When James Warren ’91 and his mother first entered Dwight through the red doors of our former home on East 67th Street, he felt at home instantly.
“James? Mrs. Warren?” a voice called from a door on the right.
Chancellor Spahn ushered them into his cozy office, where he learned about James’s then-unconventional academic journey. His father’s career had taken the family from state to state, so James and his sister had been homeschooled for several years by their mother, a former opera singer who had become a minister. During that first meeting, James felt seen and understood by the Chancellor. He also felt that he no longer had to “start over” — Dwight was a place where he could finally put down roots.
A Leader Emerges
That first encounter would be one of many important conversations between the new student and his mentor. After enrolling as a sophomore, James was quickly comfortable at Dwight and as a self-professed extrovert, he made friends easily and soon became known for his leadership skills. By senior year, he was elected President of the Student Council. He also served on the Environmental Action Committee and as a Yearbook Business Editor, participated in Model UN, and wrote for the School’s newly reinstated newspaper The Dwightonian.
Chancellor Spahn had recognized James’s potential as a leader and James recalls a conversation that left an indelible impression on him. “During our discussion, Mr. Spahn told me that I could be the first Black president of the United States, and I have thought about that talk many, many times over the last 34 years. Whether he meant it literally or not, he always believed the biggest things were possible for us — for all of his students. I try to be that person in someone else’s life now.”
James, who in Dwight’s 1991 yearbook was voted most likely to succeed and predicted to “be doing whatever he wanted to do in the year 2010,” clearly felt empowered at Dwight to take the risks needed to realize his fullest potential.
James’s leadership spark of genius emerged through his desire to connect with both peers and teachers on campus, where he also discovered his love of words. “I enjoyed all my writing assignments at Dwight because that's where I learned that I had an aptitude for it. Today, it’s still about using my words to capture and convey how we — a community, a society — are feeling and navigating challenges in our lives and in the world. I do this by sharing stories — my own and others.”
When James was President of Dwight’s student body, he was asked to contribute something meaningful to the yearbook, which he did in the form of an open letter to his classmates, underscoring the value of friendship. To this day, James continues to feel a strong bond with fellow members of his graduating class, who celebrated their 30th alumni reunion last year.
Among the lasting connections James forged at Dwight was one with his tenth grade English teacher, Jim Ryan, whose youthful exuberance impressed James right away. “I remember his tweed overcoat and sneakers, and he was pegging his pants the same way that we students pegged ours. He was so wickedly smart and energetic and was a magnetic force for me,” recalls James, who shared Mr. Ryan’s love for literature. It wasn’t much of a surprise to James that Mr. Ryan left academia for a theater career and the two have kept in touch over the years.
Another influential teacher was Anthony Foster, who taught tenth grade biology at the time. James will never forget Mr. Foster’s eloquent introduction to the theory of evolution: “I realize that some of you might come from religious backgrounds and that you have a belief about how life and the universe were created. I don’t want to offend any of those beliefs. I want us to recognize that those beliefs and what we’re going to learn in class can go together.” Coming from a very religious upbringing, James had never heard anyone blend the tenets of science and faith so seamlessly. During that year, James recalls feeling listened to by his teacher, who inspired him and classmates to speak openly and respectfully about their differing perspectives.
Bringing together differing perspectives and forging community became a theme for James, who has devoted the last eight years of his career to doing that through consulting and sharing stories. It’s no surprise then that after graduating from Dwight, he ended up majoring in literature with a writing concentration. James attended Princeton, where he began studying economics before switching majors. After two years there, he took some time off before resuming his undergrad studies at Columbia, where he finished up his last two years.
The Perfect Blend
In the working world, James drew on his writing chops to pursue a communications, corporate responsibility, and marketing path in New York for a few years before relocating to Richmond, VA. He ended up working in brand management and sales for the Altria Group for 17 years. Over that span of time, James drew on his leadership and strategic talents to help grow the business. With two decades of experience in the corporate sector, the time had then come to strike out on his own and James established Share More Stories, a storytelling, insights, and engagement firm in 2014.
