From Pitt County to The White House: Tonya Williams’ Incredible Career Journey

Born and raised in Eastern North Carolina, Tonya Williams‘ incredible career path took her all the way to the Obama White House, where she was the Director of Legislative Affairs for Vice President Joe Biden.   On the show today, Tonya talks about that journey – which included UNC Law School, the North Carolina General Assembly, GSK, and the office of Congressman GK Butterfield where she served as Chief of Staff. Tonya is now with SoftBank, as the Director of External Affairs for the Opportunity Growth Fund, a fund that will invest $100M in American minority owned businesses.

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast! I am thrilled to have someone from my hometown in Pitt County North Carolina on the show. Tonya Williams and I went to rival high schools at the same time – she went to Conley and I went to JH Rose in Greenville. It had been 25 years since we spoke, but Tonya called because she was interested in some of the ways that she could be helpful to minority-owned businesses in North Carolina through her current role at SoftBank.

And I had to have her on the podcast because her career journey is phenomenal – she went from PItt County all the way to the White House where she was the Director of Legislative Affairs for Vice President Joe Biden.

Prior to working for our potential future president, Tonya went to undergrad and then law school at UNC Chapel Hill. But before starting her career, Tonya decided to backpack across China.

Tonya Williams: My mother was like, you’re gonna do what? Like, you don’t speak Chinese. You’re from Pitt County.  you’re just, so you’re just going to go. You just go show up with a backpack and a book and point this stuff? Right, OK. You’re going to die. Okay. Actually, let me tell you this quick aside here, I actually had trouble getting across the border.

They split us up trying to get across the Chinese border and told me that my visa wasn’t valid,  and that I would have to.  “Sorry, there’s nothing you can do. except you’re an American. And so, you could find $3,000 and  we’ll happily let you in.” And I spent the day at the Chinese border, the land crossing, crying and begging and talking to people who at one point spoke Chinese and the next part, they were like,  didn’t speak English, and begging and calling the embassy in Hanoi. And they were like, “I mean, you can come back to Hanoi and fly out, but like  it took them actually taking my visa over the Chinese border and saying, “Sure, you can go get it.”

And I was like, “I’m just not trying to get shot in the back.”

At the end of the day, I think they just got tired and they’re like, “you can go.” But now, obviously I don’t give us any money. Cause I was like, I,  cause I had gone from being like weepy to like, indignant like, “I will not pay a bribe.”  Definitely not getting any money out of this one. Yeah, just let her go. Like, we gotta go. Like, it’s dinner time.   When I think about – when I told my mother that story, cause I couldn’t yet, you can’t tell her until you get home, right?

Until you’re sitting in front of her and she can like touch you and know that you’re OK, right? And she was just like, “Yeah, you’re never leaving the house.”

That’s the thing, right? If I can navigate things on the Chinese border, surely I can handle the crazy partisanship here in Washington, right?

Donald Thompson: But before she got to Washington, Tonya practiced law at the North Carolina General Assembly and at Glaxo before getting a call from Congressman GK Butterfield.

 

Tonya Williams:  I was working at GlaxoSmithKline doing international policy work at the time, and Congressman Butterfield called me and we knew – I didn’t actually know him, but we knew all the same people.

And he quite literally said, “I keep hearing your name. You come talk to me. Probably can’t afford you.” I was making more money than I ever was in my life. I was like, you sure can’t, right? But,  he was looking for –  doing some changes in his office and just wanted to talk, and we had this wonderful conversation about what he was doing and the opportunities that he had. And even though I hadn’t worked in Congress before, the skills that I brought  would be useful. And the relationships that I had from North Carolina could be useful to him and his office.

And so,  he took a chance on me.  When he was looking for a new chief of staff, there was no shortage of folks who wanted to work for  a member who was you know, chief deputy whip, who was in leadership, who  it was on a  call what they say’s called an A committee. He was on energy and commerce, he was a vice chair, and he’s from Wilson – neighboring County. They took a chance on a girl from Pitt County, and brought me in as his chief of staff, and I think we were both amazed with the work that we can do. So, I’m definitely grateful for him, and then he, let me go. And they ended up having a conversation with the Vice President’s chief of staff, and we’re talking, I was kind of hanging out,  leaning, slouching on the couch. He was like, “Great, do you wanna come work for us?” I was like, “what?” Gather myself together , you know, and he just said,  “The things that you’ve done, the work that you’ve done, the,  the work with  the house, the vice president knows the Senate better than anybody will  with 36 years of experience there.

