepared, I know the opportunities will come. And then, I can be able to walk through them. And I know that change in time is on your side. It may take a little time, but things are changing and moving in the right direction. And you have to keep that level of optimism because there’s always going to be someone to tell you, you can’t do it.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the One Haas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Lisa Morris Jones. Lisa is an alumna of the undergraduate program here at Haas, bachelor’s in… Your focus was in finance and marketing, I believe.
[00:22] Lisa: Yes.
[00:23] Sean: And you are currently the president of the LMJ Group. And you are also a CFA, a Certified Financial Analyst Chartholder. I don’t know if I want to mention this, actually, but you didn’t do your MBA at Haas.
[00:41] Lisa: No.
[00:42] Sean: You went to Wharton. So, we’ll definitely get into that story later as well. But before we get into all that, Lisa, welcome to the podcast.
[00:50] Lisa: Well, thank you so much for having me, Sean. I really appreciate this opportunity to speak with you and just talk a little bit about my background. Thank you so much.
[00:58] Sean: Absolutely. So, Lisa, our audience and myself always want to hear the guest’s origin story. So, if you could start there, I’d like to hear where you’re from, where you grew up.
[01:09] Lisa: Sure. I’m a native Californian. I was born in San Francisco. And at a very early age, my parents moved to Southern California. I was primarily raised in Hawthorne, California, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, and spent all of my young years there until I went to Berkeley and pursued getting my undergraduate degree at Berkeley at the Haas School of Business. But no, I’m a native Californian, proud to say that. I didn’t end up on the East Coast until I went to graduate school, and that’s when I stayed east and I stayed for over 30-plus years. But I’m glad to be back here in California.
[01:48] Sean: So, walk us a little bit through your career, what you did after Haas, and ultimately what brought you out East.
[01:56] Lisa: sure. After Haas, I went to Mitsui Manufacturers Bank, and I went through a credit training program. So, I learned about how to evaluate loans, write loans. To date, myself, we still had typing pools there. So, I would do everything to the exact measurements because I didn’t want to have to have things retyped in the typing pool.
But it was a great training program for me. I learned about doing loans to small businesses, to real estate developers, to real estate management companies. And it was during a period when the tax laws were changing. So, when that happened in 1986, many real estate developers went under. So, I had a chance, also, to learn about the stressed entities, how do you restructure loans? So, it was a great opportunity and experience for me.
And then, after I left Mitsui Manufacturers Bank, I went east to go to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And there I majored in finance and also entrepreneurial management because I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship. My dad was a real estate developer, my mother an educator. My father had been an entrepreneur his whole entire life. So, my grandfather as well as an entrepreneur, my aunt an entrepreneur, so a lot of entrepreneurships in my family. So, I always had a real liking, inkling to want to explore that. And I really enjoyed it. When I was there, there’s a lot of consulting with small businesses, a lot of boots on the ground. So, that was really a great experience for me.
[03:28] Sean: Were you interested in finance because your family were all entrepreneurs? Or, was there another reason why you were interested in business?
[03:36] Lisa: I was always interested in the stock market and investments. And when I went to Haas, that really became solidified for me. We had a great teacher, Aswath Damodaran, who was the investment professor who is absolutely outstanding. And he got me really interested in investments. And we had to do fundamental analysis by hand — no calculators, no Excel spreadsheets. So, it really got me very interested in that.
But I always had an interest in business. My dad, when I was younger, would take me out. He started off as a general contractor, then a property manager. Then, he went to real estate development. So, he would take me out with him in his truck as we would go and manage properties. So, I always had a keen interest in business. And my mother also fostered it as well. She would always say, “You should think about going to business school.” Even before I even understood what business school was, she would say, “I think you would really enjoy that.” And I definitely did. So, when I went to Haas, at that time, you had to apply to become an undergraduate business major after two years. But it was a great experience for me. And as I said, just the courses, especially the courses in finance and investment management and investments was really something very interesting to me.
[05:00] Sean: What drew you to the East Coast and Wharton?
