NEW YORK – Jason Sahr Lamin is a busy young man. The 1993 Winnsboro High School alum and 1998 University of Texas grad has not only worked in the New York and London offices of Merril Lynch & Co, but also founded his own firm, Lenox Park, LLC, in 2009.
He is the former co-chairman of United Nations Global Anti-Bribery & Anti-Corruption Working Group; he is a member of the National Minority Business Council Financial Advisory Council; he’s a Robert Toigo Foundation Mentor; a member of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Policy; a member of the World Policy Institute and has been a featured speaker at The Children’s Aid Society, Harlem, New York.
He is the founder of Nyawa Funding Group, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to improve the living standards in his native Sierra Leone.
Most recently, Lamin was the featured speaker at UT’s Department of Economics in Liberal Arts.
“I felt so honored and grateful to be up there,” Lamin said. “But that day is so much more than most people get to witness. The address is approximately 20 minutes; but before the speech, I was in the Department of Economics with their faculty and staff having breakfast talking about all their work. After the speech and graduation ceremony, all the families of graduating students came to a reception where we took photos, and I could speak with all the proud families. What an amazing honor; one I will not forget.”
“Jason Lamin has been recognized for his business savvy internationally,” said J.B. Goodwin, CEO/Broker, of Austin-based JB Goodwin Realtors. “He has been invited to the White House for a round-table discussion on how to create more jobs through small businesses, as well as serving on United Nations committees. Jason’s business acumen and wisdom is way beyond his years. Way to go Winnsboro High – you had a big hand in shaping a remarkable young man.”
Lamin, whose mother is the former Marilyn Skeen and whose grandparents were the late V.G. and Melba Skeen, was born in Sierra Leone.
His parents met when his mom, a volunteer in the Peace Corps, and his father, Murray Ernest Sahr (means first son), a native of Sierra Leone, worked together on a project.
“I began teaching in Sierra Leone in 1967 and finished in 1987,” said Marilyn in an e-mail interview. “I taught at five different secondary schools, and then the last year I helped start the American International School in Freetown.”
After his parents’ divorce, Lamin, his younger brother, Jeremy, and his mom relocated to the states, settling in Winnsboro in 1990, where his mom taught school in Mount Vernon and Winnsboro.
Lamin, a single father of one, took time from his life to answer questions about his career, coming of age in East Texas and his attempt to be a true citizen of the world.
The Winnsboro News: Explain what you do for a living.
Jason Lamin: I started my career as an investment banker, working for Merrill Lynch in New York.
In that role, we primarily helped companies either acquire other companies or sell themselves to a buyer. We also helped companies obtain financing either through the equity or debt capital markets.
At my current firm, Lenox Park, which I co-founded with a former colleague of mine in 2009, we offer investment management-related consulting services that help our customers create or optimize their asset management operations.
A good example is a client – let’s assume it’s a pension fund – may invest with several investment managers and have a need to create better reporting and policies around those investments. We help them build or refine those reports, policies or procedures. We almost always use technology to create these efficiencies so there is a significant portion of our business that is technology-related.
“FinTech” is the industry term used to describe a company like ours that is a blend of technology services and related to the finance sector.
TWN: How did you come to this career? Was there a class you took in college or a model you saw that led you do what you do?
JL: The honest story? I was pre-law for my 1st couple of years at UT. After doing some research to try to refine which part of law I wanted to pursue, I quickly (within an hour) determined that was not a suitable path for me.
I started looking into different career paths. At one point in college I was working three jobs: making deliveries for the UT athletic department, I had an internship at First USA bank and waiting tables at a restaurant at night.
Exhausted from trying to balance my studies with earning money to pay for school, I decided it would be nice to have a life that didn’t include worries about money. Investment Banking was the top-paying job one could get coming out of college, and so I shifted all my efforts to landing a job in that field.
An economics degree was the one that was most relevant without my having to move from the liberal arts college into the business school.
I’m so fortunate to have taken that path because I credit my liberal arts, economics degree with having paved a way for so much of my professional experiences.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to make career choices solely based on money, but in my case a career in investment banking opened up some doors of opportunity that I’ll always be grateful for; and I met some of my closest friends because of it.
TWN: You’ve always been aware of global issues. Is your mom responsible for your universal approach to the human condition?
JL: There is no question that my mother instilled the idea of global citizenship in her kids.
And not just me and Jeremy, but so many of her students have gone on to explore the world. They often times reach back to her and credit her for opening up the world to them – through literature, film, music – or just her stories of living in Sierra Leone. I’m in awe when I think of how many lives she’s touched.
As a parent now, I can now also appreciate that my mom was able to teach my brother and me something extraordinarily difficult, and yet vital: empathy.