For the last seven years, he has partnered with JMI, a marketing and communications group, where he serves as Vice President of Brand Strategy. On the consulting side, James has helped clients develop and execute brand and organizational growth strategies. On the venture side, James led the development and launch of Share More Stories’ digital platform to help people create, share, and learn from stories. Now the company’s focus is on “creating tools that help companies put humanity back in their businesses by guiding them to develop more mutually beneficial relationships with people” through deeper insights and understanding.
Consulting work and Share More Stories intertwine perfectly, as James describes, “I get to help companies, brands, and organizations develop stronger relationships with their customers and stakeholders, with a focus on brand strategy and consumer engagement. And through JMI’s partnership with Share More Stories, I'm also helping companies and organizations connect with and learn from their communities through their stories. It's the perfect blend of my brand-building background and passion for storytelling!”
Part of the Solution
“Even before the pandemic, I deeply believed that our country was in a crisis of connection and belonging,” James says. “Communities have become fractured and so many relationships have become transactional, with people coming together in pursuit of gain rather than in relation to one another. Because of this, I believe a deeper human need is going unmet and I’m motivated to be a part of the solution.”
His own experience entering Dwight illustrates the power of finding a home within a community. While James had enjoyed being homeschooled, he began to feel the need to connect more to his peers in high school and to expand his community beyond family and church. Every Sunday, he read The New York Times and would notice ads for private schools on the back of the magazine section, which is where he first heard of Dwight. Remarkably, the young James took it upon himself to set up the interview and make the change in his life that he felt he needed.
Much of James’ work focuses on community engagement, as well as organizational and cultural initiatives that help support underserved consumers. Recently, Share More Stories and JMI focused on researching Black and multicultural travel experiences, specifically in the states of Virginia, Florida, and Massachusetts, probing how marketers can include more Black perspectives in travel marketing and how they can close the gap between their efforts and meeting the level of trust needed for Black travelers to feel safe and welcomed.
“A lot of what we do in the diversity space in companies is help them to understand and embrace differences, including race, gender identity, and sexual orientation,” reports James. “We help clients understand what those differences are that actually drive different experiences and then recommend strategies based on commonalities that they might not have realized. We help both the consumers in those groups and the companies find common places of connection.”
Using His Voice — And Deeply Listening
Perhaps among all the positive experiences James had at Dwight, the moment he recalls feeling the most empowered came at the very end. Though he had never been part of the chorus, Vicki Boyle, Head of the Music Department, recognized James’s rich baritone voice had potential and asked him to perform the national anthem at Graduation. Terrified of singing in public and fearing he didn’t have the talent, James reports, “I had no problem speaking or reading my poetry and essays publicly, but the whole notion of singing was frightening. I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’” Nevertheless, Ms. Boyle was persistent and James acquiesced, rehearsing privately in her office after school. She was taking a risk that he wouldn’t go through with the performance, but when he got on stage, he told himself, “Just do your best. It will all be over in 90 seconds. It wasn’t anything great but I just wanted to make sure that I hit the high note without my voice cracking. And I did that! But more than that I felt free to push the boundaries of expectation for myself.”
It’s been just over three decades since that Graduation day, but James still enjoys a strong connection to his Dwight “home.” He is delighted to serve on the School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Board, working with fellow community members in this area. “While I live in Richmond, I still feel that my voice matters and I am pleased to be able to bring insights from my DEI work in Virginia to New York to reconnect with the School.”
When asked about how his experience at Dwight relates to the work he does with Share More Stories, James says, “I think I developed a better means of tapping into what a person is really trying to say, leading with empathy … and this makes it more obvious to me where the opportunity is, where people’s needs are, what they care about, what they feel. It’s what happens when you really deeply listen to where somebody else is coming from. And I don’t just mean the words. I mean their tone, their cadence … I think that has a little bit to do with how I see the world, how I see opportunities — and I developed that at Dwight.”