And so,  we could really use your help and if you’ll do this, you’ll have an opportunity to  work and learn the Senate. And it was incredible. Who doesn’t do that, right? Who hasn’t taken the opportunity. So I became the vice president’s director of legislative affairs. It’s one of the most interesting jobs, I think, in Washington, because you literally sit between, the White House and Congress because the vice president has multiple duties.

So he is the vice president, so the executive branch, but he is also the president of the Senate.  and then I also have the very coolest office I will ever have in my life, right off the Senate floor. It was incredible. There was  murals on the ceiling and Italian marble floors, a working fireplace.

It was very cool.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, yeah. You’ve gotta send some pictures of those.

A fire that was built for you each day. It was fantastic. It was cleaned every day. You come back and there was a wood stack stack, ready to go the next day. It was pretty incredible, but I also had an office in the White House because, as the Vice President’s legislative director, I was also a liaison for the White House, and working in that space and working with President Obama and Vice President Biden who had   just different skills, different relationships  that I think really complemented each other, and allowed for the vice president to do some really interesting work because of his background. And because I was his liaison there, I got to do and see  a lot of different things and really carry some things over the finish line that meant a lot to him and meant a lot to me.

That is awesome, right? I mean, that is really cool.

Let me ask this, I’m going to take us a little macro and  you are very successful in what you do. You’ve had a lot of different opportunities on your path, and I’m certain that you’ve had to deal with being the only woman, the only African American woman, in areas that you’ve had to operate, right? Talk a little bit about kind of, some of the macro events that we’re faced with, some of the racial tension, for lack of a better way to describe it. But how has that applied to you and your career and allowed you to still keep pushing forward, still keep pushing upward, even though sometimes the deck may have been stacked against you or been a little bit harder or a lot harder?

Tonya Williams: Yeah. no, it’s a familiar place. it’s a place that I found myself when I was in grade school with some of the classes that I was in. It is a place that I found myself in social situations. I’ve just always been really interested in differences, and so, like, as I said, I’m always very curious.

And so I like to ask questions and to find out more about –  especially things that are in conflict. And so that’s, that’s really served me well, but it’s  difficult. I think that one of the things that’s helped me, you know, so much is that my mom,  who grew up and she was a product of Farmville, North Carolina, down the way, and went to segregated schools and  took her brothers and sisters – she’s the oldest – took her brothers and sisters to school after desegregation. And you tells some just  Stories that  just break your heart about  how they were treated and the way that they had to, you know, speak to other people in the community. The way that  some of the,  white people in the community spoke to her mom and  how you had to  keep your mouth shut and the things. And it’s very interesting, and through all that  she taught me really,  don’t assume race, right? To  really be mindful of it, but just not to assume it and to work as hard as you can to prove yourself,  and look for opportunity. And that’s kind of what I did.

So, you know, in finding yourself as the only one, there’s a burden to that sometimes.  An unfair burden because black people are as diverse as any other group of people and you don’t represent, you don’t know, you don’t have the experience, you can’t possibly speak for a whole dynamic, you know, race of people. And so there’s  that side of it, but there are also stereotypes that you face and that you’re aware of  such as  in the legislative world,  when you’re debating something, when you’re putting your point, when you’re arguing on behalf of your constituency, being forceful in that.  Having to talk to people,  you know, who have,  a great deal of authority,

but knowing that,  you speak in a certain way or, you know, or if you’re too forceful  the stereotypes that people have can be applied to you, and what that means, and how frustrating that is. And so I think it just requires an extra level of creativity,

it requires an extra layer of  thinking, I think that’s why I really enjoyed my work at the general assembly. I worked with just some of the most amazing people, negotiators, one of who just passed away, a few weeks ago, Senator Tony Rand. An incredible mentor who really, along with Senator Bass and I,  took me under their wing and,  you know, I got a front seat to watching some of the most incredible debates and how to manage people in conversations and negotiating tactics and things.

And it was just, it was incredible.

Donald Thompson: No, I get it. And it’s also,  quite frankly, it’s made me tougher and stronger.

You know, it’s not – you don’t get to pick your path all the time.

Tonya Williams: Right.

Donald Thompson: Right? But you got to equip yourself and strengthen yourself to, to win with the cards that you’re dealt and keep it moving. And then I see that throughout, throughout your career.

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One of the things that I’ve been interested in and hopeful in our conversation, when you look back, what advice would you give with people that are thinking about social activism blended with how to make change in politics, right? So a big topic right now is the construct of systemic racism, right? And so there’s ways to do it. People can protest, people, can lobby, people can do different things. From your perspective, in working in government and working in the powers of government, how does some of the systemic things get changed?

Like what advice would you give.