My mom could never sit silently when things were unjust and – perhaps using her skill for drama – was always able to put herself directly in the shoes of those less fortunate of subject to injustice. My brother and I have benefited from watching her do this our entire lives.
As biracial kids in East Texas, Jeremy and I didn’t escape all the discomforts of prejudice and bigotry; but the fact that my mom was white certainly provided some ‘cover’ or protective measures. My mom never let us confuse that ‘cover’ with fairness. And we remained acutely aware that somewhere close by, there were other kids of color who didn’t have that same fortune – and that was wrong.
One spectacular way to increase global awareness and a greater connection to humanity is to travel.
TWN: You graduated WHS in 1993. Talk about your time in Winnsboro and how it impacted your path.
JL: I have so many fond memories of WHS. I made such good friends there – and while I keep in touch with a few, none of them feel as close to me as I’d like. I wish we could do more to stay connected. Facebook helps.
I talked a little about this in my commencement speech. So many wonderful people who were supportive – teachers, coaches, friends.
There was also this feeling of comfort that I had knowing that I had family roots there. I haven’t been back in a long time, but I’d love to visit sometime soon.
TWN: You graduated from UT Austin in 1998 then went right to work in investment banking in New York City. Talk about the impact living in NYC had on your global outlook.
JL: New York City has added incredible pieces to my life mosaic. The energy and hustle that it takes to live in this city is almost jarring at first; then it becomes so attractive, and finally intoxicating (or maybe even addictive). I’m not sure I’ll live here forever, but it’s the place I now feel most at home. It’s a melting pot of cultures, but not as international as London.
TWN: You had the chance to work for Merrill Lynch International in London. Talk about that part of your career and what it was like living in London.
JL: Some of the happiest moments of my life happened during my time living in London. I love exploring other cultures, and London is a truly international city, and lets you do that. It’s also so close to continental Europe that I could hop on a plane and in 2 hours, I could be in almost any major western European city: Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome.
It was a wonderful time for me to travel and I did a lot of it.
My favorite city is Paris; and my favorite country is Italy. I wish I could count all the cities I traveled to while living there, but I can’t. I know it was a lot!
TWN: You struck out on your own in 2009 with Lenox Park, LLC. How did you come to the decision to build your own brand?
JL: Building anything great is going to require taking some risks and will present some real challenges. Leaving something that is seemingly secure to take on the unknown is daunting.
I had to adjust some preconceived ideas about risk-taking. The first step was asking myself honestly if I was happy with the direction my career was heading. I was fortunate in that I had just been promoted to director, I was being compensated very well and I worked with great people. But, was this what I wanted to do with my life? Was this the best definition of success that I could come up with? The answers were no.
Then I wanted to honestly evaluate which was riskier: me staying on Wall Street in a job that felt secure, or me betting on myself and leveraging the skills and client relationships I’d built in 10 years to do something different.
When I dug deeper into the security of my Wall Street career, I had a job, at a firm, in an industry that had extraordinary risks attached to it (and in hindsight, I was right. Since I left in 2008, that industry has changed substantially).
I decided that I’d bet on myself. And I’ve never once looked back or doubted that decision.
TWN: What lessons have you learned from the successes of Lenox Park?
Failures? What have you learned from the failures?
JL: This is a great question. How wonderful that we get to define our own ideas of success – and we can make them as broad as we want to.
I’m so proud of what we’ve built and continue to build at Lenox Park, but the moments are few and far between when I sit back and feel like we’ve ‘made it’.
We still have so much we’d like to do, and contribute to our industry.
Success is very much a moving target – and it should be. In the first couple of years, we just wanted to build a real company and get clients that generated revenues. Today, we have additional priorities.
I will feel very happy when we can say we’ve built a profitable company, made up of super-talented, diverse people who love being part of the Lenox Park family and work tirelessly to provide great solutions to our customers.
I suspect successful entrepreneurs rarely see things as a failure. In the most narrow definition of failure, we probably fail at our company every day. And if we aren’t, we’re probably not pushing hard enough or far enough. What some might describe as a failure, we may look at as a pivot point – and often times necessary – in order to capitalize on another opportunity; or a transition into something better suited for our customers; or an opportunity to learn and strengthen our company. As the leader of our company, the thing that keeps me up at night is the responsibility I feel for my team. Failing them would be devastating.
TWN: You recently gave the commencement address at UT. That must have been a thrill. (https://youtu.be/PlRbOZO6QYw) You spoke about the importance of saying “Yes.”
JL: I felt so honored and grateful to be up there. But that day is so much more than most people get to witness. The address is approximately 20 minutes; but before the speech, I was in the Department of Economics with their faculty and staff having breakfast talking about all their work. And after the speech and graduation ceremony, all the families of graduating students came to a reception where we took photos and I could speak with all the proud families. What an amazing honor; one I will not forget.
