Jeffrey Shames graduated from Wesleyan in 1977, and served in the Peace Corps for two years in the Fiji Islands. After his term, he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before pursuing a MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.
He began working at MFS Investment Management in 1983, and retired in 2002 as the Chairman and CEO of MFS Investment Management to care for his family.
He is now a member of the Board of Trustees at multiple organizations, including Wesleyan University, City Year, X Prize Foundation, Tufts Medical Center, US 2020, Summer Search, and the Berklee College of Music. He also sits on Advisory Boards of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Masters of Finance Programs, Kensho, and the MIT Leadership Center.
He is currently the Executive in Residence at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the father of a Wesleyan 2015 graduate.
How did your Peace Corps service term in the Fiji Islands shape your career?
Everyone I’ve ever talked to in the Peace Corps says it’s the most memorable experience. It was the first time for me that any job was just a blast to do. To learn that working could be a blast- it inspired me to make sure that that’s what I sought afterwards. I wanted to do things that I could have an incredible experience.
What do you recommend to students considering a program like City Year or the Peace Corps?
Talk to people who have done the program to see what their experience was like. How was your daily experience? Find out what it offered. The good thing about the Peace Corps is it’s a very well known program so you are very well accepted in other countries.
You wear many hats on multiple boards and at MIT Do you have any advice on how to manage multiple roles for our students working on start-ups?
My one comment is it’s awfully tough to start something while playing multiple roles. It’s so time consuming. For it to really succeed, you have to be obsessed with it and be about it 24/7. I think you have to focus on one thing at a time to be successful.
Looking at your work, it seems you have invested your energy in multiple strategies for making change. What is your theory of change?
I’m not a big theory of change person. I’ve never thought of a grand plan. I’ve never spent time planning my future. I’ve just thought about what is fun to do and spent my time doing it. If an opportunity comes to me and I think what an organization is doing is great and the CEO is great, then I think about “can I help them in any way?”
Sometimes we see a mindset that to make change, you have to be a founder. That puts a lot of pressure on students whose skills might be very valuable elsewhere.
For a lot of people working somewhere else first is important, even if you want to do something else later or start your own thing. It is very valuable to get those experiences at an existing company or organization. Most start-ups fail, so to watch something succeed or fail and learn from it- you can take that with you.
When I went into the Peace Corps, it seemed like such a fun and interesting thing to do. I found in the Peace Corps that anyone who thought they were there to save the world didn’t have a good experience, but the people who went to learn did.
The countries have been doing things like that for 100s of years. If you think you’re going to save them or help them in some way, you’re mistaken. You may end up doing that, but you have to do it because you enjoy it and want to learn from them.
What does your experience in finance bring to the table of a nonprofit board?
The company that I ran had spectacular growth. It was an investment business, which means that you have a good viewpoint of hundreds of companies. You get a good view of what is successful. So I can bring expertise in organizational structure, how to manage a company, and strategies to grow and scale an organization. That is one of the biggest challenges in the nonprofit world and that is where I feel I have expertise. I think that is pertinent in both the nonprofit and profit sectors.
What advice did you have for your daughter as she graduated and chose her career path?
We told all these students to follow their passion and follow their joy, so they think they need to graduate and find this incredible job. But the key right out of college is to get a job that can offer you experience. I think a lot of graduates have this criteria that they have to follow their passion, but really that’s a longer term process to get there.
I also say that a lot of the students at MIT and elsewhere look for a company or organization that is doing good things, but whether you like a job or not depends on your daily experience, and who your manger is. An organization might be doing great things, but it’s not a good workplace. A company could be a tech company or a steel company and as long as it’s managed well it will be a good daily experience.