NC IDEA’s Economic Support & The Black Entrepreneurship Council – CEO Thom Ruhe

As the CEO of NC IDEA, Thom Ruhe is on a mission to strengthen North Carolina’s economy through grants and programs for our state’s entrepreneurs with a commitment that no less than 50% of their total time, treasure and talent will support underserved communities, defined as minority, female or rural—and obviously any combination thereof.

Recently, the organization has created the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council with a commitment that 100% of all funds and programs designated exclusively serve Black founders. In this episode, Donald and Thom are talking about being a supportive leader and making meaningful change.


Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson podcast. I am glad to be with you today. And I have a good friend of mine and guests, the executive director of NC IDEA Mr. Thom Ruhe.

Thom Ruhe: Hey, Donald it’s pleasure to be here.

Donald Thompson: So Thom, one of the things that we like to do when we’re talking with our guests is we want to just slow things down a little bit and talk to us a little bit about your background from a family perspective, where are you from?

What brought you to North Carolina? And then we’ll have plenty of time to kind of dive into some of the business. So I’ll give you some space and just let our audience get to know you as an individual.

Thom Ruhe:  Well, it all started one Sunday morning, June 19th, 1966. All kidding aside. I am the third of three kids.

First-generation my mother, my father and my brother, immigrated to the U S from Germany. And then I was born shortly after they got here. And then I have a younger sister who followed me. So I’ve more or less grew up around Northeast Ohio.  I did go through college on a four year air force ROTC scholarship.

So I got to get a little bit of, you know, military background and experience. After I got out of college, I did move to Detroit for several years for a job. And then, you know, I spent about the first 20 years of my career in high growth startup type companies. Okay. And then right around, you know, hitting 40 and my kids getting of a certain age.

My wife hates me telling this joke, but I had a midlife crisis, but instead of a girlfriend and a motorcycle, you know, I joined a non-profit and started doing economic development work and, you know, all kidding aside.  And as my wife of 31 years would attest, you know, we saw the benefit of entrepreneurship and what it does to economically empower families and create wealth that’s generational, and it can be passed down and help people.

And so I did, I hit  this stage of my career where I said, you know, I really want to start helping other people, you know, become economically emancipated through entrepreneurship because it’s that great equalizer. And so,  I was part of a founding effort in Northeast Ohio called Jumpstart.  It’s an organization, very similar to NC Idea.

Probably the biggest differentiation is, you know, we NC Idea, give grants. We, you know, we give money away. So it’s true. Grant free. But Jumpstart follows a model that’s actually more popular and that is they make investments. So they’ll fund very early stage high risk things, but they do get equity in return for those funds.

And the notion there for that economic development model is that it eventually becomes this evergreen fund. So as money comes back, it can be redeployed. And so it was three years, you know, starting Jumpstart, and fast forward to the present. They’re doing great. That’s awesome. Their balance sheet is over a quarter billion dollars.

They’ve had, you know, two unicorns that they invested in over,  about 17 years.   But I got the opportunity to go work for the Kauffman foundation. And probably it was the only thing I would have left Jumpstart for. Cause I just was that work was so rewarding. But for your viewers that might not know the Kauffman Foundation is the largest foundation in the world that’s, you know, dedicated to entrepreneurship.

Yup. And it’s very big in the endowment. You know, it was very big and, the budgets were very big. And, and so it gave me an opportunity to really do what I was enjoying, but on a larger scale with greater resources and global partners. And so I had seven incredible years there, doing that. And then in that period of time, you know, life marches on my kids start getting out of college.

The wife and I are looking around and saying, we love Northeast Ohio, but you know, 24 inch winter, snow storms kind of suck, you know, maybe it’s time to empty nest to some other part of the country. And so I just, I let my social network know that I would be open to a new position, new adventure, and it just happened to coincide with the timing of the board here at NC Idea, doing a national search for a new CEO for the foundation.

And that threw my hat in the ring. And lo and behold, five years ago, March 1st was my five-year anniversary.

Donald Thompson: Congratulations.

And also thank you because I’ve gotten to know you and the work that you’ve done for NC Idea which by default affects the state of North Carolina. And one of the things that I appreciate as an entrepreneur is the true welcoming.

