James Barnes ’77 on finding time for ‘missing conversations’ as a Morehead-Cain Mentor

May 20, 2020

James Barnes ’77 has dedicated nearly twenty years of his life to helping people “act on ideas for a purpose” by exploring their capacity for innovation. It’s no surprise that the self-described “innovation coach” is an active participant in the Morehead-Cain Mentoring Program.

His mentee is Jack Turner ’20, who graduated earlier this month with degrees in philosophy and exercise and sports science with a minor in entrepreneurship.

While James views coaching and mentoring as different approaches to self-improvement, he said they can be mutually fulfilling.

“You can always learn a lot from people who are younger than you,” said the Pennsylvania-based alum. “Jack mentored me as much as I did him, even if he didn’t realize it.”

The two share a passion for startups, soccer, and exploring ontological questions (“Philosophy with a lowercase ‘p’ in my case,” joked James, who received his undergraduate degree from Carolina in business administration). Both were also British Morehead-Cain Scholars.

James described his mentee as an “action-oriented” individual with excellent listening skills, a crucial quality for any mentor, who approaches problems with a strategic mind.

Through his own startup, JB Innovation, James seeks to help others find direction in their professional and personal endeavors through the power of asking questions.

He primes himself to catch (and challenge) negative “declarations of ‘fact’” stated by clients about themselves rather than offer his advice. According to the entrepreneur, these presuppositions are often what hinders us from growing and from effectively supporting those around us.

“I think it’s important to notice what it is we believe and why we believe it, and then ask ourselves: how does our thinking support our purpose?” said James, who helped establish coaching within the Executive MBA Program at Villanova University.

Quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the alum said he firmly believes that “the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself,” and that dialogue can help dismantle our own barriers to success.

Even after spending much of his early career working for international firms, and later in a consulting capacity, James said that finding time for “missing conversations” remains the most valuable lesson to learn.

This lesson emerged as a student favorite in his MBA classes at Villanova, where the mentor taught for 15 years as an adjunct faculty member (although, according to James, he identifies more as a “facilitator of learning” rather than a “teacher,” as one might be traditionally understood).

James encouraged current scholars to put any misgivings or feelings of intimidation aside when seeking to connect with Morehead-Cain’s more than 3,200 alumni, especially during these nerve-racking times. After all, as he likes to remind people, you might just have something to teach them, too.

The deadline to complete the mentoring program’s initial agreement form through the MCN is June 1, 2020.

Staying positive during times of COVID-19

In addition to the more Promethean pursuits that staying indoors might invite on a good day, James said students and recent graduates who find themselves back at their families’ homes during the outbreak might try to embrace the opportunity to reconnect with others as a way of coping with the new realities ushered in by the coronavirus.

On the spring morning that Morehead-Cain spoke with James, he’d already done yoga with his wife and two daughters, each of whom Zoomed in from different states. The sound of some of his eight grandchildren playing could be heard in the background.

“There’s all kinds of unintended positive consequences of the coronavirus, but we just have to notice them,” he said.

On Thursday, May 21, 2020 James will give an online talk about Faith and Innovation: A Missing Conversation. The alum also spoke on the topic in a 2017 TEDx Talk in Wilmington, Delaware.

Paying it forward through the undergraduate mentoring program

Inspired by Morehead-Cain’s model of matching alumni with scholars, James's mentee, Jack Turner, jump-started an undergraduate peer mentoring program last fall. Around a third of the scholar student body now participates in the program, according to Jack.

“James's conversations, steady guidance, and insightful questioning were all crucial elements in helping me and my team brainstorm this project,” said the recent graduate. “As a sort of vessel to convey his wisdom, my own mentee benefits from the expertise that James has given me.”

Scholars who are interested in getting involved in the program can contact rising juniors Bri Thompson, Joe Benson, and Frances Reed. Other student leaders include Charlotte Dorn ’22 and Michael Alcorn ’23.


Other news