[05:04] Lisa: Well, I did want to, basically, have a career in investment banking and investment management. And I felt, being on the East Coast, I could have an opportunity to work for several firms. And I had gone to Haas undergraduate. I said, let me get a different experience going to Wharton.
But I must say the fundamentals that I learned at Haas were really, really essential in helping me to make my way through Wharton and to really enjoy that experience. So much of what I learned at Haas, especially in the marketing, accounting, finance, those fundamentals were just absolutely essential in helping me to go to Wharton and to also be able to do other things while I was there because of the fundamentals that I learned there.
And then, after I left Wharton, I went to go work for American International Group, and I worked for a very small subsidiary within that company. And we looked at mergers and acquisitions in the United Kingdom, United States, also, Australia. Just it was a hodgepodge of different types of experience that I was able to have there. I worked on a startup, looking at asset-backed securities operation. Just lots of different experiences I was able to have at American International Group.
And I, also, at that time, pursued getting my general securities license, the Series 7, and also the Series 24. So, it put me more into more the investment arena, the more the investment management, investment banking arena.
And then, after I left the American International Group, I went to Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in their corporate finance group. And that gave me an opportunity to learn a lot about international finance, because I was responsible for managing their affiliates in Australia, Hong Kong, China, New Zealand, basically throughout Asia. And it gave me a good opportunity to understand interest rate swaps and foreign currency. And it’s really, how do you structure transactions for foreign affiliates, joint ventures? And it also gave me an opportunity to get into investment management, which I had different exposures through Haas, through my classes there. But it gave me a chance to pivot more toward the investment management side than, say, the corporate finance side. And I had the opportunity to work with a lot of emerging investment managers in their selection process and monitoring Seagram’s investment portfolio, their pension funds.
And from there I went to United Technologies and I made a full swing over to investment management. And I was there helping to manage their defined benefit and defined contribution plans, which was about 19 billion at that time. And I got exposure to all the asset classes, venture capital, real estate, emerging markets, developed markets, fixed income, and also equities. And that’s where I started to pursue my charter financial analyst designation.
But as I was working there, to be honest, I still had a nagging, I guess because of the way I was raised and the background that I’ve had of my dad doing so much in distressed communities, I kept trying to say, why are we so focused on we do investments in international markets and emerging markets, but we’re not doing anything in distressed markets here in the United States? And why is there not more of a focus on making investments here? We can create markets all over the world, but we don’t have criteria to be able to evaluate investments or risks in the stress markets here in the United States. And that was something that was really nagging at me, because I had exposure in corporate finance and investment management, and even starting as a banker and just doing credit analysis. But I would see institutional investors, especially when I was at United Technologies, shy away from wanting to make those investments. But they would go create a market in some emerging country, emerging market, and not have any reservations about doing that and calculate the risk and move forward with it.
So, after I left United Technologies, I did various consultings. I moved from New York and Connecticut to Washington D.C. and I did consulting for a lot of economic and community development firms, small companies that really focused on using federal resources, state resources to make economic and community development projects and investments. And I did that purposely so I could understand more of how foundations, both the public and private sector, work together to make these investments, not to straight grants, but whether they be guarantees, loans, equity investments. And I really want to become more familiar with that. And how do you assess risk in these markets?
And I did that for quite some time. And then, I looked at an opportunity that came about because of President Obama’s Small Business Jobs Act in 2010. And he was looking at how to invest in underserved communities through United States Department of Treasury, specifically the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
And I looked at that opportunity. It was a brand-new program, fresh legislation, no implementation. And I said, “This looks like something where I could combine my real interest in the capital markets, but also serving communities here in the United States, underserved, low-income, distressed communities.”
So, I went there and I started a program, the bond guarantee program. I was the original manager for that to start up that operation. And the whole purpose was for the federal government to provide guarantees via loans to intermediaries that would then take those funds and make investments in low-income and distressed communities. And it was very eye-opening experience for me, first time working in the federal government, trying to take something. People see legislation and they think, “Oh, it’s easy. It’s implemented.”