Of our state and our ecosystem to entrepreneurs and it’s real, right. We call one another and try to help each other when we can. And that’s one of the things that’s kinda creating the flywheel, right. For the success that we’re having. So five-year run , that is awesome. So let me do this, let me now pivot a little bit to NC Idea.

Because I want our audience to understand number one, what it is, what you do, but also ways that they can participate ways that they can support some of the startups that you are funding and working with. So I’ll give you some space to talk specifically about, about NC idea and its mission.

Thom Ruhe: Sure. Thanks for that.

So NC Idea is an independent private foundation. I use the word, the modifier independent because they’re most private foundations, there’s like a Mr. Or Mrs. So-and-so or a family, right. That their money was a bequest. And so they’re guided by what’s called donor intent, you know, Ford foundation Gates foundation.

They do those foundations do what the founders wanted them to do or want them to do there wasn’t a Mr. Or Mrs or family that created NC Idea. It was money that came from an equity investment that the state had made in the nineties, in a company called Kronos. And when that windfall happened an acquisition that happened, it created this corpous this amount chunk of money.

It was, I think, around 29 million, just shy of 30 million bucks at the time. And, my predecessor,  Dave Rizzo and John Canbeer and Lister Delgado. They were all affiliated with MCNC at the time. And there was enough kind of political will to say, okay, let’s carve off this. Almost 30 million bucks and put it into a legal structure so that it could have a chance to grow and do some good instead of just kind of being sucked up and deployed within one or two budget  cycle years.

So that’s what it created us back in officially around 2005. And it was at that time. And to this day, still running a primary grant program called the seed grant program, which is a $50,000 grant program. And so twice a year through a competitive cycle, we run a program called seed where,  entrepreneurs from anywhere in the state can apply for a $50,000 grant.

And we have a process, you know, in a rubric that we use, it really drives on things like impact,  you know, part of our raison d’etre, if you will, is to alleviate the burden to government.  So there’s a big economic development component to our body of work. So what we do with that grant program is we look for companies that have super high potential.

But not the ones that will necessarily easily go off and, you know, have all the access to capital that they need and to find the ones that need our intervention.   I know this sounds like I’m getting a little bit in the weeds, but the ideation, but it’s important, right? We want to be catalytic, not accelerant.

You know, we don’t want to fund something. That’s going to be inevitably fine without us. We want to fund, we want to give opportunity to those things that have high potential, but for the chance to have a little bit of money to test some big idea. Gotcha. Right. So that’s seed and that’s our flagship, grant program.

But we have over the years now, we’ve evolved since, you know, I came on board, one of the kind of conditions of me taking the job, which,  credit to the board at the time that hired me was they recognized they wanted to expand the purview of the organization to have greater impact, in particular in underserved communities.

And I’ll get to that in a minute. But also, you know, help more things in the state. So there’s, there’s the grant programs that we do directly for entrepreneurs and think of that as our kind of B to C strategy, but over the years, we’ve implemented. Well, we can call the B2B strategy and that’s our ecosystem partner program.

Where we have funded,  upwards of, I think we’re getting close to 60 now organizations around the state that are also helping entrepreneurs be successful. But in ways that are relevant to the communities that they serve. Right. If there’s something that I’ve learned over the years, doing this kind of work in particular, a very large foundation is, it’s easy to kind of, assume you have all the knowledge, if you have the money and that hubris,  doesn’t always work well.

Right? So we don’t presume from our office here in Durham. You know where I’m in the shadow of the NC mutual building. That’s right over my shoulder here. We don’t presume to know how entrepreneurs in Greenville or Robeson County or, you know, Asheville or pick a place. Right. We don’t presume to know how they need to be helped.

You can’t say in, authentic ways in the practice of economic development, like this is what we do in the triangle. Just do this in your community of 13,000 people. That’s not going to work. So we, we really developed this B2B strategy and they’ve been funding through that and building a statewide coalition of organizations that can help people where they are with the help that they need at the time they needed.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. I mean, in I’d say it’s powerful. It’s because, right. Like, you know, I’m thinking about some of the names that you shared and I know Lister and know John and that vision and commitment. And then now what you’ve taken to the next level over the years, what do you see in terms of, when you talk about the ecosystem strategy, what are some of the successes?

Right. You told me what it is, what are some of the things like at a more granular level that you’ve seen be able to be accomplished?

