December 15, 2021
Sekou Kaalund serves as the Vice Chair of the INROADS Board of Directors and is a Managing Director at JPMorgan Chase & Co. as head of the Northeast Division for the Consumer Bank. In this role, Sekou oversees 1,000 branches in the Northeast, covering five regions with over 10,000 employees and over $300 billion in deposits and investments. He was also the Head of Advancing Black Pathways, a JPMorgan Chase program created to help Black individuals, families, and businesses achieve sustained economic success. Sekou also happens to be a former INROADS internship program participant!
We had a chance to sit down with Sekou and learn more about his upbringing, career journey, and passion for advancing opportunities for young people of color. Here are the highlights from our conversation:
Tell us about your life growing up.
I grew up in Raleigh, NC, and went to Enloe High School. I’ve actually worked since the 9th grade. My family lost their business and went through financial hardship, so I worked two jobs for about 35 hours a week during the school year and 75-80 hours a week during the summer. I was making $3.25 an hour, the minimum wage at the time.
To this day, I remember the INROADS internship program being so significant because I did my first internship and made $8.50 an hour. It didn’t take a mathematician to realize that I worked fewer hours yet made much more money. That really underscored the importance of having these types of opportunities.
My family eventually bounced back, but in a way, our financial hardship did help me. My family wasn't making any money, and our income was pretty low, so I was eligible for Pell grants for college, in addition to getting scholarships.
I ended up going to Hampden-Sydney College, a private men's liberal arts college in Hampden, Sydney, Virginia. I majored in classical studies and minored in Spanish. I also studied abroad in Spain. Later I went to graduate school at Duke University and got a graduate degree in public policy.
How did you get involved with INROADS?
A high school counselor told me about applying to the INROADS internship program. I wasn't familiar with INROADS before because I didn't have family that worked in a corporate setting, so the opportunity came from a high school counselor.
I ended up doing a paid internship through INROADS with Nationwide Insurance working in human resources. I started the summer after graduation from high school.
Tell us more about your passion for Advancing Black Pathways.
The financial hardships my family experienced, and my early experiences with INROADS, inform all the work I later did with Advancing Black Pathways at JP Morgan Chase - from focusing on financial health and creating a hardship fund for students in financial distress to supporting students in danger of dropping out. Leading Advancing Black Pathways was a reflection of what I experienced, as well as what my friends experienced. And the reality is people still continue to have those experiences. So, whether it's INROADS preparing students for internships, or creating the Financial Services Institute (FSI) as a partnership between JP Morgan Chase and INROADS, my early experiences inform everything I do. I think about the things that helped open my pathway and how we can replicate those for others.
Is it true you met your wife through INROADS!?
Yes, so I was in the INROADS program with one of my closest friends that I grew up with. He and I were in the first INROADS sessions at NC State. We were sitting next to each other, and when my wife walked in, I was like, “Hey man, what do you think about her?”
So, yes, I did actually meet my wife at INROADS. We dated throughout high school, went to prom together, college, and grad school off and on. We got married and would not have met if it weren’t for INROADS. And she actually manages the INROADS program for her company, Cigna Healthcare.
Some might call you both an INROADS ‘Power Couple’. How do you both get to have it all?
I think it's less about having it all and more about appreciating all that you have. If you try to create this perfect work-life balance - it's an illusion. At different points, my job has demanded more of me, and at different points, my family has needed more of me. So, it's really recognizing what is the balance that you need in your life and to think holistically about where you are. Are you anchored on a passion and a purpose? Do you understand your why? Why is it that I'm doing all of these things? And so, for me, appreciating all that I have means that I can do a “mark to market’ on how I spend my time.
Appreciating what I have aligns with why I feel I've been put on this earth. And that's important because it's so easy to chase materialistic things or power in this Instagram and Facebook world. Then people find out that they're still unhappy when they've achieved what they perceived to be the things that will bring them happiness. Not to say by any stretch that I have a perfect life, but I'm perfectly happy with the many things in my life that give me an opportunity to have personal and professional fulfillment and that I can always remain anchored on my priorities.
What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun in your personal time?
Travel. I love traveling with the family since I do work so much. I do prioritize time with family and so spending time together is key for me. I also enjoy supporting or attending my kid’s functions. My hobbies are really focused on family and just continuing to make an impact. And if not making an impact, just enjoying the rich blessings that have been bestowed upon me - my family, my three kids, and my wife.
What is your vision for INROADS? What do you hope to achieve as a board member?
To both serve the needs of students and corporations in their evolution to hiring more diverse talent. Post George Floyd, there's obviously still an important need for greater diversity. My vision is that INROADS continues to be one of the key organizations that enable corporations to tap into diverse talent but also continues to prepare that diverse talent to capitalize on opportunities.
What are your future goals?
I'm fortunate to have a large job with a large P&L and lead 10,000 people in my role, but my future goal is to continue to make an impact in everything that I do. I hope to help others along their journey to building and investing in inclusive teams. I recognize that the more senior I become in my career, the more influence and impact I can have on the culture of an organization and on how we think about talent. And so, I want to continue to lead and be an advocate for talent and ensure that we're creating inclusive growth not only within our company but also within the communities we serve.
A final piece of advice you would like to share?
It's so easy to become captivated by your own success or desire of it. But people have to give themselves grace and mercy. We haven't lived through a pandemic, at least in my lifetime. So, if you don't take the time to reset and reflect when life gives us that opportunity, then you will probably contribute adversely to your own health, relationships, etc. So, take the time to reflect.
Also, don't be afraid to change course. It's OK to make another decision versus feeling locked in or trapped in one opportunity. I think people are becoming scared of change or pursuing their passions. When I started to lead Advancing Black Pathways, some people asked why I would leave the investment bank to go work on a diversity issue. My response was why not? It's my passion, and candidly that job enabled me to shift an entire landscape across the country. I was able to fulfill my desire to impact and change lives. Doing that changed outcomes, not only for others but for me as well.