How Activate Durham is building and bolstering the community

In Durham, N.C., Leonardo Williams and his wife, Chef Zweli, own one of two Zimbabwean restaurants in the country – Zweli’s. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s had to make several innovations and pivots to keep his small business running, but he’s never given up. After partnering with Summit Church to allocate extra food to the his community, he realized the power in connecting individuals from all walks of life to support one another, and he started Activate Durham to do just that.

In this episode of The Donald Thompson Podcast, Donald and Leonardo talk about how Activate Durham will help people gain access to public health and transportation information,  legal assistance, financial assistance and, what Leonardo’s most excited about, finding jobs.
The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.


Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. A good friend of mine is joining the show today. Leonardo Williams is our guests. Welcome my friend.

Leonardo Williams: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. I’ve been waiting for this for a while so this is awesome.

Donald Thompson: I would like my audience to get to know you the way that I have. So, I want to give you some space to just tell a little bit about you, your family, where you grew up, and then we’ll dig into some of the business things that you’re doing in the community.

Leonardo Williams: Well, thank you so much DT. I’m the luckiest dad alive. I’m also the luckiest husband in the world.  Who goes from, you know, a music teacher to a principal, to a director, to an education consulting for the governor, to a restaurant owner? That’s what I do now, I own a restaurant.  It was the only Zimbabwean restaurant in the United States, it is now one of two. So yeah, I’m a dad I’m my husband, I’m definitely heavily engaged in the community. That was the only condition of opening the restaurant. I needed to make sure that I could still do community work. So that’s me, man. It’s simply stated.

Donald Thompson: One of the things I’m aware is that you transformed your business, right? You went from dine-in and then the dining room was closed. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about just some of the innovations and pivots you had to make to really keep things moving. And then now you’re seeing some next level growth.

Leonardo Williams: Yeah. So, the first thing that I thought about was where is everyone and what’s happening to them. People were home in front of their computers and they were suffering from cabin fever. And that is when I said, all right, we’re going to invest in ad marketing online on social media. I’m starting to see a lot more traffic online.  And we made online seamless.

Literally you go to our website and just click order online and it’s just right there. But also, what I, to save my staff, you know, I just simply typed up a little note and said, Hey, we need to save our staff, there’s an automatic 18% gratuity. Well then, our staff was making more money than they were making before, our servers, because they didn’t qualify for the PPP you know, we couldn’t pay them other than $2.13 an hour and we want to pay them more than that, you know, but people weren’t coming in.  We did that and now they’re making more money, they’re happier, they’re loyal to us.  We were able to get in front of so many more people and, that, you know, helped us sustain to where we are now.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome. And, you know, you allowed the pain not to break you, but to search for points of progress. And that is really, you should be commended because going through anything difficult, there’s moments of doubt, there’s moments of despair, like what kept you going in those moments?

Leonardo Williams: It really is a mindset. When you know, you don’t have a choice between giving up and going forward, like, where do you turn? You can’t turn to giving up. You know? I told my wife and my staff. I said, Hey, you know, if it means we have to go and, you know, go out around the city and literally ask people to help us survive, no shame here. We will have to do that, but you have to be willing to do whatever it takes.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are some folks that are used to things coming to them, and they’re not used to having to, you know, go that extra mile to get what it is that they need.

We didn’t have a choice. We didn’t allow ourselves to have a choice. So, when you’re in that space, that pain starts to serve as motivation. And that’s what I was living on. That’s what I was eating for dinner, breakfast, lunch, midnight snack. That pain was my motivation.

Donald Thompson: Tell me a little bit about, you know, you mentioned earlier, I want you to reiterate it. You were talking about the online ordering, you’re talking about the different things, that you did, your revenues are now up relative to what you’re doing dining only.

Leonardo Williams: Yeah. So, when you look at online ordering versus dine-in only, yeah, we’re getting a lot more traffic in online than we ever did dine-in.  So, we’ve increased our capacity. So now what we’re doing is focusing on what happens when dine-in comes back in full. You’re going to get more orders online than what’s in the restaurant. So, we have to be more efficient. So, we focused on that. So now our inventory management is better. Our efficiency in the kitchen is better.

But reputation equity was huge for us, you know, before the pandemic hit America, we had our own pandemic in Durham. McDougald Terrace, which is a community, the entire community was evacuated. We’re talking nearly 700 people. And our restaurant stood up. We stood up in the front and said we will feed every single person in that community until the last is back into their apartment.

And we did it by bringing the community together. So, we have a kitchen, you go buy some hot dogs and beans or something. We’ll cook it, and I need some people to drop it. And we went to all 19 hotels and we did that until everyone, got back in their apartment. And because of that, our community continued to help us out.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, that is awesome. The thing that I’m learning from you, just listening to you is that were a leader stands up and as a catalyst, other people jumped in to help you with that cause, right? You stood up, but you didn’t have to stand alone for too long. When you were that catalyst and that is, that’s a powerful lesson, man.

And I appreciate you. And that is, that is also sewing and reaping. And then, and then when you needed some support, right, people didn’t forget what you had done.

Let me transition a little bit from the passion and the progress, to the programming. When we talked last, you talked to me about working with Duke University, City of Durham, and really starting to build out some programming for small businesses in Durham.

Can you bring our audience up to speed with some of the things that you’re doing to think about the long-term of what community impact can be and what a catalyst can do in their community?