Tonya Williams: Yeah, this is interesting because it’s a conversation we’re having around my house and my friend group right now. The difference between activism and policy making, and  all the tools that are  in the box of things that are needed to actually make sustainable change.

And a lot of the conversation we’ve been having has been around defund the police.  So when I first heard that slogan, I was like, “Oh God,” right? Like what that’s getting ready to unleash the,  the power that it gives, can give to the opposition.  The inaccuracy of the,  slogan,  versus what is actually meant by it.

And  we talked about, friends of mine, talked about the difference  between  advocates who are often  committed to a certain thing, in a certain way, in a certain time,  and the urgency of it, and policymaking, which means a lot more about knowing and understanding the landscape you have to.

And this is politics as well. You have to know who you’re dealing with. You have to know the push and pull. You have to understand the levers of power. You have to understand  who you’re dealing with. You need to see behind you and in front of you. And all of those things that come into strategizing, you have to be able to message.

It’s so important and you can give away an entire argument. You can give away an entire movement on bad messaging.   So it’s  all of those things that come into policymaking, and it’s funny, throughout, I didn’t really understand that when I started. And I missed, especially, didn’t understand – I’d love to, at some point, talk to you about this as well. The power of communications and the power of all the elements of communications.  The things that go into a policy argument before that get people talking about it.  That people, all of a sudden, have an opinion about something because they’ve been hearing about it,  and that’s not just coincidence, right?

There’s a build there,  and who is saying it, and when they’re saying it and where they’re saying and where you’re reading it and where you’re hearing it. And  even,  in the opposition,  knowing who to approach and how far they can go, they can go anywhere at all.

One of the great lessons I learned working for Joe Biden was,  he said,  first of all, your first conversation should never include an ask, right? You want to get to know people, you want to understand them because the other thing you don’t want to do is ask someone something when they can’t – or charge someone with something so that they can’t get to yes.  Because then you don’t have a dance partner. You don’t have someone that you can work with. You don’t have a relationship that you can rely on,  and you don’t have someone for the future, right? Like there are things that some people just can’t do or they don’t agree with.

The other thing about politics that I’ve always found so interesting is,  people come in and they’re like, “do it.”  And I’m like, that’s so great. I’m like, if it were that easy, trust me that it would be it been done by now. Right.  but then problems are hard and they’re complex and they’re – the devil’s always in the details.

And,  you’re asking people to give on things that  really mean a lot to them and their communities and  oftentimes that means going slower than people want to. And so, you have know and understand all of those things to make progress in policymaking,   and that’s not a burden that advocates  that you see, and I don’t mean all advocates. I don’t want to give advocacy a bad name.  But I would say more extreme advocates don’t fully embrace. And in those instances,  I’m like, well, if it’s all or nothing,  a lot of times it’s nothing.

And is that where you want to be?

Donald Thompson: You made a lot of powerful points. And I think that the one piece of advice from a Vice President Biden, right, is build a relationship first before you have an ask that applies to business, that applies to politics, that applies to really any situation where you’re trying to build a coalition or a network because people create activation with people that they trust.

And that’s even if we’re across the table at a negotiation or what have you. And I think the other point that we talked about a couple of weeks ago is messaging and words matter, right? And the example you use of defund the police, right? It’s like personally, as a businessperson, as somebody that’s an entrepreneur, I really can’t get behind things that are never going to happen.

Like I’m listening, I’m like, “OK, how does that work?” Exactly.

Tonya Williams: And you and I will get talked about when this podcast comes out.

Donald Thompson: Exactly right. They’re like, what is he talking about? We should defund the police. I was like, what we should do is get crooked cops off the force, which is what everybody wants, right? Nobody wants racist police that are killing American people, in our case, more disproportionally by percentage African American people.

Tonya Williams: Yeah, and it’s taken everyone off message. Even allowing a whole new narrative to develop, and you also allow people who are in opposition to you to be lazy, to not meet the moment, to not have to answer because you’ve said something that is deemed so extreme and can be characterized in such dangerous ways that you allow, you’ve offered a place of comfort for people to go.

Donald Thompson: I want to seize on that and let that marinate, right? That when you’re off message. You give people the opportunity to be lazy because they can seize on the extreme view and then allow themselves room to do nothing. That is like, I think, as a citizen, that is the last 50 years of our politics. And that it is so difficult to push the ball forward because the extreme views take all the oxygen in the media and the headlines and different things.  And so, you’re now, if we bring the present day, right? You’re working at a very large organization, SoftBank, right? And it seems now tell me about the role at SoftBank and kind of the difference between now private sector, public sector, but you’re still relating to the public sector, right?

Like you’re working for a, for profit organization right now. You’re still dealing in legislative affairs.