But trying to take it from legislation to, actually, regulations and program design and just really get the money out the door to have an impact, while I had no appreciation of the difficulty in that. All the stakeholders involved, whether they be the participants, congress, just so many different stakeholders, I had no concept, being from the private sector, how challenging that could be. But I had a real passion for wanting to do this because I knew that getting the money out in the street in these communities and we were directly financing institutions that were doing charter schools, community health centers, affordable housing, and I knew getting that money would really, really make a big impact and have a big difference. So, that motivation for me was really my driving force for getting through so much to be able to make that come off the ground.
[12:16] Sean: As a program manager, I’m actually curious with these bond guarantee programs, I imagine some of the challenges would be to, how do you hold these organizations accountable for actually making an impact? And what are the KPIs or metrics? How is that set? I imagine the government doesn’t set that.
[12:38] Lisa: When we started, we were trying to get uniform metrics. The first critical thing for me, to be honest, was, how are we going to assess risks? Because I looked at it even further down the road. I said, we’re going to have this government program, but we really want to do something that can help the capital markets to really be able to take over where the government has started, being like an impetus, and then be able to pick up. So, we’ve got to be able to assess. It has to be uniform in its assessment. And we’ve got to be able to show, as you said, some type of impacts or outcomes that can show impacts.
And so, we spent quite a bit of time really working on those metrics for risk that could be easily understood. And then, also, for reporting, how the money was being invested. Quite a bit of time doing that. And it was very challenging because each different asset had different types of metrics, in terms of reporting, impact. It was challenging from the institutions that were participating because many of them, profit and nonprofit, they can be banks, credit unions, nonprofit loan funds, for profit loan funds, they all had their own way of assessing risks, but there was no uniform way of assessing risks. So, we worked really, really diligently and very hard on that.
And one of the things that I was really pleasantly surprised and really over-ecstatic and on-the-moon and never thought it could occur was Standard & Poor’s started to look at this and basically started rating these entities that were getting our financing. And that, to me, was the moonshot. For Standard & Poor’s to come in and say, “Indeed, this is legitimate. These are legitimate institutions. They’re serving the community. And they’re above investment grade,” so, that was really, for me, just like, wow, this is definitely something that can happen where you can have distressed communities in the United States receive capital. It can be risk-assessed. It can be able to help communities have impact and still be capital that it’s very viable and making impacts in the community.
Because that’s a big concern for institutional investors is, we’re going to make this investment, but it’s risky. We’re just going to not even count it in the same way we would look at other investments. But when having Standard & Poor’s come in and look at this and say, “This is indeed worthy of being rated and above investment grade,” in the high, AAA, AA, not even on the martyrs of investment grade, was really, really… it was an aha moment for me.
[15:21] Sean: Did you mention that these distressed investments, they mostly impacted underrepresented communities?
[15:29] Lisa: Yeah, underserved communities. So, definitely low-income communities. And also, it impacted Native American communities, tribal communities as well, which can be challenging for others to lend because of some of the laws are inherent in tribal governments. But really being able to go across the United States, the Appalachian region, all areas of the United States, urban environments, rural environments, to be able to lend the money to these institutions and then be able to have them make the investments in the communities.
[16:04] Sean: That’s amazing. A question that kept popping up in my head, just out of curiosity, because, by the time this episode releases, it’ll be Black History Month, it’ll be February, one of the questions I’m curious about, because I was born around the time that you started working in finance in the mid-’80s, what was it like as a black female in finance back then? And on top of that, because I’m also asking this question because DEI is such a huge initiative focus for Haas, and just in our general society today. Even with that, we still struggle to attract underrepresented groups to come to the MBA. So, I also like to hear what it was like being at Wharton back in the ’80s as a black female and in finance. Could you share a little bit about that with us?
[16:55] Lisa: Sure. There were definitely people that discouraged me and many, many roadblocks. But I would say that I really, really had a real passion for finance. But definitely, lots of different roadblocks, lots of people telling me, “Maybe, you should focus on another discipline. This would be too challenging, too hard.” But I would say, a lot of how I grew up and the values that my parents instilled in me and letting me understand that those are just roadblocks, you can keep moving forward, and then seeing other successful black entrepreneurs. My dad, as I said, was a developer. He was part of the Great Migration that came from the south, he and my mom both. And seeing the businesses that he had and other people that came from the south as well as a part of that Great Migration, seeing the successful businesses that they built and how they were able to move their families forward and create other enterprises.