Thom Ruhe: You know, I will say and I’m not trying to use kind of like the plural of anecdotal data to be you know, to be data. But when we pulled together our ecosystem partners we do so twice a year and everybody kind of comes and shares best practices.

They come with an ask and an offers is the terminology we use. Right. And they say, Hey, you know, we’re over here in Asheville and we’re trying to do something for companies that are consumer product goods. In particular, right. They have a big concentration there of those types. You know, whether it’s a fermented tea or, you know, a meat alternative, like no evil foods, for example, is one of our grantees.

So  they have this particular like niche problem, right? They can bring that to the council. They can bring that to the, you know, the ecosystem partner network and say, does anybody else have ideas or are they, are you grappling with something? So we have this coordination level that happens that here to for never happened right.

There, there was no unifying reason to bring these desperate or disparate, I should say groups together and talk to each other. Gotcha. And so matter of fact, I remember the very first one we did the very, very first kickoff.  Eric Tune was at the moment still over at Duke. And, we were all in the room and Eric looked around the room and he was just like, You know, I don’t think this group of people have ever been in the same room together that near convening has value, right.

Because we can help each other.

Donald Thompson: That’s right.

Thom Ruhe: We do more together than we do alone. And so that’s been something that I’m very encouraged about, you know, every grant cycle, when we help these companies directly, that’s incredibly rewarding. But when you understand that you can help more by helping the people that help the people.

You start to understand multiplier effect and you can see how, you know, if you have a multi-pronged strategy, you can help at the aggregate level more things to happen.

A lot of that work that went into the inspiration and the thinking of what we recently created, which was the North Carolina black entrepreneurship council.

Donald Thompson:  Let’s talk into that a minute because like our audience can’t see you, but based on my visual, you’re a middle-aged white male. Right. You know that you’re right. And a lot of times in, in this, you know, is, been my positive experience, but a lot of people have, because of the way power structures are set up in venture capitals, capital organizations and government companies, right.

If you’re a person of color, You see that middle-aged white male is not someone that could be helpful, but somebody that may be holding you back, right? You are counter. And many of the folks that I know are counter to that narrative. And so one of the things that I like to do on my show is bring together people with that common bond to move things forward.

And we have a lot happening in our world, politically racial equity and different things. You’re looking at it through a business lens in this case. Talk to me about this black entrepreneurship council. The seed to birth it and what you hope to accomplish from it?

Thom Ruhe: Sure. So one of the first conditions of, you know, me kind of taken over at NC Idea was and again, I want to give credit to the board because they shared this value and the staff goes without saying that the staff does.

And I said, listen, first of all, what we have to do is we have to be true to this commitment. And so let us put forth a goal for ourselves that we’re going to measure against that no less than 50% or half of our total time, treasure and talent is going to have to be in service of underserved communities, which we define as minority, female, or rural, and obviously any combination thereof,  but we had to say, we had to say it right.

And we had to write it down. And we had to say that we’re going to hold ourselves to this and we have to measure against it.   Because, you know, as is the big cliche is say in business world, if you don’t measure it, you don’t attain it or you don’t achieve it. So everybody was on board with that, and that forced the behavior of questioning everything we do.

Right. And every stage of it. So when we do a call for applications, what does our underserved numbers look like? Just from the gross application, then we call the herd, right. And have semi-finalists it’s like, okay, at that stage, what percent did we go down in certain categories? Or did we stay up? Right?

And then from semi-finalist to finals, we track all of that every step. And we intervene where we have to. To be true to our goals. Right. And so we’ve been doing that now for several years and, I just had the sense, you know, like everybody else last summer was an awakening now I’m from,  Cleveland.

And that kind of happened to me several years, even prior with Tamir Rice and the unfortunate slaughtering of that young man’s life or ending of that young man’s life. And I just, you know, I’ve been around private equity. I’ve been around economic development. All the data is glaring. It’s been glaring at us in the face for years.

Right. You know, black people are not funded at the same level. They don’t have access to the network, the capital full stop. There’s no debate on that. So what’s anybody doing about that? That’s right. I saw a lot of virtue signaling going on in the summer, you know? W w what’s our BLM statement going to be on our website, right?

Like I want to be woke. Yeah. So I’m going to do some hashtag just as BS. That just felt so disingenuous to me. And even though we had this big overarching goal, when I looked even deeper at the data, it’s like, well, I mean, short of some like extreme racist type person who could argue against having a focus.