Tonya Williams: Sure. and it’s, and they’re quite different. So what I do at SoftBank, it’s really an interesting job. So just a little bit about SoftBank, first of all,  it’s not a bank, it’s not a Chinese bank we get that a lot.

It’s a number of different things. It’s actually a,  quite well known telecom company in Japan. It’s headquartered in Japan. But, there are also several funds that, SoftBank has, one of which is quite large. It’s the largest actually, it’s a vision fund, which is a hundred billion dollars.

That’s billion with a B, that invest in technologies, around the world. And, some would say disruptive technologies, but  I’d say tech enabled services and products that lead to greater efficiencies or that are just  groundbreaking in different ways or  life altering in some instances.

So we’ve invested in companies like Uber. We’ve invested in  some you’ve heard of before, some that you’ve never heard of, some that you will hear of that are really interesting and exciting. And so there is the venture capital side of that. And the work that I do actually a few years ago, SoftBank decided, listen, we’re investing a lot of money in these companies through the vision fund, the investments were a hundred million dollar minimum.

These are late stage, growth stage companies is they’re investing in. And the thought was,  we should invest more than capital. And so, folks might not understand a lot about venture capital investing. I’m still learning a good bit about it. But  there’s a good bit of work that’s done on the backside of the investments, not just money. It’s advice and expertise from people who’ve run businesses successfully,

but one of the things that is not often present, is someone to help them with interactions with government and communications. And so SoftBank, smartly I think, put together, a group of talented individuals who can provide that sort of counsel to all the portfolio companies that were in their portfolio.

So what I do is I help the companies that we’ve invested in with their interaction with government. Some of them have their own full government affairs teams.  Government has – there’s a lot of power in policy and regulation, and if you’re not considering it as part of your business plan you can be surprised or even –  or it could be the death of your business.

It can also mean a huge opportunity.  Government has one of the largest employers and contractors in the country. They are the largest, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. And if you don’t know about it, if you’re not following it, if you don’t know that you’re a good fit for it, and it’s a long process contracting with the government, there’s opportunities there that you could miss.

Donald Thompson: That is powerful.

And as a representative, SoftBank, you guys have done something really phenomenal, right? In this moment where we’re dealing with a lot of racial equity in terms of police violence brutality, but also when you think about entrepreneurship, there’s a big disparity of venture capital dollars that people of color don’t get a chance to have access to. And SoftBank has made a pretty significant decision to try to be on the front end of changing that narrative. Could you share a little bit about the hundred million dollar fund that SoftBank created? And then once you do that, we’ll segue into turning the script and letting you ask anything that you’d like of me background entrepreneurship, some of the companies I’m working on and we’ll keep the dialogue going.

Tonya Williams: Sure. Yeah, and it’s funny because this conversation will turn on a lot of things that we just talked about. About networking, about  being the only one, about diversity and inclusion, about  what happens and what you learn, based on where you come from and what’s in your experience.

But, to answer your question directly, what SoftBank has done is we’ve recently announced the creation of a $100 million fund, that will exclusively fund technology startups that are created by founders of color. And founders of color is specifically defined as African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans.

And that is a very, specific thing because a lot of times when you talk about underrepresented minorities, a lot – there are a lot of minorities that work in the tech world – but many of them aren’t underrepresented. And so, this fund  was created in response to a lot of what’s going on in the very important conversations that we’re having on this very pivotal time, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. And what is something that is widely known, but  – and is receiving more attention now than ever before, leading up to this work is that minority founders are – well, minorities are underrepresented in venture capital, on both sides. So in terms of actual investors, in terms of founders, so who gets the money, and how they come into the network.

There’s a lot of mystery around venture capital in general, but  the demographics of the startup world are changing and more minority founders are entering the space, and  then they’re running into the same problems that traditionally minorities have run into, which is access to capital. Whether it’s  the inability to access it through traditional means, through bank loans, through credit, the amount of credit that  they receive, sometimes the terms of deals  are quite different,  just, lack of familiarity with  the systems that the institutions actually provide money, flat out discrimination and bias,  and the problem in venture capital really is – because deals and things are often generated through networks – is the lack of network and social networking  with the individuals who write the checks.

And they all come from very narrow backgrounds,  and  certain schools, and certain organizations that they work for and so, this is SoftBank’s  effort to try to address that through the fund, but also through some supporting work that we’re doing to try and address and bring attention to access to capital issues at large.

But also a self examination, and the CEO of our group wrote an  incredible letter that spoke to this and said,  “This can’t happen without us examining ourselves,  and  we, like many in the venture capital industry,  lack diversity. We have dedicated ourselves to changing that.”

