A Step Forward

Teresa Sebastian learned how to revitalize urban districts after experiencing racism and sexism growing up in Detroit and in corporate America.

After a long and successful career at the highest levels of corporate leadership in both business and law, it made complete sense when Teresa Sebastian decided it was past time to work for herself.

Teresa Sebastian headshot
Courtesy of Teresa Sebastian

She had a very specific idea in mind for her newly launched venture: Invest in early-stage startups and small businesses that would not only provide a return on the money she put in, but also have a positive impact on the neighborhoods where they were located.

“We focus on revitalizing urban communities,” says Sebastian, founder, president, and CEO of The Dominion Asset Group. “We take a very social approach, more than just seeking a particular return on investment, right? It’s about seeking a return through social improvement.”

Sebastian’s focus on improving the quality of life in urban environments goes all the way back to her childhood in Detroit in the 1960s.

“We lived on Atkinson Street, between LaSalle Boulevard and 14th Street, which is a couple of blocks off of Chicago Boulevard (and the Boston-Edison Historic District),” she recalls. “We had Berry Gordy’s mansion several blocks away, on the other side of the Lodge Freeway. You had a number of notable people who lived in that area, and I remember being very impressed by the large homes with the very intricate type of architecture, the use of marble, and just the majestic look of those homes.”

But Sebastian was also struck by what she saw nearby, in another part of her neighborhood.

“Just a few blocks away, on 12th Street, is where part of the Detroit riots took place,” she says. “So, if I walked out my front door, I could turn left and walk up 12th Street, through that area. Things were still in a bad state at that time. Or I could turn right and walk where all the beautiful, stately homes were.”

Sebastian’s mother forbade her from ever making that left turn out of her house. “But me being me, I was always adventurous,” she laughs, “and occasionally I said, ‘I’m going to walk on 12th Street,’ because I just wanted to get a feel for the different.”

Her mother had experienced the “different” aspects of the neighborhood when she arrived at Durfee Junior High School one morning to enroll Teresa and her sister for the school year. “She walked into the lobby and she turned around and walked right out,” Sebastian says. “She didn’t even make her way to the principal’s office to register us. She said, ‘There’s no way that my girls are going here,’ and she enrolled us at St. Agnes Catholic School, which was near the intersection of West Grand Boulevard and 12th Street.”

First as a student at St. Agnes, and then at Immaculata High School at West McNichols Road (Six Mile) and Wyoming Avenue, Sebastian reveled in her surroundings.

“I was enthralled with music, and I’d go to the record stores and buy 45s and peek in the windows of the Motown headquarters,” she says. “I enjoyed sneaking off campus to Lou’s Deli on Six Mile. They make some of the best sandwiches, and I was introduced to a pastrami with mustard on rye bread.”

Sebastian is the youngest of four sisters; both her parents were educators. “My mom got her master’s in education and was a teacher in the Detroit school district, and my father got his Ph.D. and taught at Shaw College in Detroit,” she says.

Not surprisingly, when it came to education, the bar was set very high for Sebastian and her sisters. “We knew graduating from high school wasn’t the end; it wasn’t a big accomplishment in my family to graduate from high school. Going on to college was like going from middle school to high school, and our job was to make sure our generation (took) a step forward and (did) better than the last. That was our duty.”

That sense of commitment was established by Sebastian’s father, Archibald Mosley, whose teaching career was only one of his many life accomplishments. “He was a Methodist minister at St. John AME Church in River Rouge,” Sebastian says. “He was very much involved in civil rights; he gave speeches and initiated protests. And he was one of the first black Marines ever in this country.”

Mosley was among the recruits who comprised the legendary Montford Point Marines. Beginning in June 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II and continuing until 1949, some 20,000 African-American recruits completed training at Montford Point, N.C., just up the road from Camp Lejeune, where the white recruits were assigned.

“He fought at Iwo Jima, and got the commendations for that, and he fought in many of the intense battles of the war against Japan,” Sebastian relays.

Racial segregation wasn’t officially abolished in the Armed Forces until 1948 — way too long after Mosley’s extraordinary service to his country. He could have been angry and bitter about that, and so much more. He was anything but.

“My parents taught us that any adversity could be overcome by their core values and beliefs,” Sebastian says. “They instilled in us to approach all situations with thoughtfulness, the highest level of character, and utilizing the intellect acquired through our education.

“I was in a Brownie troop, and there were times when my color did become an issue,” Sebastian continues. “The meetings had to take place at the homes of some of the white children, and I wasn’t invited to attend. My parents just said, ‘OK, this is what it is. You’re just going to overcome this through education, by studying, and by having confidence in yourself.’ We never thought too much about it. I’m not complacent. My dad taught us to call discrimination when we see it, and push back against it, and I always have. But (we were to) keep moving forward. We knew our duty was to achieve.”

Sebastian was still in middle school when she figured out exactly what she wanted to do with her life.

“One day I told my parents I was going to be a corporate lawyer,” she says. “Now, I didn’t know a single person who was a corporate lawyer, but I liked to watch shows about lawyers, beginning with ‘Perry Mason,’ and I liked solving problems and I liked making money.”