I do a lot of public speaking, so I’m’ generally not fearful of speeches, but I was very nervous for this one.
It was so personal, and I wanted it to be original and inspiring and memorable to the graduates.
My mom and brother helped me write and think through a lot of it, so I’m thankful I had them!
TWN: If you were to give the commencement address at WHS, what would you say to our seniors?
JL: I’d probably reiterate “The Power of Saying YES”’ Because I really do believe in that message.
But perhaps for a younger audience, I’d also try and spark their intellectual curiosity.
Maybe ask them to ‘investigate’ any and everything they can because the journey to a greater understanding of anything has some awesome pit stops on the way if you pay attention.
TWN: Talk about Nyawa Funding Group.
JL: I’m so proud of the work and partnerships we’ve formed through NFG. After we moved from Sierra Leone in 1987, a combination of things – mostly the dangers of civil war – precluded us from going back there to visit.
I took my first trip back to Sierra Leone in 2008 after I resigned from Merrill Lynch. It was the last time I saw my dad before he passed away in 2014.
While I was in Sierra Leone in 2008 though, I noticed that my father had done so much with the relatively little money that my family and I had been sending over to him over the years. He had rebuilt churches, schools, mosques, water wells, and village community centers – all which had been destroyed during the civil war.
My time in SL was an emotional roller coaster. In many ways, I felt like I was “home,” and in others I felt very distant from the culture, and the remnants and impact of the war on such a beautiful country was devastating.
I returned back to NYC – the epicenter of excessiveness – feeling very guilty and helpless.
So, less than 48 hours after being back on US soil, I pulled together some friends and family and we started NFG.
Our mission is to improve living standards in Sierra Leone focusing on education and healthcare. While we are so grateful to the larger not-for-profit organizations that do amazing work on the ground and with much more long-term planning, we’re a little different.
Our focus is on projects in the $5,000 to $20,000 range, with tangible time lines and delivery. All our projects make an immediate impact on lives, but one we feel particularly proud of is providing an ambulance to a children’s hospital in Freetown, where they have 700 to 1,000 children admitted each month.
And now, some of those little patients are transported in a well-equipped, safe vehicle. There was no transport before that.
Our website: www.nyawafunding.org
TWN: Talk about your work with Children’s Aid Society in Harlem.
JL: My first interaction with the Children’s Aid Society is when they approached me a few years ago to speak with some 6th graders about self esteem. About a day or two before the classroom discussion with all these kids, I found out it was for 6th grade girls! I immediately thought to myself, ‘What am I going to say to a group of 6th grade girls about self esteem? And should a man be doing this instead of a woman?’
I was assured that I’d be fine and survive; and I did. I think the girls enjoyed it, but it was certainly rewarding for me. It gave me great perspective into the uphill battle that girls in general face; and mostly those that grow up without any privileges, or even worse – histories of abuse or neglect.
The issues of inequality girls face in classrooms and workplaces; and issues of image that our culture promotes. It was very humbling and increased my awareness dramatically.
TWN: What role do ethics play in today’s global economy?
JL: Unfortunately, not as large a role as it should. But, I’m happy to say (having just finished with the United Nations Leadership Summit here in NYC this week) that things are improving.
There are a couple of things that should leave us feeling optimistic:
1) Technology has allowed for huge steps toward greater transparency. This is very positive for the global economy since bad actors are more easily discovered and held accountable. Also, participants – sovereign, corporations or other – that are quiet or inactive in the effort to promote greater ethics and reduce corruption – may be viewed as complicit by their silence.
2) Of all the grief that we give Millennials, one wonderful aspect of this generation is they are more socially aware and intolerant of injustice. The fact of the matter is that Millennials are less likely to work for companies, in industries or for government agencies that are on the wrong side of social justice. Corruption, prejudice, fraud… Millennials aren’t prone to sitting quietly and following orders if they don’t “believe.”
TWN: What goals do you have? How do you plan to attain them?
JL: Oh my goodness – how much time and paper do you have??
I want to be the best father I can be to my Raya!
I’m excited about continuing the upward trajectory of building our company – I’d like to grow our team and office presence to include an international office someday. I’d like to make material changes in the lives of Sierra Leoneans – particularly children.
I want to be the best son and brother I can be; and perhaps get married again.
TWN: Talk about your mom. What a special lady she is: To so many of us growing up … and to her students, she was the best. How about to you?
JL: There may not be a better human being on this planet than Marilyn Skeen Lamin. My brother and I hit the lottery by getting to call her ‘Mom’. I hope that sums it up.
TWN: Talk about your daughter, Raya.
JL: I’m a smitten, all-in daddy.
Of all the things I have going on in my life, being a great daddy is the most important one. Raya has brought such perspective and meaning to my life, and makes the journey of fatherhood a daily pleasure.