Awards Profile: Jesse L. Grissom ’79

Jesse L. Grissom ’79

2023 Beech Outstanding Alumni Award

Jesse Grissom’s bio is quite impressive. He held senior finance roles at major corporations, including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Sara Lee Foodservice, before joining Kao USA as corporate controller in 2004. He was promoted to President of Operations in early 2020, becoming the first Black person in the position, and successfully led organizations in the U.S., Canada, Tokyo and Australia.

He has significantly impacted his community by dedicating his time and skills to various organizations and projects, including mentoring and tutoring young people, coaching youth soccer, providing meals to a men’s homeless shelter and being an active church member. Yet despite his remarkable career and the many leadership roles he’s held in his community, church and through his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, Grissom, who lives with his wife, Karen, in Loveland, Ohio, describes himself as an introvert who triumphed over childhood stuttering. “I could hardly say my name without stuttering,” Grissom recalls. “It’s hard for people to believe my past, but it’s a way I can encourage our youth to overcome hardships.”

Grissom, a recipient of the 2023 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award, believes hurdles on the road to success can be conquered with perseverance and self-belief. For example, after being told by his high school counselor that he wasn’t “Carolina material,” Grissom used that negativity as motivation to not only attend and graduate from UNC but also to become a distinguished alumnus. He obtained his master’s in business administration from the University of Rochester.

Grissom said a defining moment along his life’s journey occurred during his freshman year in 1975 when David Duke, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, was scheduled to speak on campus. “I was torn between respecting the right of free speech and standing up against such a racist force,” said the Raleigh native. Grissom chose the latter — a lesson that has stayed with him throughout his career.

He credits Dr. Harold Black, who taught him finance, as his most influential UNC instructor and said he was inspired by the class, which opened his eyes to a new aspect of business while pushing him academically. Most importantly, Black imparted the confidence Grissom desperately needed, especially in 2020 when, after he was recently named president of operations at Kao, a leading consumer products company headquartered in Tokyo, the pandemic hit and civil unrest intensified following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

“…Leading through a pandemic and social unrest required unprecedented leadership,” Grissom acknowledged, adding that his Carolina experience helped prepare him to rise to the occasion. “The David Duke incident taught me that transparent dialogue is important in creating understanding,” he said. “When the world witnessed the George Floyd murder, I was forced to make myself vulnerable to encourage open dialogue, not just within the U.S., but across our diverse cultures in Canada, Europe and Australia.”

Jeffrey Bryson ’78 said his fraternity brothers’ professional achievements are noteworthy, but he also admires his community service and moral character. “Leadership and community service devoid of high moral character diminishes one’s accomplishments,” said Bryson, “but Jesse exudes high moral character and lives that creed daily.”

Walter Egerton ’76, ’80 (MD), who nominated Grissom for the award, met Grissom in the fall of 1975 when they pledged together. “His career embodies what Carolina is all about in terms of preparing its students for excellence and greater responsibility in the workplace,” Egerton said.

Grissom’s LinkedIn profile reads, in part: Retired — focused on family and uplifting my community. He and his wife have a daughter, Jessica Grissom Plummer, a son, Chris Grissom, and are proud grandparents to Jayce and Rhyan.

“I want my lasting impact to be about uplifting our community and giving people an opportunity to rise above their challenges — not only to help themselves but to help others,” Grissom said.

— Cassandra P. Harper ’86