And so we’re in the process of doing that, and I have the privilege of working on the project and helping with the external outreach, and talking to people who’ve been doing this work, trying to help source the pipeline, fund founders of color,  tell them about what we’re doing, and work with organizations who are already working with and doing incredible work.

And so as I was going through my network is kind of figure out who and reading some articles and stuff. And  I always try and look to North Carolina to see what’s going on in North Carolina. I see this name and I’m like, “Donald Thompson?” I was like “Wait a minute. Who is this guy? Like Donald Thompson?

I think I went to church with them when I was – I think my friend, Mary Michelle, like worked with him and introduced me to him when I was like, 16.” Like, literally looked you up on LinkedIn, and actually I saw your company first  doing these amazing things. I was like, this is so incredible.

Where was this in Raleigh when I was there? This is like everything I wanted to do. It’s like the,  it’s the government affairs, it’s the  crisis counseling, it’s diversity. It’s like, “where were these people,” right? And lo and behold, I got a relationship with a guy who’s the CEO. I just wanted to reach out and be like, “Hey, remember me?” And you were gracious, very gracious in responding, and I – one of the things I had said that I wanted to do is just to talk to you and understand  how you sort of got to where you are and the work that you’re doing, which is  you seem to be wearing 10 different hats and from all accounts doing it well. So I  really was curious about that, and particularly, as I’m embarking on this work with the opportunity vision fund at SoftBank, the diversity and inclusion piece. And so, I see that you’re an author, and you’re a public speaker, and you’ve got the podcast, you run this company and I just, it was fascinating. So, um, I’m glad to have a chance to ask you about it and hear more.

Donald Thompson: So, one of the things that, and I appreciate that, I think the, how did I get here?   Similar to your story, it was really taking advantage of doors that opened to me. And so in leaving school, I had a bunch of really interesting, jobs with not a lot of upside, a lot of experiential opportunities, but my first break came in 1996.

My big break, if you will. And I started to work in sales with my mentor and good friend now Grant Willard as employee number seven at a technology firm. And worked with them hand in hand, and I was the sales guy, he was the product magic, and we grew that company until it was sold in 2006, 10 years later, to Adobe systems in San Jose.

And that experience of working on a transaction, Grant certainly was the lead of it, but I got to participate. He let me be a part of the negotiation and the learning and Adobe’s certainly a big brand in the tech space. So when they bought the company, they only wanted to buy the technology and some of the engineers.

And so Grant went with that team and became an employee of Adobe, and so we had about half of the company that they didn’t want, and it was an IT technology services firm, and I became the president and CEO at 36 years old. And Grant provided this opportunity of a lifetime in that he allowed myself and some of the other employees that were there at the time to do a private buyout of the company.

And grant was the note holder. He basically got a chance to buy a company based on the profits of that company. And there were 16 of us in 2005, 2006 is when this occurred. And so fast forward 10 years, we’d grown the company from 16 people to about 140 people. And we then exited that firm, we got bought out by a company called KP IT out of Poona, India. And that company, was very big billion dollar company, IT engineering software, computer design, that kind of thing, and the CEO of that company could shore said, “Don, I’m gonna tell you something. We only want the engineering services part of your business.”

Well, we have the small little marketing technology part as well as this larger part. And so again, we sold part of the company and then we spun out another little group called ICI Digital that was working with Adobe technology. And we were basically an implementer of Adobe’s tech and different things like that.

So the long and the short is that, that company we grew from about five to 10 people to a hundred people and was sold to Berenger Capital in 2017. And that company was acquired by Berenger Capital, the same folks that own Ad Week. So when you think about marketing and advertising and things of that company, ICI Digital is now Blue Acorn ICI, is the name of that new company, and a friend of mine, Greg Boone, now runs that business. And Greg worked for me for a number of years, and I was the chairman of the board when we sold and Greg became the CEO. And so he got a chance to take it the next step. During that period of time, I knew that I was not meant for a large organization.

I’m about a year and two months for any company. That’s got like 10,000 people ’cause I got lots of ideas and sometimes in a big company, they don’t want to hear all your ideas all at once. But I was looking for what I want to do next, and in 2015 is when I invested in what is now Walk West. And so Brian Onorio, our founder , has a computer science degree from NC State, one designer, and I put some money in and some time, and we grew that business from 2015 to now 2020. Three hundred thousand dollars in revenue to where we’re probably $6 million, $7 million in revenue. And we’re a small digital consultancy, but our clients are pretty amazing, right? And so, we do all the marketing for the North Carolina State Fair. AstraZeneca and big pharma is a client of ours. North Carolina State is a client of ours. UNC Rams Club is a client of ours, Republic Wireless, some of the folks like that. MNF bank, African American bank in Durham chose us. There’s a tech company in Boston called Wasabi that’s doing some amazing things. So we’ve been really fortunate and proud that we’re able to grow a digital consultancy and attract some of the clients that we have, and what we’ve been able to do different is ,as an entrepreneur, I understand and have experienced buying marketing technology, marketing services.

