As a young girl, Thasunda Brown Duckett experienced economic uncertainty firsthand. Her father lost his job, and the family relocated from New Jersey to Texas, where they had to start over.
Today, as chief executive of Chase consumer banking, Ms. Duckett — or T, as she is known to colleagues and friends — is working to improve financial health and literacy for the 23 million households served by her organization.
Ms. Duckett has enjoyed a meteoric rise through corporate America. After securing a college internship at Fannie Mae, she joined the lender and rose through the ranks. She started at JPMorgan Chase in 2004, and has held management roles in affordable lending, home lending and mortgage banking. Before her current role, she was C.E.O. of Chase Auto Finance.
As one of the most senior black women in finance, Ms. Duckett brings a personal touch to her management duties, counseling employees about style and opening up to team members about her own challenges.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at JPMorgan’s offices in New York
What was your childhood like?
My dad’s from Louisiana and my mom’s from Alabama. I’m Beyoncé in reverse. But I was born in Rochester, N.Y. My dad worked for Xerox in New Jersey, working in a warehouse and driving trucks. When they closed the office, my dad was like, “Your mom has a degree, and has a better shot at finding a job.” So we moved to Texas. We put everything that we owned in a car. We started over in an apartment with crates. We had no furniture.
And what did your mom do for work?
She was a teacher. They wanted to expose us to everything, but the money wasn’t always there. So I would start taking piano lessons, then stop taking piano lessons. Start taking karate lessons, then stop taking karate lessons.
There was a lot of racism that we encountered when we were young. So at a very young age my parents had to tell us, “You need to be two times better. You need to be so good that you can’t be denied.”
Was there a big focus on education in your family?
Education was important, but character was more important. My parents would always tell us, “If you have strong character, then you’re going to do your very best. And if your best is a B, if your best is a C, then that’s your best.”
What was your first real job?
There’s a program called Inroads that focuses on getting minorities into business, and that really changed my life. Inroads helped me get an internship at Fannie Mae while I was in college, and that was my entree into corporate America. I loved it, and I started to realize that I was going to work in the mortgage business, which is something I could relate to.
Did your family own a home at this time?
No. My parents bought their first home when I helped them buy their first home. I realized, “Wow, I’m going to have a job after I graduate.” Then when I was getting a couple job offers, Fannie’s salary was the lowest. But I said, “I know this company and I like the people, and I’ll have a better shot here.” You find your passion, and for me, that was homeownership.
What was it about homeownership that was so compelling to you?
When you know what it’s like to look in the refrigerator and just see baking soda, or know what it’s like to have your lights turned off, personal finance is important.
When I worked at Fannie Mae, I immediately maxed out my 401(k) before I got my first check. That comes from understanding my parents’ story. My father worked for Xerox all these years and he only had a pension, which was like nothing. It was rough. I had no idea how hard it was for my parents until we talked about it. He said, “Thasunda, I didn’t know how we were going to make it sometimes.”
So now it’s like, I am going to make sure that my parents and people like my parents are making the best decisions that they can. That’s where this passion comes from, this real conviction around financial health.
Do you think financial literacy is a major problem for this country?
Close to half of Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency. Half of all Americans worry about their finances regardless of their income. We live in a capitalist society and we don’t focus on savings, on budgeting. All the information is out there, but we need to do a better job communicating it in a way that people can understand. Because the reality is for many people, the lack of money defines who you are.
How do you make the case that people should save more without making it feel judgmental?
I start with the question, “What are you saving for?” Last year I asked that of our own employees, and it went viral internally. People told me their hopes and dreams. In our branches, employees put vision boards together in the break room that said, “What are you saving for?” And people had pictures of houses, and cars, and trips, and pools, and education. It’s a question that everyone will answer.
Did managing come naturally to you as you took on more responsibility?
Early in my career I learned that the mission is to establish relationships. The fact that a client had never had someone like me covering them didn’t matter — I still had to accomplish the mission. But I could do it in a way that was authentic to me, and that was comfortable to them.
I remember one client asked me, “T, you want to go hunting?” And I was like, “I am not going hunting. Y’all do not want me to go hunting. And I’m not going fishing. You’re not getting me in the middle of some water.” Then I said, “But I love sushi, and we can do sushi every Tuesday.”
And how did you navigate all that with your colleagues?
In 2008, Chase asked me to run home lending for the whole Northeast. And I said, “You know I’m pregnant. This is not like eating bonbons.” And my boss said, “Yeah, we know.” And I’m like, “And it’s going to be a scheduled C, so I’m going to be out for three months, because it’s my first child.” And he said, “O.K. Do you plan on coming back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m totally coming back.” And he said, “O.K.” I was six months pregnant, about to run the largest P&L in home lending, going to be out for three months, and he didn’t blink. He didn’t blink.
How did you learn how to manage these larger teams?
When I was named C.E.O. of Auto, within the first 90 days I went to the mail room, and I told them, “Keep doing your job with excellence. If you don’t put that payment in the right chute, and it accidentally goes to mortgage, then the customer doesn’t post on time, they’re upset, and they end up closing their account with us. But you started that process. So when you hear me talk about our customer experience having improved, brush your shoulders off.”
And they go, “You’re welcome. You know we got you.” At that moment I was able to connect them to Chase, to this bigger narrative. And now they know that T cares about everybody.
It sounds like you try to establish a really personal connection with your employees.
People need to know who you are. If they know who you are, and understand your intent, then when I am pushing the team and challenging them, they all line up and say, “Let’s go.”
Anyone can put time on my calendar. And there was an African-American woman who was going to be representing the firm, and she wanted to get my feedback on her hair. I looked at her and I said, “How would you wear your hair on Sunday when you go to church? What would make you feel beautiful?” She goes, “Like this.” I go, “Then that’s how you wear your hair. Just edge it up a little bit, you’ll be great.”
What I didn’t know is that she had cancer at the time. A year and a half later, she came up to me and said, “The fact that you told me that I was enough, and didn’t have to do something else to conform, that meant everything.”
Are you that open about your own life with your team?
Last week I came to work mad because my son was called the N-word at school. I told my team, told my peers, told the other C.E.O.s. We killed a whole hourlong meeting and we just talked about race. I said, “I’m an angry black woman today. I am mad that I have to have conversations that you don’t have to have. I am tired.”
I bring that to work. It’s who I am. I just bring the best version of Thasunda, all of me, to the table, because I want everyone else to do the same. And when you lead with authenticity, when you can share your vulnerable moments, it opens up everyone else to share their real life, too.