Last week, Questrom School of Business welcomed CEO, thought leader, and social entrepreneur James Rhee to the stage at the Rafik B. Hariri Building to discuss his remarkable career in corporate finance and education. For over an hour, Rhee was interviewed by Kabrina Chang, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Clinical Professor, Markets, Public Policy, and Law before fielding questions from a packed audience of Questrom students on the topic of applying their values to the business world.
The conversation began with Rhee’s initial success in private equity, which provided him with a tremendous understanding of the inner workings of corporations but ultimately proved dissatisfying on a personal level. Rhee shocked his colleagues by quitting the industry and taking a huge risk by becoming CEO of Ashley Stewart, a then-failing fashion retailer aimed at plus-sized, moderate-income black women. He described the initial challenges of winning the trust of the existing employees, establishing a new corporate culture based on “kindness and mathematical rigor,” and, over the course of seven years, renewing the brand from one facing liquidation to a thriving and prosperous enterprise. Rhee’s transformation of Ashley Stewart won him recognition as one of five 2016 Power Player Awards by the National Retail Foundation.
Inspired by his success with Ashley Stewart, Rhee turned to his current endeavor- Red Helicopter, a social enterprise aimed at fostering goodwill and connecting people within the world of education. In doing so, he has rewritten the rules for what can be accomplished through creativity, kindness, and business acumen. When asked for his advice to the assembled audience of Questrom students, Rhee pointed out that they will be entering a more diverse and unstable labor market than any other generation before them- and therefore to maximize their own agility, flexibility, and agency in both life and business.