That’s going to be exclusive to the black community. Right? Give me the argument against that, because I can make, I could spend three hours on this podcast, making the argument for it. So give me the argument against that. And of course, you know, it’s crickets chirping on the other side of that, there is no argument against it, so it’s just a matter of doing it.

Donald Thompson: That’s right.

Thom Ruhe:  So I brought it to the staff and, you know they tolerate me, which is appreciated because I get really excited. And then, and then they say, okay, let me say my mom’s had an idea heads up and they helped me, you know, work it into something workable. And so a couple of epiphanies has had to happen too.

I am a fair complected. I am of the, you know, the, middle-aged white guy club, for sure. So. If we wanted to be authentic about this, we had to realize that we had to understand what our role was, know what our lane is, and it isn’t necessarily to lead this it’s to support it. It’s to empower the group that we seek to help.

And that’s why the, I think the first, most critical step of forming the black entrepreneurship council was forming the council. We had to acknowledge the board and the staff as well-intended, as we are, we had to acknowledge that we needed a council of the people we seek to serve to lead what that service would look like.

So then we didn’t approach this with the assumption of complete knowledge that, you know, again, as well-intended, as we would be, that we would think, Oh, well, this is what we should do to support black entrepreneurship in the state of North Carolina. We said, no, we couldn’t do that. We had to form a council of, you know, black leaders that would be that voice. And we, you know, we had to be comfortable and trust. Trust was, is the biggest part of this. We had to trust. You know, a group of people to come together, you know, united by common purpose and say, okay, what can we do to make this a reality? And so what that,  resulted in and how that’s manifested this, you know, I’ve got to find money.

Like my role is to put money under the auspice of the council so that we can  basically do the highest leverage things to eventually make North Carolina the best state in the nation for black people to start and grow companies will stop. Right. That’s that’s all I want to do.

Donald Thompson: Right, right, right, right.

When you, you know, I, I appreciate both the way you described it. And also you mentioned trust, but there’s also a component of humility to step into a different role. When you’re used to being a leader or a lead organization, whatever the case may be and that, that knowing the lane of when it’s your turn to lead for support.

And I think that is really powerful. The other thing that I really took from it was the documentation of how you are going to deal with your time, treasure and talent. And when you bake that in, that became your true North. And I think that’s just a lot of discipline a lot of times, and I guilty of this, but I’m working more with non-profits and different things, and these are great, well led organizations from the outside looking in, right.

You think nonprofit, you think they’re putting on events and it’s kind of happens, right. But your mission and the seriousness with which you approach your business, doesn’t align necessarily with the stereotypical component of that And so that’s just really impressive. And I just wanted to acknowledge that and share that right.

In terms of what I’m, what I’m looking at and thinking. And then also the other thing that’s really cool. And I talked to this, you know, when I’m talking with, with emerging entrepreneurs about networking, the ask and the offer. Right. It’s easy just to ask someone for a cup of coffee and take, take, take.

Right. But you described when the ecosystems partners get together, there’s an ask and then there’s an offer. And then that keeps that relationship, self perpetuating and growing. Where did that mindset come from? Where did that phrasing come from? How did you make that a part of your culture for what you’re doing?

Thom Ruhe: You know, it’s, first of all, thank you for the kind words. I appreciate that. And I think it’s just been kind of it’s, it’s been the product of what my career has been leading up to having had the benefit, like in the early jumpstart days as being that new thing and walking around the state with my tin cup, begging for money, right.

To help fund this nascent thing that was gonna, you know, help, bring some economic recovery to the Northeast Ohio, which was the, is the, or was the buckle of the rust belt. So to speak, to going to the Kauffman foundation, right. Where you have Kauffman on your business card, you have 50 extra IQ points.

Your jokes are always hilarious, right? You’re never at a loss to be invited to cool stuff.  And that’s all wonderful, but it’s also informative and it can also be destructive. Well, not that destructive that’s too harsh of a word . It can amplify blind spots, right? So I’ve learned from both extremes, that humility in this work despite your best intentions, despite feeling like, you know, I work 10, 12 hour days helping people like, so whatever I say should be, you know, taken as gospel, you just realize, no, that’s not true. It’s not. And especially if you’re going to step out of your own realm of personal experience, then you should first, you know, forgive me for saying the cliche, but you need the first seek to understand before you can be understood.