So, my dad used to always tell me, my mother as well, is that, you can’t really control how people think about you. It’s what you think about yourself that’s really important. And getting that foundation really helped me. But definitely, even going through credit programs, going to Wharton as well, you definitely would see people and really question why you’re there. And you just have to just brush that off and really focus on why you are there and what you want to get out of those programs.
And while I was at Wharton, and even at Haas, I was really involved in the community at Haas. I was involved in student government. I was an ASUC senator and vice president. When I was at Wharton, I was chairing the Whitney M. Young Conference, that provided scholarships and outreach.
And so, you have ways to really reinforce who you are and build yourself up. But definitely, even trying to get jobs in finance, but I just always said, if I’m prepared, I know that the opportunities will come. And then, I can be able to walk through them. And I know that change in time is on your side. It may take a little bit of time, but things are changing, things are moving in the right direction. And you just have to keep that level of optimism because there’s always going to be someone to tell you, you can’t do it.
[19:19] Sean: I love that message. Wow. Thank you for sharing that.
[19:23] Lisa: Sure.
[19:24] Sean: So, what are you up to these days?
[19:28] Lisa: So, now, I’m back in Southern California, and I have a small consulting firm. And I do a lot of real estate advisory work and, also, consulting with foundations about economic and community development. So, I’m enjoying that, being able to do that. And I have some plans this year to veer off into some other ventures that I’m working on. I can’t really speak about them right now, but I am enjoying that because that’s really my passion, is really, how can we look at communities and really provide the needed capital to be able to help these communities thrive? You have neighborhoods and people that really want that investment. And how do you attract that without “regentrification,” where they are displaced? How do you keep the neighborhood, the residents there, also having new residents come in, and really to provide to thriving communities? So, that’s still my passion. And I still really get excited about how to be able to attract capital to these communities. It’s really a big passion for me.
[20:33] Sean: Wow. I just realized something that, as a layman, or even for some of our listeners, what is the difference between a bond and a bond guarantee?
[20:43] Lisa: Well, when institutions want to make investments, they can make an investment by providing a loan, which is essentially a bond, but they would provide loans. They can make an equity investment by basically investing in the institution and looking for some type of return later. Or, they can provide a guarantee. And what a guarantee is it’s like a letter of a credit. It’s, “We will guarantee, maybe, the first losses on this particular project.” So, that guarantee allows the institution that’s receiving it to go to other financial institutions and say, “Hey, I have this particular guarantee on my project.” And it allows them to attract other capital.
For foundations that are providing a guarantee, or in the case of the government when they were providing guarantees, it allows you to use your capital more efficiently because you’re not putting an outlay of a loan of cash. You’re just putting up a guarantee that says, if your project has a specific amount of losses, we’re going to backstop those losses. We’re going to be able to mitigate those losses. So, it effectively lowers the risk profile for the project because you’ve got, whether it be the federal government or foundation or bank providing this guarantee for the project, and it allows the institution that’s providing it not to use their capital because the guarantees only exercise if there’s a certain amount of losses associated with that particular project.
So, it’s a win-win for both, because the institutions that are providing the guarantee are not doing an outlay of capital. It’s only drawn upon if there’s actually a loss. And then, the institutions that are getting the guarantee can use that to go to other financial institutions, foundations, or whatever the providers are of the actual capital, capital providers, and say, “I have this guarantee on this project I’m working on, say, an affordable housing project. The guarantee is going to mitigate losses up to this percentage. Can you provide either bridge financing, construction financing, for this particular project?” So, it’s actually a win-win across the board. As I said, a bond is more like a loan. It’s actually providing capital, providing loan capital for a particular project.
[23:09] Sean: What would you say is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned over your career?