She did the usual odd jobs around the house, and when it came to her earnings, she was scrupulous beyond her years. “When I got money, I put it in my piggy bank, and then I would loan it out to my sisters and tell them that they had to pay me back more than what I gave them. I didn’t know anything about charging interest. All I knew is I needed more back.”

Family Ties - Teresa Sebastian, lower left, is the youngest of four children. Her family lived south of Detroit’s Boston-Edison Historic District. To her right are Gerri Susan Mosley (Howard) and Vicki Mosley (Miller). Above are her sister, Elizabeth Mosley (Lewin), and her parents, Jerolene and Archibald Mosley. // Courtesy of Teresa Sebastian
Family Ties – Teresa Sebastian, lower left, is the youngest of four children. Her family lived south of Detroit’s Boston-Edison Historic District. To her right are Gerri Susan Mosley (Howard) and Vicki Mosley (Miller). Above are her sister, Elizabeth Mosley (Lewin), and her parents, Jerolene and Archibald Mosley. // Courtesy of Teresa Sebastia

The dream of becoming a lawyer was still very much alive when she enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, “but there were other things at the University of Michigan that kind of opened up a door to me to other professions,” she says. “My father became an administrator for the City of Pontiac and we would talk about the revitalization work that was taking place, and that drew my attention away from law. I received a bachelor’s in general studies with sociology as a focus, and started the master’s program for architecture and urban planning because I wanted to see inner cities grow and prosper. I never I finished because I met a gentleman and got married, and moved out of Michigan.”

The marriage wouldn’t survive, but while Sebastian was living in Florida, she earned her MBA and began a career as a financial analyst, which continued with Morgan Stanley and DTE Energy. The latter stop brought her back to Michigan. “I worked very closely with lawyers, and being a lawyer was always still in the back of my head.”

Shortly afterward, Sebastian turned her childhood dream into reality. “I was accepted by the law schools at U-M and the University of Detroit Mercy, but Detroit College of Law was the only one that gave me a full scholarship, and I became a corporate lawyer,” she says.

For the next 20 years, Sebastian was an integral part of executive management in an array of industries, mostly in Michigan, but also in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida. Her responsibilities included overseeing global legal strategies for corporations focused on everything from energy and food service to manufacturing, banking, and data technology. It was an exhilarating and heady time for her, but also challenging and frustrating.

“There were times when the men would walk in the room and think that I was somebody’s secretary or the stenographer, or something of that sort,” Sebastian says. “I did find myself being the only woman in the room, being the only Black female, and negotiating million- and billion-dollar deals. I had to assert myself. I used what I call the 150 percent rule. I had to study and work 150 percent harder to get a fraction of (what I wanted), whether it was pay or recognition.

“There were times when I would go home and cry, but I never did that in front of anyone,” she goes on. “I didn’t let the white guys see it. I didn’t let the white women see it. I didn’t let my African-American contemporaries see it. It was hard.”

Undaunted and determined, she pressed on. And it was that attitude, and the financial independence she attained largely because of it, which inspired Sebastian to launch The Dominion Asset Group in 2015, just as her home city was emerging from bankruptcy and beginning its renaissance.

“I was fortunate and blessed enough to be able to say at that point in my career, OK, what do I want to do? I didn’t want to practice law 24/7 anymore. My goal was to be a catalyst for job creation in Detroit.”

The Dominion portfolio certainly suggests that goal has been accomplished: Investments and partnerships include the purchase, management, financing, and leasing of single and multifamily homes, a boutique hotel (in a restored former firehouse), an apartment building, and a recording studio.

“Our portfolio of investments is private, but beyond what’s on the website, we have investments in major notable developments in Corktown, downtown, and on the historic Atkinson Avenue of Detroit. We also have investments in Berkeley and Los Angeles (in California), among others,” she says.

Sebastian oversees her company from Nashville, where she moved in 2017. She lost her dad last summer, but her 92-year-old mother lives nearby in an assisted living facility. In addition to serving on an eclectic array of corporate boards — running the gamut from Kaiser Aluminum to Juul Labs, the electronic cigarette company — Sebastian is an adjunct professor at both Vanderbilt and U-M law schools.

Her resume takes up three full pages, but the job that may well make her proudest of all isn’t listed — it’s continuing the long-established family tradition of ensuring the next generation takes a step forward from the last.

“As a result, my nieces and nephews, who grew up knowing this family mantra, are doing better things than my generation,” she says with pride. “My daughter is a deputy editor at The Washington Post. My niece graduated with a Harvard MBA and has her own business. I have another niece who’s a reporter at CNN, and a nephew who’s a scout for the New England Patriots, and he’s moving up there.”

All will undoubtedly soon be looking out for their own kids, nephews, and nieces, following a traditional and firmly entrenched commitment forward, year after year, decade after decade, from one generation to the next. For Teresa Sebastian and her extended family, any other way simply isn’t an option.