And so that’s what we had the space and my current board, is so optimized right now. They are so in support of this work that I, you know, I can be up front with them to say, listen, I don’t know where this is going to end. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Right, but I promise you, the team is going to work their butts off to, you know, be as, have as much impact as possible.

We’re doing it based upon all this research and data that we ourselves track. So a reasonable person could understand that we’re doing, at least we’re taking what would, could be conceived as a smart approach. So let’s let us do it. And if we see things that change, would we see things that aren’t the desired outcomes we’ll pivot, we’ll change, right?

That this is a part of what is in a stigma in this space. I think that people are so afraid of failure and it’s like, you know we support entrepreneurs for God’s sakes. They risk failure every day, right? So let’s eat our own dog food here and take this approach that says, you know, we’re going to go out there and do our very best, you know, with smart people and hopefully adequate resources.

And hopefully we’ll be right more often than we won’t be, but you know, we’re going to get it wrong. Of course we are. But if you don’t, you’re not doing enough. Right. That’s the other part of this. And I’ll tell you. Okay. And I apologize, cause I don’t know how much time I’m going to be. needing here

Donald Thompson: Keep it moving my friend

Thom Ruhe:  I want to share  and this is very real and it’s timely.  So we’re, you know, we’re a year, right anniversary one year anniversary of COVID you remember where the markets were last March stock markets, right? 35%, 40% off where they are now. So foundations. Anybody, you know, non-profit, that’s got money in the bank.

Right. And they live off of that. They were, you know, crapping the proverbial brick because, you know, you live off of that. Your Corpus is your source of funding. And so you know, lots of foundations when there’s a big economic shock like this, they pull back on their spending out of a self preservation mode.

Yeah. You know, we just took a hit it’s on the books. It’s not real hit, but it’s, you know, eventually it’s going to have impact. So we pull back and they’ll pull back from their 5% spend. So by law, IRS, if you’re a foundation, you got to do 5% of net assets every year. And, but you can underspend that you, what you understand, you have to carry forward, you have to eventually spend it.

Right. But a lot of foundations will go, Oh man, circle the wagons, pull back on grant making let’s suspend programs for awhile. And let’s ride out the storm. My board and our team looked around and said, Oh my God, this is seismic. Their need is going to be off the charts. This is historically unprecedented.

If we weren’t made for this, what were we made for? And instead of doing a pullback, we committed to doubling. And we went and improved a 10% budget instead of a 5% budget. And not only did we do that for the fiscal year, that for us will end June 30.  The board committed to doing that for two years in a row, without even knowing how much, you know, and then March to make that decision in March last March, we’re making that decision saying, okay, if things don’t recover dramatically, we’re actually going to be burning down our endowment, which means it puts the future at risk.

But the need was in the present. So it was an act of courage, right? So now fast forward today where our markets today, not only did we recover, we recovered stronger, right? Everybody’s endowments above and the head of revenue. And so we had our March board meeting a couple of weeks ago. We had to do the financial update.

Our revenues are all ahead of projections. Now I ask you had the board been protectionist, last March and said, now we’re going to pull back, you know, self preservation mode. And then we go into this March board meeting a year later and see where the financials are. Do you know how small that would have felt?

Do you know how cowardly that would have felt? Right.   I couldn’t have been prouder for the team who said we’re up to the challenge. Because we doubled our output it during COVID, you know how much social activity there is part of our work. So, you know, when we do these eight hour selection days, that’s usually in person where you can get up and have breaks and talk to other people eight hours on zoom sucks, right.

But we’re grinding it out. And so we finished last fiscal year at a record, we’re going to finish this. Fiscal year ahead of last year. And if things go the way, I think they’re going to go the next fiscal year, which will start in July one, we’ll beat the current fiscal year.

Donald Thompson: That’s awesome.

Thom Ruhe: That’s having courage and that stepping up to the moment.

Right. And I couldn’t do that if we didn’t have the board and team that we have to do that.

Donald Thompson: Yeah. That’s powerful. And the way you phrase it, right. An act of courage, right. That action component. Right. And really putting the money, the finance in that risk. Like the entrepreneurs that you serve in. So that is what a great story.