And I understand the desire for that real return on investment and I can link creativity kind of with the drive and the goals, right? Then over that period of time, I’m probably on the board of about four to five different companies as an angel investor and work with other firms in the area in entrepreneurship and different things like that.

That’s the backstory.

Tonya Williams: Incredible. Look at Pitt County.

Well, I’ve got to tell you, so I mean, a couple of things. I mean, first of all, I’d like to borrow some money just for some ideas that I have,  I think they might not last forever, but I think that’s incredible. I’d just love for you, for a little bit, ’cause I read about this and I just thought it was, I was curious just to unpack digital consultancy.

What exactly is that?

Donald Thompson: So a lot of times people think about, let’s say you need a new website, I’m going to go find somebody to build a website. Let’s say you have a PR need in crisis management. I’m going to find somebody in PR and crisis management, or if you need strategy for your message and communication. What we did is, we took all of the digital communication needs of a company or a nonprofit and got the best of breed skills together, and then layered on top of that, the business strategy of why you need to use these skills.

So we basically give you the thinking and the strategy of a McKinsey or in a center of Deloitte, but we do the work with clients to build out their digital footprint.

So that we basically are able to ensure that there’s no finger pointing with regard to results.

Tonya Williams: Right?

Donald Thompson: Typical consultancy will give you a big idea, charge a lot of money, hope you make it. We want to give you a big idea and then work with you to implement it. We want to work with you to teach your team how to implement some of the capacity and skills.

If we build a video for you, we don’t want to build a video that’s just pretty and engaging and fun. We want to build a video that gets hundreds of thousands of end to end views so we’re going to do the data-driven research around the persona, the marketing, the launch plan, so that the video that you construct with us is also seen by the target market and change the behaviors that we want.

So we’re really big on big ideas with big results, pretty, pretty diverse. And what we’ve found is that we want to be the first phone call for clients when they have a communication challenge of any type.

And then we can put together the team that they need to address that challenge.

One of the things that led us and, you mentioned earlier, to our work with diversity and inclusion. I want to spend some time on that because I think that might be something that we want to pitch SoftBank because we’re doing it a little bit different.

So when we’re looking at DNI and how did we get there from a marketing firm, the same messaging, persona research, behavioral understanding, testing to create a message that changes behavior for a brand, you have to have that same thinking to work within an organization to change behavior that sticks and how we treat one another.

Tonya Williams: Yeah.

Donald Thompson: So we were already doing this research. I was already getting asked to speak on D&I topics. So about a year ago, we invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is a significant amount for a small company. We sent four of our executives to be trained as certified diversity executives.

We built an e-learning platform, and our first course is Beyond the Checkbox, it’s a five module D&I course. We also partnered and built out TDM connect which is a  diversity and inclusion mobile application platform to reinforce D&I behaviors for large groups. So let’s say you got a hundred thousand employees, we’ve created a mobile app that you now can track the D&I behaviors you want to represent in your organization, and you can gamify it. People can get points. You can flag it. You can take a picture of what you’re doing. If you have coffee with somebody of a different ethnic group than you have before, you can take a picture of it.

If you go to a different church, watch a different movie. Now, all of a sudden you make D&I behavior fun and sticky because it’s a part of your life, and then you can compete as a team on appropriate behaviors.

Tonya Williams: No, I love that.

Donald Thompson: And so that’s ready to roll. That’s in the App Store, it’s in the Google Play store and there’ll be an App Store next week.

We’re going through the final approvals.

So, what we’ve done, which we’re excited about, and you can probably tell by the inflection in my voice, because we’ve looked at the D&I consulting, but we’ve underlayed it with three legged stool. Data-driven so we do the research, technology enabled, because we want to give people tools and leverage when we leave, whether it’s e-learning, micro videos, whether it’s our application, right? And then we have D&I experts that leverage and pull all that together. And so we basically created a technology company that delivers D&I work. So we’re a technology enabled D&I consultancy, and that’s what we’re building.

And so we think it is cutting edge. The other thing I’ll tell you, and I won’t name drop on the recording, but offline I’ll share with you.

