Editor’s note: This post is part of the White House Celebrating Black History Month series, which highlights the contributions of African Americans throughout the Administration whose work contributes to the President’s vision for winning the future.
In Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he gives tributes to those who helped shape his persona. He writes that from his adopted father, Antoninus, he learned “Compassion. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence. His dogged determinination to treat people as they deserved.” Like Aurelius, I too learned from my father. He taught me to ride a bike, the art of the handshake and never to run from a fight worth having, especially those on behalf of others. These principles shaped who I am today and the choice I made to join this Administration.
I grew up in inner city Dallas but unlike many unfortunate tales of the inner city, my father was there. He was a postman and my mother was a teacher. These were among the best jobs available to college educated African-Americans in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s. The work was difficult then, but he never complained because his father raised him to believe that you did what you had to do for your family, no matter what.
I attended a mixture of public and private schools and almost always made straight “A’s” until age 16. Instead, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a straight “A” student and started hanging out with a different crowd for whom honor-roll meant nothing. My grades started to fall. My mother saw this happening, and she and my father intervened. I was tested and admitted to the Greenhill School, a college preparatory school. While the transition was initially difficult given the vast economic differences, I learned that common threads connect us all, irrespective of race, class or origin.
I earned an undergraduate degree in Finance from the University of Texas. My interest in finance actually started with my father who used to take me to the bank with him when I was very young. I became intrigued by the study of capital, how it flowed, and how it could be used to create opportunity. Later, I did a political internship with the Coro Foundation, with much of my work taking place in East St. Louis, Ill. In 1992, I earned a Master’s in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
I was hired as an investment banker with JPMorgan Securities in New York City where I worked for six years raising capital for major infrastructure projects. In 1998, I joined JPMorgan’s Asset Management Division working with large clients in the Midwest assisting them with their pension and 401(k) platform investment strategies. I was eventually promoted to Managing Director and Region Head of the Western region where I managed a team that covered major institutional clients across the Western US. I was the first African-American promoted to Managing Director within the global asset management franchise.
But, I never forgot my father’s example that the true measure of the man is how he uses his platform to create opportunities for others. So I mentored many people both within and outside of the firm. I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters both as a Big Brother and as a board member. I also served on the Harvard Schools Committee, the Dallas County Community College District Foundation, and on the Greenhill Board of Trustees, but was always pleased when talented people found their voice. I created a scholarship fund at Greenhill to help kids from the Boys and Girls Club to attend the school. For my efforts at the school, they recently selected me to receive their Distinguished Alumnus award, the first African-American ever to receive it.
Mostly, I wanted to make my parents proud. One of my favorite moments was the Inauguration ceremony for President Obama, with my parents accompanying me to Washington, DC event. I will never forget my father’s face as the new President and First Lady walked by. Watching him, I could almost see the weight of so many years of struggle lifted in that moment. I knew then that it was time for me to leave my 17-year career in the financial services industry and join this Administration to do whatever I could to promote its policies and defend its legacy.
Now, I am honored to serve as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Employee Benefits Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Labor. Our role is to assure the security of retirement and health benefit plans and other workplace related benefits for America’s workers. In doing so, I am able to leverage my financial experience to support Assistant Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi and the agency in promoting the security of these benefits for millions of workers nationwide.
I am also completing a circle of sorts by continuing the ideals of persistence and service to community that I learned from my father, as he did from his. In many ways my path was set before I took the first step.
Finally, my father is now pursuing his own life of service. He left the postal service many years ago and has been the pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Dallas for more than 30 years.
The author, Michael L. Davis is Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.