[23:12] Lisa: I would say the importance of always reaching back and acknowledging who’s helped you and being grateful and acknowledging that and taking the time, even if it’s a call, a note or something, but being able to just say thank you for those that have paved the way or made a phone call for you or gave you some information. I think that’s extremely important to be able to do that. I know we all get busy and we mean to do it, but it’s really important to take the time to thank people that are opening doors, giving you information, whatever they’re doing to really enhance your career, your knowledge. There have been times where I’ve worked on projects and I didn’t know anything about them. You get a project, it lands on your desk, and they say, “Lisa, run and do this.” And I’ve called people within my network, whether it be Haas or Wharton or just working network, and say, “Can I meet you for brunch, dinner?” And you ask some questions and you say, “Can we meet a couple of times?” And their knowledge and their experience just puts you so much further ahead of the curve in terms of being able to even know what questions to ask to start the project. So, just that sense of gratitude and making sure that people feel appreciated and you take the time to acknowledge that, I think that’s extremely important.
[24:35] Sean: I think that’s even more important today in our digital world. It’s so much easier to reach people that sometimes we take it for granted that we should reach out and thank them or show appreciation. What’s one question you wish I would’ve asked you, or an area that you’d like to share more about?
[24:52] Lisa: Well, I do want to say that I am supporting the Haas MBA fellowships program for historically black colleges and universities. That’s really important to me. That was an initiative that started under Dean Harrison. So, that’s something that I’m involved in and really excited about and excited about what they can do in terms of attracting students from historically black colleges graduates to come to Haas and get their MBA. So, I’m really excited about that.
[25:21] Sean: Actually, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
[25:23] Lisa: Yes, that was an initiative that was started as a part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program. There were several initiatives to attract African-American students. And this particular initiative will provide a fellowship tuition room and board for our students who have graduated from historically black colleges and are looking to get their MBA from the Haas School. So, that’s something that was launched last year. And I’ve been involved with that. And I’m really excited about the outcome and opportunities for students, really very excited.
[25:57] Sean: That’s amazing. All right. Well, before we wrap up, I always have this favorite question of mine, which is, are there any books that you recommend or any books or shows that you’ve been reading or watching lately that you enjoyed?
[26:12] Lisa: Any books that I recommend? I read a lot of books last year. I haven’t really thought about that right now. I may have to put a plug in there.
[26:23] Sean: No worries.
[26:27] Lisa: I can tell you this on a personal level, one book that I listen to all the time, I drive quite a bit back and forth throughout the state in Austin to Nevada, I’m always driving back and forth, but I love Tabitha Brown’s book or her audiobook. I’m really into audiobooks. I listen to a lot of audiobooks. So, I really like her book. I’m listening to Michelle Obama’s new audiobook. I will typically listen to three or four different audiobooks at one time. So, really enjoying that as well.
[26:56] Sean: Same here. And it becomes a little problematic sometimes. I get in the car, I’m like, “Which one do I want to listen to today?”
[27:06] Lisa: Exactly.
[27:07] Sean: I’m right now I’m listening to Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson, which is a lot more fascinating than I imagined for this character.
[27:17] Lisa: I love autobiographies, by the way. And biographies, some people are really in the fiction, but there’s something about listening to the trajectory of someone’s life and their obstacles and how they overcame them. And all of that, it’s just so much there’s so many jewels in that level of information that I just really, really enjoy autobiographies and biographies, truly do.
[27:42] Sean: I agree. I feel like it’s a life hack. You get to gain all the wisdom from someone else’s lifetime without having to live all those years, right?
[27:50] Lisa: Exactly. I was just looking through my Audible. It’s so many different books. When you asked me, that threw me for a moment. But those are the ones I’m listening to right now. But definitely enjoy listening to those books.
[28:06] Sean: Lisa, it’s been a pleasure having you on today. I feel like I learned a lot more than I expected from this interview.
[28:15] Lisa: Well, no, I really appreciate it. Like I said, it’s a very humbling experience for me. When they asked you, I was like, “Are you sure? Are you positive you want to do that?” And they said yes. I said, “Okay.” Really, really glad I was able to do that and be able to just share my thoughts and my experiences. Really appreciate the time.
[28:33] Sean: Well, thank you for your time, Lisa.
[28:35] Lisa: Thank you.[28:42]