We’ve got three separate billion dollar organizations that are vetting our tools right now. Well, by the time we would pitch to you, we will have two of the three already signed that are buying our e-learning tools, that are looking at our applications, as well as our consulting. And so what we’re doing instead of companies hiring a chief diversity officer, we’re building the chief diversity office for companies. So we’re going to go in and giving them the blueprint so that they can do it themselves. We’ve created a certification program through our partner, IDC, they liked what we were doing so much, they carved out the state of North Carolina that we are the exclusive trainer of their diversity and inclusion certification.

So now we can go into a company and we can now train your staff of how to take this work forward. So we’re not going to sit there for $200, $500 an hour. We’re going to do a targeted engagement, create the momentum, train your team so that you now can build out your DNI practice within the culture, within the alignment, within the language of what you’re doing.

And so we’ve already done all the incorporation components, and we’re looking to spin this out in its own separate entity in about 30 days, and the reason that we’re waiting is because my experience as an angel and as an investor and a CEO is I want to have about five to seven clients, because I don’t want to have a discussion about whether this works or not.

I want to say these are profiles of the people that are already paying us money, invest more money, this is how we’re going to accelerate.

And so that’s kind of the way that we want to think about it.

Tonya Williams: I gotta tell you, I love this for so many reasons. I think it’s a brilliant, truly, because, well, first of all, race is hard.

Talking about race is hard, it’s uncomfortable.  And it’s really, and again, around language,  like my very favorite thing when people do racist things is like, I’m not a racist, you know, I say, um, and you know, and it’s really,  some of it is not about intent,  and it’s not like the card-carrying Klan member  that engages in racist activity.

It’s not necessarily what we’re talking about. So it is, andsystemic racism is even harder because it, by definition it is  woven into  everything that you do so much so that you don’t even, you’re not even aware of it. And if you’re not  on the receiving end of it, and especially in our sort of segregated society, you don’t have to know people.

You don’t have to live with people. You don’t have to go to school with people. You don’t have to,  like there’s so much that you don’t have to know if it’s not, and you don’t have to know it. You often don’t know it. And it’s also always a very interesting thing cause I,  I just feel that because of our history that African Americans know a lot more about the history and the lives and things  of white Americans, and so it’s a very interesting place to enter. But the other thing that I love about what you just said reminds me of, very simple fact which is that culture trumps strategy. You can have the greatest, right. You can come up with best  plan, and if you don’t get a culture, then the best laid plans and monies and resources put toward it, and people will revert back to what they do, what they know. And so incentivizing it and making it fun. And, people kind of, even learning by mistake or doing something cause they want to win –

Donald Thompson: Those motivators, right?

Tonya Williams: Is really incredible and doing it with technology, which allows for you to work in sort of a safe space, as you said, but also makes it very available to you on an ongoing basis. You don’t have to sit down and in three hour diversity training that you do and you take your stuff to read while you’re there. Cause it’s not really for you because  you have lots of diverse friends and stuff.

So it’s not really talking, you know, you’ve already lost before a lot of people get there and you tell them they’ve got to be somewhere for like five hours, you know, once a year. And this is what you have, we’re going to do the same, like blue eyed, green eyed, brown eyed stuff.  So, I just think it’s fascinating and I’m excited to learn more and hear more.

And I think it’s wonderful that you are thinking about this and actually activating the work that you’ve been doing  through this medium, it sounds exciting.

Donald Thompson: It is. And it’s hard work because the conversations are deep and significant, but we do feel like we have an opportunity in this moment and why we’ve put the investment behind it to get it started, to be a point of difference because we started working on this,  over a year ago.

So this wasn’t in response to what happened with George Floyd and some of the others that were recently impacted that lost their lives. It was more of us seeing, kind of the diverse landscape that was coming regardless, and then some of the most recent events have created a catalyst and we’ve been – we’re ready enough, right? Like, you know what I mean? Like our tools are ready enough. Right. We’re telling our clients, our videos and our training platform are already enough that we can be helpful tomorrow for companies that want to go into this thing. And one of the things, one of the clients that we’re talking to about a 600 person technology firm,  based out of Austin and one of the things that was really cool.

And so we’re pitching them on our stuff are the tech piece, e-learning all this stuff. And they’re like, we’re into it. And “Oh, by the way, Don, if we like it, we’re owned by a private equity firm that has 10 other firms.” Right? And I was like, go on, right?

And so what we’re finding is that the appetite for this kind of discussion is pretty significant, but the blueprint for people to know how to make change is still pretty limited.

Tonya Williams: And that’s really the key, right? Like we hear people all the time who said, who are genuine in their desire to do something. And this is, comes back to the bit that you said about advocates and policy makers  that we talked about,  you’re desperate for change.