One last question. We talked about 30 minutes and we’re going to be a little bit over, so that’s all right. One of the things that I want to get your take on, and this moves a little bit away from NCIB and entrepreneurship in particular, but more of the macro issues we’re having in terms of leaning into racial equity.

And I want your opinion, you mentioned virtue, signaling, different things that companies are doing. Okay. There’s a lot of leaders that mean, well, want to do well, want to learn more about diversity equity inclusion and what their lane is. And I’ve talked to them and I’ve talked to other leaders  on their behalf, but they are genuinely afraid of making a mistake saying the wrong thing and that backlash that doesn’t represent their intent.

Thom Ruhe: Right.

Donald Thompson:  What advice? And this is a place that, that I don’t live. Right. I’m on the other, like, I, I’m not experiencing that. I’m full steam ahead. Right? I’m an African-American entrepreneur trying to change the world. And if I make a misstep or whatever, no, one’s calling me out too harsh right now.

Right. Like, so what advice, or what perspective would you share for those folks that want to be more vocal, but there is that real concern of impact of getting it wrong.  And being perceived in a negative, bright light when they were trying to do something powerful,  how would you talk to them or guide them?

Thom Ruhe: Well, I think first of all, I would congratulate them on at least having the desire. Okay. Because far too many people are just content being quiet and doing nothing.  So the fact that you’ve got the intent is good, but that’s about all that it is. It’s good. It’s going to take effort. And it’s going to take an authentic effort and my first piece of advice that just kind of trenching, a staging to this first piece of advice is get educated.

Talk to people like you talk to the people that you hope to help. That is your intent to be involved in,challenge your assumptions. Right. Find trusted partners that understand you’re dealing with that anxiety and, you know, Donald, I so appreciate that question because you, that was me to a T queuing up the BEC, right.

Because I do look the way I do. Right. And, so I have, fortunately I have friends in the community that I could be real with. Right. And just sit down and say, am I getting this right? And be humble. Open yourself up to the criticism, right be open to other opinions  and don’t be afraid to be honest.

It is so weird. And I think it’s maybe because the politics of the last couple of years has really amplified this gotcha type of environment and you know, everybody pouncing on everything. But if you get to the point now where you can say to something like, I don’t know, I, I’m going to look into that.

I’m going to, it’s almost like a super power, right? It’s like disarming, like, wait, wait, wait, what? You just admitted that you don’t know something. It’s like, well, hell yeah, you can’t expect to know everything. All I can promise is that I’m going to try to get as smart as I can on the topic. You know, we’ll go forth and we’ll do something about it.

And if we hear, you know, backlash, if I did miss step and, my good intentions were in the wrong direction, then we’ll correct for it. But for goodness sakes, it’s not the end of the world. Right. And, I don’t have to give up if I stumble. Right. I’ve I’ve got friends who, you know one very, very dear friend who’s, you know, 20,  and I want to get right.

I think 28 years sober. He’s been sober for a very long time. Let’s put it that way. And, I’m often fascinated about, you know, his stories of recovery and how he got on this. You know, path he had the good fortune of somebody that intervened with him. And one of the things he always tells me is like people that are in recovery, right?

The ones that can be successful versus those that can’t are the ones that can give themselves, cut themselves some slack when they’ve had a stumble and realize that, okay, tomorrow’s a new day. And  it’s another opportunity to do great things. And I think the same thing applies in kind of economic development.

You know, and if we have more good days than bad days in the long run, we’re going to accomplish great things. So back to the specific point of your question, if you are, you know, a white executive and you want to, you know, have an impact here, you know, be honest with yourself, try to understand where your blind spots are.

Talk to people you know, of the group that you hope to serve, get their advice, disclose every chance you get. We’re going to probably get this wrong, but we’re going to try to get it right. So that, you know, you don’t have to experience that shame of like, Oh my God, I got it wrong. And now I’m, I’m one of those guys.

Right. And then don’t let, don’t let haters, you know, don’t give oxygen to people that are going to hate on you regardless. I mean, I got to tell you when we launched the BEC you know, I got some very surprised, well, surprising to me. Because well, because I’m, you know, a white guy, I got hate mail. Right. I got people that were very

and it was funny because when I mentioned that in , one of our early BEC council meetings, you know, I’m looking at 25 black faces looking at me like, well, what the hell did you expect?

