Growing up, Donald Thompson was the kid who was selling Jolly Ranchers in fifth grade. The appeal of entrepreneurship had taken hold of him early.
As a child, Thompson said, it wasn’t necessarily about the money. It was about the choices his own money could provide.
If he relied on an allowance from his parents, he lacked control over how much he could get and what he could do with it. But if he found a way to create his own money, he could do whatever he wanted with it.
Decades later, this childhood lesson has clearly made a mark on Thompson.
He’s a serial entrepreneur who currently runs The Diversity Movement as its CEO. The Diversity Movement is a DEI-centered tech, training and consulting startup based in Raleigh. At its core, The Diversity Movement is based on the principle that diversity, equity and inclusion should be interwoven into all aspects of a business because it drives greater retention and better team results.
But before Thompson was anywhere close to beginning his longstanding career, he was just a football coach’s son, one who had to navigate the culture shock of childhood moves across Louisiana, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Kentucky and North Carolina.
With such a transient childhood, Thompson learned how to make friends quickly, notably by joining sports and becoming a part of a team.
“I always knew I didn’t want to be a coach like my dad in that football sense,” Thompson said. “But I knew that being a part of winning teams mattered. And if you have big goals, you couldn’t do them by yourself.”
Ultimately, Thompson did not have the traditional beginning to his career in business. He attended East Carolina University for a few years on a football scholarship, but when he realized he would not be making it into the NFL, he decided to leave to pursue his own entrepreneurial journey.
“When I came out of school, it was really difficult to make my way in the world without that (college degree),” Thompson said. “That’s one of the things that I wouldn’t trade because it made me super hungry. It made me super tough in terms of how to get in the door when your pedigree wasn’t perfect.”
Thompson’s early jobs ranged from a Dollar General store manager to security roles. But his first professional sales job came at RTP-based Alphatronics (which was later acquired). Thompson said he was able to be successful in sales because hearing a “no” didn’t bother him. He would just keep plugging along to the next potential customer.
After moving to a sales role at iCube, Thompson worked his way up. After iCube was acquired by Adobe Systems, he became the CEO and president of the spinoff services company, growing it from 16 employees to 140 before an exit in 2014.
At around this time, Thompson also invested in a small marketing firm called Walk West, which he helped grow to a multimillion-dollar marketing agency. By 2019, more and more clients had started asking how they could shape their marketing to be more inclusive.
From these conversations, Thompson was becoming aware of just how big a gap existed in the market. Diversity, equity and inclusion were not being fully linked to better retention, and so businesses often neglected incorporating these values into their businesses from the inside out.
Truth be told, incorporating DEI into an organization helps reduce turnover, thereby increasing productivity and overall success as a company. This was the principle that Thompson founded The Diversity Movement on in 2020.
Now, the company is much more than that one idea. With every project, Thompson said, they think about how they can build products and technology to help. They’ve adapted their training videos to micro videos for easier user consumption. The Diversity Movement has even built an AI chatbot and assessment technology to help leadership teams understand their cultural readiness before the company provides personalized plans for clients’ DEI journeys.
“We’re not a social justice organization, even though those things are catalysts to what we do,” Thompson said. “Our job is to help senior leaders build better performing companies, and we think you can do that if you have a more diverse population.”
The type of diversity companies often need to thrive goes beyond just race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s also generational diversity, employees from different parts of the country and world, diversity of thought, and accessibility for those with disabilities.
Even just a few years out from its inception, the Diversity Movement is proving that companies that walk the talk of DEI will perform better. They’ve grown from zero to 100 clients in just 12 months and have already brought in a couple million dollars, Thompson said. Now they are in the process of finishing a seed round to amp up marketing on a national level.
“That’s the thing that we do I think better than anybody in the world,” Thompson said. “We link DEI to how you make more money, how you grow your business, how you become the best of breed in your workplace. How do you become the place that everybody wants to work at and nobody wants to leave?”
What some companies still lack understanding of is that DEI is not a separate thing, Thompson said. It’s a mindset that needs to be integrated into every single function of their business, from the internal and external communication of brands to the CFO’s role in understanding the risks of not being ADA-compliant.
“The cost of prevention is so much less than a multimillion-dollar lawsuit both in terms of cash and brand,” Thompson said.
Lessons Learned Along The Way
As a leader, Thompson said he’s realized that personal skills are significantly more important than technical aptitude. After all, your job as a leader is to create high productivity across a myriad of stakeholders. You have to know how to engage with investors, the newest employee, an intern and everyone else at the company, and with each one know exactly how to inspire them.
Outside of work, Thompson is a highly ranked racquetball player (currently No. 21 in the state). He’s also a father who has devoted his time to be a board member for Easterseals UCP North Carolina and Virginia as well as Vidant Health, helping thousands get support for mental health and intellectual disabilities and improving healthcare outcomes.
This drive to create a greater impact is what guides Thompson in The Diversity Movement as well. As Thompson said, he wants to make a dent in the world.
“Most people have to work to live, and since most of us have to work, shouldn’t work be a cool place for us to go and spend time?” Thompson said. “If the Diversity Movement can help create better workplaces across the globe, then we’re helping create better lives, better humanity.”
Thompson has learned much over the course of life trajectory, from his earlier experiences at iCube to his current work at The Diversity Movement as well as from his childhood and unorthodox business background. So much so that he’s releasing a book this year titled “Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success.”
It’s the conclusion of five years of writing, and it fully documents Thompson’s life lessons-turned-business philosophy. The book will be released in fall of this year.
“I think business leaders can create environments where we can have a positive impact on society while we’re making whatever financial goals we want to make—that we can do both,” Thompson said.