You want to do it. You have a group, a captive audience. You have people who genuinely want to make the leap,  how do you make it easy for them?  Like I said before, if it was easy, we would’ve have done it, right? So how do you break it down into small bites  that are acceptable,   but push people far enough  to change, and to acknowledge things and recognize things that they might not even have known about themselves. Unconscious bias is a really,  just-

Donald Thompson: An Important thing.

Tonya Williams: Right and  I think it’s incredible, and I’m glad to know that you and other smart people are really working on this and bringing tools to folks.

Donald Thompson: Let me ask you this, and I’ll question back.

How does a company, with this fund, and I’ve probably got four or five companies. Another company that I’ll tell you about real quick is a company called Grippers, and they’re two former NC state football players that created a basically, technology and apparel company. So what does that mean?

Right. So you think about smart apparel that can give you the heat sensors of an athlete’s heart rate. Their dehydration level, things of that nature throughout the body. So it’s a merge of athletic apparel and technology, right, blended together. And so they worked with, the apparel school at the textile school, excuse me, at NC State. I sit on the board. They’ve raised some money, but they need funding to take that next step. African American founders and a really great story and product is pretty cool. What do we do with the ideas that I may have? Do I get them to you? Is there a formal process? Like how do we get, how do we get into that swim lane, right, to tell our story?

Sure.

Tonya Williams: And I can share the website with you when we’re done here and you can publicize it as you see fit. But one of the things that the fund is doing is trying to open this up. And so, very different from how other things work, people can submit through an open process. And so, there are obviously some qualifications that you  would need to meet sounds like you have with the,  being a technology enabled company and the founders. Bonus points for not being in San Francisco, Silicon Valley. Yeah. But to Ian, you can pitch, and someone will evaluate, take a look at the company, and the products,

and so as I said before, the idea is to open the lane so it’s exposure on both sides. So it’s exposure with companies that may normally not get a chance to pitch because they’re not in the network,  they didn’t go to,  the Ivy league schools, they’re not called upon.

I mean, we’re not saying that – what we want to do is broaden the networks. When I say that networks are a bad thing, we’re just saying that networks can be exclusive.

And if you’re looking for the best deals,  this is not charity. This is not,  just saying that there – we’ve gotten some comments, not directly to us, but  in the media where folks were saying,  why is it that  there has to be a separate fund and you’re trying to say, that’s not good enough for  the other funds, are you trying to say that?

Why are people offering mentorship?  They’re trying to say that there are efficiencies.  Are you trying to say that folks aren’t good enough? And one of the things that, one of the folks that I’m working with. said,  very expressly is,  this is not less than. It’s not about less than, this is about sourcing the best deals and making sure that you have access to a wide swath of like the deals that are out there.

And because minority founders are growing and number, because the perspective that you get from hiring people, right, that are different and different in ways that are  different more than just race,  you’re talking about perspective here, and understanding customers and customer needs. Being able to look forward because of your experiences. We want those people   in front of us, we want to be talking to all of them. If the only way that you get deals is via  a friend of a friend who happens to be in your network, you’re missing out.

You could be missing out on a lot. We want the best deals and so –

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome. Like, this won’t be the last right that we talk ’cause I’m just glad that we reconnected. I think it’s good. Smart. There’s a lot we’ll be able to do together. I was recently asked to do a column each week for WRAL Tech, which is our local tech.

 

Tonya Williams: I remember WRAL.

Donald Thompson: I was really honored to do that and they have like 350,000 monthly readers. And so one of the things that I’ll talk about in my first article is what you guys are doing at SoftBank, because I want,  one of the things that was cool for you to say is like that. You want other markets to be represented in this fund also, right?

Not just typical. Right? San Francisco, Austin, different things like that.

Tonya Williams: Not

Donald Thompson: that they’re not

Tonya Williams: amazing.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s other amazing places where there’s talented people and so anything I can do to build the Raleigh ecosystem. I’m a super fan to do right. And go from there. So I know we’re hitting our time.

I probably took more, more time of mine than, than your, what other questions can I answer for you as we wind down, and, and call this first session around?

Tonya Williams: So now I gotta tell you, I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to you,   and so, and it’s about helping each other. And about,  especially the people that we know that are doing  good work, and exposing them as well.

And so I just,  I just want to offer that to you and be appreciative of your offer to help, me as well, and encourage everybody to really do that. I mean, this is how the work gets done and amazing things happen, you know, right inside your own network. And I didn’t even know.

Donald Thompson: That’s exactly right.

Activating your own network. Tonya, I’m proud of you. I appreciate your time. and this has been great stuff.

Tonya Williams: Thanks for having me. This has been fun.

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The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.