Oh yeah, I guess,

I guess I was being naive. Right. And for me, that was just an indication that we’re close to the problem, you know, if we hit the nerve and then, then it came up again, you know, right before our summit. That was having a kind of a get to know you meeting kind of like this with, with Del Gines who was one of our great speakers he’s with the federal reserve bank of Kansas city.

And that was, you know, mentioning all this and I’m like, what, what do you think? And that was like, I don’t, I don’t give oxygen to races. I’m not going to debate the racism. And I was like, Oh, there’s a million point there. You’re going to waste that time. Right. And then, and then I think you just have to demonstrate, right?

Because I do, I will say now from the perspective of the person you’re talking about, you know, there are those on the other side of the coin that are for good reason. For good reason. They’re skeptical of an effort, especially like this. If it’s led by somebody like me. And I understand that, all I say to them is see what, watch what we do and measure me from our judge, me by our actions.

Donald Thompson: And that’s a fair I want to, I want to lean into that for a minute, Thom. That’s a very fair and important point, right? Because when people are leaning in. And then they’re met with that unarmed skepticism, right. That doesn’t create the space for people to practice without penalty. And so we all have a responsibility to give each other some grace, some room to try to move in the right direction and actually make some change because we need each other desperately right.

To do this work. And,  I was just furiously writing. Right. Like everything you were saying, right? Get educated, expand your network, challenge your assumptions. Find trusted partners, be humble, be open to the new ideas. Don’t be afraid to be honest with what you don’t know, right? That is that’s very difficult to business leaders that have achieved a certain level of stature in different things.

That component it’s hard for any of us. And don’t give up. If you stumble. And then the one I love my friend, right. Is don’t give oxygen to haters that are gonna hate anyway.

Thom Ruhe: Right. So, I mean, that comes off sometimes as arrogance or me being aloof. And I, that’s not my intention, but my time is too precious and I value it.

Right. So I’m not going to waste it. Debating hatred.

Donald Thompson: No, that’s good.

Thom Ruhe:  There’s no point of it.

Donald Thompson: No, I can tell when I’m talking with guests and different things, I’m into all of the interviews because I’m talking to some amazing folks, but I can just tell in my notebook when it’s filling up, even though I know I’m going to get a transcript, right.

That it’s hit something that I think is just really, really powerful. Thom, I want to thank you for your time.

Thom Ruhe: Oh, my pleasure.

Donald Thompson:  I really enjoyed speaking with you.  I look forward to watching and admired and anything I can do to help please call on me.  But I’m thankful to have what you’re doing in our ecosystem and it gives me, and I will share this very sincerely in the work that we’re doing with the diversity movement and trying to do our part in making this change with business leaders and different things.

Sometimes people ask me how I’m impacted by the things that I’ve seen. And I tell them the one thing that helps me push through the tough days is when I talk to people that have the power and the passion to make a difference like you, that are doing it. Because then that energy says, wait a minute, there’s hope for tomorrow because I like any other black man can get discouraged as what we see in this recurring narrative.

And so, I’m really thankful for what you’re doing and the energy right. That I get from seeing what you’re doing. And so I appreciate it.

Thom Ruhe: Well, thank you for the kind words. For me personally, it’s a privilege to do this work.   I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the state of North Carolina.

I think I have one of the best jobs in the state of North Carolina. I enjoy it. It’s also in my life stage. Right? I’m I’m at that age at soon to be 55 where I want to start thinking about, okay, what’s what, how did I leave my mark on the world? And I think the BEC in particular of all the things I’ve done, even on a global scale with the Kauffman foundation, I think the BEC has the potential to be a national exemplar.

It can be replicated in other States, you know, and we’re documenting everything on it so that we can write the compendium someday and the white paper can get written about it. And I think if we do that, we can really transform certain long-held assumptions around economic development and, you know, building equitable communities that will be better for everybody.

It’s not just helping a particular community, but when, when the most marginalized communities have access to a  level playing field, it helps everybody. It helps everybody. There’s there’s no debate on it. The data’s there. If you want to go look for it. So thank you. Thanks for the opportunity to amplify our message on your great podcast.

I’ve been enjoying it.  We’re very fortunate here in North Carolina, they have thought leaders like you, you know, leading this cause, so.

Donald Thompson:  Awesome.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, The Diversity Movement 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

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