Leonardo Williams: The Summit Church reached out to Zweli and I and said, Hey, you guys have been doing an amazing work. We have thousands of cases of fruits, fresh produce. We would love to work through you to give that out. So that’s why I used to rent a trailer and I would drive to, you know, impoverished neighborhoods and just give out free produce.

And I would call folks of all walks of life. And I said, come help me out. And one day I was looking at, you know, everyone passing the boxes in an assembly line and there was a doctor, another doctor, there was a lawyer, it was a convenience store worker. There was a janitor.  There were two college students, I believe two or three, there was a diversity and inclusion coach from NC State.  And I was like, wow, I think we just activated the city.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome.

Leonardo Williams: We just activated the city. We have all of these people from all walks of life. And we just activated community service for greater good. That’s how I came up with Activate Durham. And Activate Durham is all about, you know, just bringing people from all walks of life to do one common thing, and that’s good in their community. And so now I’m working on launching that program to where to be a website. Folks that are in need can go to and get access to public health information, public transportation information, legal assistance, financial assistance, but mostly, the thing I’m most excited about is jobs.

I imagine folks that want to get out of public housing, they just needed an opportunity. I’m hiring right now for four positions at our restaurant, and what we’ll do is we’ll submit those positions to the website, and then the website can publish that to the folks who, you know, have been visiting and have put their email in. So now you’re going to get an email. There are 23 people hiring in Durham right now. And you can apply to those jobs. Activate Durham is all about access to the information.

Donald Thompson: When you think about what you’re doing locally, what you’re doing in the city that you live. What do you want to see others do to get more involved as well? What’s your call to action, right? For those of us that want that, that, no, we need to do a little bit more, but don’t quite know how to put that time and effort into the best organizations to actually see some results.

Leonardo Williams: Yeah. So normally I would say do something, just do something, but the problem with just do something is you only know your lane. You know, so what I’m now calling on folks to do and Activate Durham is do what you do.

The second thing and I’ll tie back to the first thing, w in regards to your question is I’m launching a 100 County tour.  I want to talk to small business owners across the entire state of North Carolina, and I want to know what did you do to survive? How are you still standing here? There’s something special about that, about those strategies. We pivoted the way we did, someone else may have done something else. I imagine taking all of those strategies and, and making them down, you know, truncating them down into 10 top strategies to survive a global pandemic in North Carolina, what that information can do for small businesses moving forward.

Donald Thompson: Well, that’s powerful. You know, I get the sense as I listened to you and I learned from you, you also have a giving spirit about you, right? You’re trying to always take the lessons you’ve learned and give those to people that want it. How did you develop that?

Leonardo Williams: So, my mom, you know, was a teacher, but also, I saw her as a single mom be really innovative and survive. What I studied about my mom was she always found a way. And I think that ability that she has sort of rubbed off on me.

And I’m really engaged in the community. And I’m always thinking there is a way, we can find a way.  And my wife asked me the other night, she could get so busy, you have so many things going on. Why are you doing these things? And I said Zweli, you know, we have an amazing son.

We have a roof over our head. We have a son with a nice Mac book who can choose to stay online virtually and not go into the schools. That’s what we call privilege. And until our neighbors have the same. Then it’s our obligation to try our best, to help them get there.

Donald Thompson: That’s good stuff. So now let’s zoom out and now look at, look at our country and obviously, you know, we’ve been through, and working through still the global pandemic, a crazy election season.

Tell me a little bit about as an African-American man, a business leader. How did you process those things and, and keep moving forward mentally?

Leonardo Williams: I’ll answer that question based on an experience that I had recently, which. Really as far me the launch this 100 County tour. I went to visit Mount Mitchell, we got up the mountain and the gate was closed so we came back down and we were on our way back to Durham. And I stopped to this convenience store and there was a Confederate flag and a bunch of deer horns on the wall. And there were four gentlemen, white gentlemen in there.  And all of the writings were on the wall of the experience that I was going to have when I walked in.

But his name was Mr. Henry. He was working the cash register and he was the owner of the store and he offered me a beer. And he’s, I want you to do what I do naked woods. And that question initially, I was already like thinking a certain way. I was like, well, I was visiting Mount Mitchell. Oh man, you don’t want to go up there, man, not right now. It’s going to snow, and you know, you’re going to fall off the cliff. He’s said, so what are you do? And I was like, well, I’m a restaurant owner. Get out of here! We had the most amazing conversation because we were both small business owners and the two park rangers that were there, and the other guy, we just all had a beer together and just enjoy a good dialogue. And it was at that point when I realized that we’ve been letting so many other folks control the narrative, and all we have to do is just put some effort and getting to know one another.

And when I say getting to know one another, know where the hard line is as well. You will never see that flag anywhere near me, that’s his thing. But our commonality was small business. And that’s when I realized, like, we’re going to have to take back what narratives bring us together as people.

Donald Thompson: There’s a lot of wisdom in that, that is powerful. Listen, I have enjoyed speaking with you. I’m proud of you, like I’m cheering for you and I’m thankful because it takes people within communities to care for people within communities.

And you’re an example and the way that you give back inspires me to do what I can with the gifts that I have, right? And that inspiration from each other, right, allows us to keep striving, to keep winning, to keep growing. And if I can be of help to you, please want you to reach out and ask me and give me that opportunity to be a part of what you’re doing.

Leonardo Williams: Absolutely. And I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Full Episode Transcript

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

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