Just a few weeks ago, James “Jay” Lewis—a refugee from Enron and now a successful startup entrepreneur—became the newest member of The Consortium’s Eagle Club, demonstrating the highest level of financial commitment to the organization he says enabled his career to flourish.
The New York University class of 1997 Consortium fellow today holds an usual position in corporate America, that of co-CEO at Just Energy Group, a company he co-founded after enduring the 2001 collapse of Enron, where he had been a young VP of the structuring and trading portfolios.
While The Consortium helped him realize options to “do something that I wanted, not something that I needed to pay off debt,” the Enron experience forced him to reinvent himself as a startup entrepreneur. Today, he shares his experiences, his perspective on the lack of diversity in senior corporate leadership—and why giving back to The Consortium was an easy decision.
Tell us a little about your job today and some career highlights? And why is your co-CEO position noteworthy?
With over 17 years of retail energy experience, I assumed the role of president and co-CEO of Just Energy Group in April 2014, alongside my long-time colleague, Deborah Merril. Just Energy is one of North America’s leading energy retailers, a public company with annual revenue in excess of $3 billion, and serving 2 million customers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. We provide energy management solutions for homes and businesses, offering consumers more choice, control and convenience. Our vision is to be the gold standard in retail energy delivering value, stability and innovation to every one of our stakeholder relationships.
A career highlight dates back to my days as an entrepreneur. In 2002, l cofounded Just Energy LP, a Houston-based retail energy start-up. The deregulation of energy presented a unique opportunity to make an impact in an industry going through dynamic change. Much of my experience was gained while working previously at Enron as a young VP of the structuring and trading portfolios. The sudden financial demise of the company confirmed to me the importance of planning for the unexpected.
I took lessons in resilience and reinvention and applied them to my startup venture. In 2007, we sold the company to then Energy Savings Group, which later rebranded to current day Just Energy Group. Impressed with our growth, they retained our employees and senior management team, as well as our approach to business. You could say a career highlight was my appointment to president and co-CEO of Just Energy Group in 2014, which brought me full circle with the start-up I co-launched 12 years earlier.
A personal highlight further includes my current position as an African-American leading an international publicly held company, in an industry characteristically led by white males. Generally, with C-suites overwhelmingly white across the U.S. corporate spectrum, black business leaders are largely under-represented in top-level posts.
Only 15 executives of color have ever made it to the chairman or CEO position of a Fortune 500-listed company. Currently, there are only five active. That’s an incredibly low 1 percent in the top position. And it isn’t just black Americans under-represented. Minorities comprised just over 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs in 2014, and only 4 percent of women occupy the top executive post.
That’s where we are further uniquely positioned as a company. The organization operates within a dual-CEO structure, a rarity in the senior leadership echelons of corporate America. In fact, in the last 25 years, only 21 companies in the Fortune 500 have used the co-CEO structure. So, between Deb and I, we have broken the mold of conventionality in the industry in terms of gender, race and joint executive stewardship that is actually resulting in greater operational efficiency and organizational performance.
As a recent entrant to the Eagle Club, what was your path to deciding to make that leap?
The Consortium was an instrumental part of my educational journey. Between my savings from working at GE and The Consortium, I was able to graduate with no debt. This allowed me the opportunity to focus my job search on something that I wanted, not something that I needed to pay off a large amount of debt.
The Consortium provided a critical bridge to help me achieve my goal. It’s one thing to know you have the potential, but for many, as was the case for me, there’s a disconnect between academic potential and the financial resources required to fulfill that potential. Given where I am now in my professional career, I wanted to pay it forward, to help others achieve their academic aspirations, as I have. The Consortium was a natural choice.
How would you persuade someone else to become an Eagle Club member?
A large component of an MBA education is the study of return on investment (ROI). That’s exactly what the Consortium provides every student—a return on their academic investment. Through my fellowship, I received the financial support to invest in my education, my career and, ultimately, my ability to pay it forward in terms of business and community leadership. As an Eagle Club member, I can truly say that I’m giving back a fraction of the value I received.
It is my personal investment in the future of our young leaders-in-the-making, whether that leadership takes shape in the community, corporate or government sphere. It is gratifying to be a part of that.
The Consortium has helped more than 8,000 of the country’s best MBA students gain the financial access to fulfill their goals. This is a compelling reflection of The Consortium’s positive impact on American business through development of some of the country’s best and brightest talent, and their contribution to advance diversity up the management chain.
What benefits have you drawn from your association with The Consortium?
I realized benefits immediately post-graduation through the student resources available to assist in my job search. This included lessons learned by the interview experience which presented valuable opportunities to build the often overlooked soft skills (communication/expression/self-awareness) needed to complement the hard skills (or institutional knowledge).
There is also the opportunity for personal networking. I would encourage everyone to meet as many people as possible. Create connections that could benefit your long term career path, not to mention the satisfaction gained from establishing personal relationships that can last a lifetime.
How has the climate for diversity in U.S. business helped or hindered you on your path? Has that climate changed over the years? Have you seen ebbs and flows? In what ways?
I don’t feel that the climate for diversity either helped or hindered me personally in business. I can say, though, that being African American did impact others’ perception of me as a child growing up in a New Jersey suburb. One of only three black students in my elementary school, my presence there was already unsettling. When my family encountered hard times and we lost our home, it was just the thing to confirm the community’s preconceived expectations.
I can also recall vividly a grade two classmate who had skipped a grade. I was a good student and felt that I should have been selected as well, but was disregarded, I believed, because of the color of my skin. As you can imagine, these experiences left a lasting imprint on me. They shaped my attitude and motivation to pursue higher learning and accelerate my education. They also confirmed that you can never stop raising the bar for yourself; go beyond what others expect.
Turning to industry and the corporate space, although there is still work to be done (referring to the stats I mentioned earlier, we are seeing organizations acknowledge the importance of having diverse opinion, afforded by diverse representation, around the table. From my perspective, this helps us as a business to understand the preferences of an equally mixed customer base, and develop more customized solutions that fit their needs. It’s a win-win scenario.
Also, given the era of social media, instant, open communication is providing an influential forum to share experiences, promote awareness and move the conversation forward. Again though, there still remains a substantially low reflection of diversity up the corporate power pyramid. Unconscious bias still exists against others who don’t fit the archetypical model of leadership. Research shows that leaders are often subconsciously more comfortable working with people like themselves. Although some organizations are openly vocal about promoting diversity, many haven’t figured out how to translate the words into effective action.
What do you do when you’re not working? Hobbies, passions?
Certainly, outside business, my family keeps me busy, shuttling my three kids to and from basketball, baseball and gymnastics practices and games. I enjoy playing chess, and the occasional break from routine with a good suspense story, especially if crafted by Nelson DeMille.
Whenever possible, I try to participate in volunteer opportunities through the Just Energy Foundation and encourage members of our senior leadership to get involved in their local communities. Currently, we’re exploring mentoring opportunities at higher needs schools in Houston. It’s important to me to give back, to share what I can to help the next generation of students, especially those struggling to achieve their academic potential. Education is key. That’s how we break through walls, inspire change and ultimately build healthy, thriving communities.
As far as passions, I would love to teach after retirement. I enjoy economics, particularly Game Theory, studying the interaction between participants and the benefits-less-costs involved in a particular model to predict optimal decision making. I find that fascinating.
When is the last time you referred someone to The Consortium?
I believe it was in 1999. The Consortium simplified the MBA application process in that students were able to apply to more than one school through a central body, as opposed to having to submit directly to each school. Essentially, a one-stop, full service option.