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Justin Topping ’11: Why I VMI

Justin Topping ’11


Like many incoming rats, Justin Topping ’11 chose VMI for more than one reason—and like many alumni, he now has many reasons he’s thankful he chose the Institute.

Twelve years out from graduation, the young man who once thought he’d be a mechanical engineer is a Chartered Financial Analyst™ and a former young associate of the Keydet Club Board of Governors. Most importantly, perhaps, he’s a strong believer in the value of VMI overall and Keydet athletics in particular.

A native of Suffolk, Virginia, and an avid baseball player, Topping looked at some other in-state schools before he ultimately came to the Institute because he thought VMI’s combination of Division I athletics and strong engineering programs would offer the best combination of opportunities. In the end, Topping only attended one mechanical engineering class before switching his major to economics and business.

Very quickly, Topping found that the demands of being a cadet-athlete would stretch his physical and mental limits exponentially. “It’s a significant commitment to be a cadet-athlete at VMI,” he stated. “I think it can be challenging to be a Division I athlete in any sport in any program across the country—the hours, the physical and the mental toll that it can take on you while still being a student. It’s very demanding when you add being a full-time cadet at the oldest public military institution in the country.”

Those demands—academic, athletic, and military—forged a perspective Topping still finds valuable. “It’s very similar to the feeling I have today when there are lots of real-life things going on: Running a business, helping it grow, growing your family, taking care of your kids … And I don’t know that anyone would get that same compounding effect of obligations and stress and opportunity in a college experience outside of a place like VMI,” he stated.

One of the highlights of Topping’s cadetship—one that he calls a “wonderful experience”— was becoming a member of the Honor Court, where he served as an assistant prosecutor his 2nd Class year and vice president his 1st Class year. At first, Topping was unsure about adding the Honor Court to his already full plate, but later, he realized that it was time well spent.

“I was very unsure about how much I would enjoy being on the court in the moment just because of the sheer amount of work and pressure that was on us,” he noted. “But what I realized is that it was just another opportunity to build relationships and be around people … It was incredibly rewarding to be part of the Honor Court.”

Baseball, of course, also took up quite a bit of Topping’s time on post—and made forming friendships easy. His dyke, Donald “Trey” Barham III ’08, was also a baseball player hailing from nearby Portsmouth, Virginia, and Topping already knew a few other players from the Hampton Roads area, as well.

“My connection to them certainly made it really comfortable—as comfortable a transition as it could be from high school to college from an athletic perspective,” Topping noted.

"You have unlimited opportunity when you graduate from VMI.”

Justin Topping ’11

Leadership opportunities also abounded for Topping in conjunction with the baseball team—he served as an academic team captain, monitoring the team’s nightly study hall, during his 3rd Class year, and then was team captain his 2nd and 1st Class years.

During his cadetship, Topping received financial assistance from the Class of 1942 Baseball Scholarship—and he remembers the support he felt from members of that historic class when he met his scholarship donors at special events. “Especially when it came to scholarship dinners and banquets and any sort of alumni networking event or something like that, I sort of felt it was cool to have a connection to an entire class,” he commented.

Moved by the example the Class of 1942 had set, Topping has made it a goal to emulate their generosity to the best of his ability. Their decision to establish a scholarship “had a really profound effect over time,” he stated. “To continue to be able to provide education and athletic opportunities for people that far removed from your actual cadetship was incredible.”

Upon graduation from VMI, Topping received a very special and unique gift: A group of anonymous alumni made a donation to the Keydet Club in Topping’s name, thus conferring Keydet Club Leadership status.

“That got me invited to the annual leadership outings in June in Lexington, plus lots of other events around football games, basketball games, conference tournaments, and things like that,” he explained. “And it was so helpful to just be in the room in those first couple of years post-graduation where I didn’t really have much to contribute at all.”

The generosity of those alumni “got me in the room,” Topping stated. Realizing just how much good the Keydet Club was doing for cadet-athletes, Topping never hesitated when it came time to renew his membership.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “I was going to do it every single year for the rest of my life and hopefully continue to increase my capacity to give back to the Institute as well, and specifically VMI athletics.”

From 2012–18, Topping served as a young associate of the Keydet Club Board of Governors, which expanded his perspective on VMI athletics.

“I’m very passionate about VMI athletics because I’ve seen all of the great things, all the great people that have come from these programs, the camaraderie, not just the networking, but the relationships that are built,” he noted.

Moving into the professional world after VMI, Topping accepted a position as an assistant baseball coach at the College of William & Mary, but he knew coaching might not be his best long-term fit. In 2013, he earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary and then went to work in the financial services industry.

Today, Topping is a partner with Cerity Partners, which he describes as a “holistic, private wealth management firm,” with much of his work oriented toward family wealth management. Unlike some firms, Cerity doesn’t push clients toward certain investments; rather, clients only pay for the advice they receive. For Topping, that’s the way it should be, based on what he learned at VMI.

“It was very important for me to come into a partnership structure, to dedicate my professional life to a firm that values teamwork and only incentivizes colleagues to do the right thing,” he stated. “We’re not selling people things that they don’t need. We have our expertise; that’s what we focus on and nothing else,” he said. “So, I tie that into the basic tenets of the Honor Code.”

Away from work, Topping enjoys spending time with his family—wife Lindsey and daughters Ellie and Kate. With a young family, routines are vital—and once again, Topping is grateful that VMI showed him the way. “You know how important it is to get into a groove and create healthy, regimented routines on a daily basis that are repeatable, which is like literally all of VMI living,” he commented. “After that, everything else doesn’t seem so difficult.”

And it’s not difficult for Topping to appreciate all the different doors that a VMI education can open. “I think it’s really important that there are opportunities for young adults to go to a very well-respected education institution that gives them lots of different opportunities,” he said. “That’s a huge benefit of going to VMI. … You don’t have to know if you want to commission in the armed services or begin a career in the private sector. You have unlimited opportunity when you graduate from VMI.”

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