A Champion Owns Success and Failure
A Substantial Conversation with Donald Thompson, CEO and Diversity Executive
Your past is not your future. Many of us listen to the narrative that’s programmed by other people that tells us we’re not good enough, we don’t have enough, we lack the necessary resources, we don’t have the right skin color, we’re not the right gender, or the right sexual orientation. We accept the narrative that it’s not our time or it’s not the right time, but not Donald Thompson, CEO of Walk West a full-service digital marketing agency that specializes in strategic communications, web design and development, digital media, video production and content marketing. The company has quickly scaled and been recognized by Inc. 5000 as the fastest growing marketing firm in North Carolina in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Thompson is also the co-founder of The Diversity Movement an organization that was created by a core team of innovators at Walk West that provides a comprehensive set of training, education, and strategic resources to help organizations move beyond compliance-based thinking to a mindset that enables business transformation.
Substantial got the chance to virtually sit down with Thompson to discuss branding, entrepreneurship, diversity & inclusion, investing and the beauty of owning who you are and what you do.
SM: Who is Donald Thompson
DT: I’m the son of a football coach that had the opportunity to travel all across the nation. From city to city, and state to state. That’s the business, where you win and people cheer and pat you on the back; you lose and you can believe a U-haul truck is coming. I’ve lived in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Kentucky, and obviously North Carolina. I went to high school here in NC and some college.
One of the things that I would say defines me is that, I’m a dream chaser. It means very simply that when I see something that I want to go after, I have a competitive learning mentality that I want to learn about it, I want to study, I want to find people in the space that can educate me, but most importantly I believe that I can do it too. I believe enough in me that I’m not limited by somebody else’s narrative about what my life should be. I’m willing to try, and one of my superpowers is I’m willing to be bad at something for a while, until I can be good at it. I’m willing to be good at something for a while until I can learn how to someday be great at something. Alot of us listen to the narrative that’s programmed by other people that tells us we’re not good enough, we don’t have enough resources, we don’t have the right skin color. We’re not the right gender, or sexual orientation, or it’s the wrong time, and I say to hell with all of that, don’t let somebody else whisper in your ear, and drown out your megaphone. Don’t let a whisper defeat a megaphone—that megaphone being how awesome you can be, and the whisper being all that’s negative.
SM: Where did that entrepreneurial spirit and attitude come from?
DT: I credit that attitude, that mindset of hopefulness and ambition to my parents, to my grandparents—they fought and marched and struggled so that I could see the world and the goodness in the world. They took some of the arrows for me. So my
responsibility is to pay them back, is to succeed to the level that I could make the path smoother for people that come behind me. One of the things at any level of success that I’ve had, is a high degree of humility.
I don’t believe I’ve done things because I’m special. What’s special about me is my work ethic. I don’t think my talent is necessarily special, it’s not my background, but I do believe it’s my commitment to the things that I try to do. I’m grateful for the opportunities that I have and have had.
SM: How do you measure success and what steps do you take to ensure it?
DT: I think most people, when they think about success, and who they are, they give a little bit too much weight to what other people think they are, and not enough weight to who they think they are. I define who I am and who I want and dream to be.
I went way old school recently. I went out to Barnes and Noble (masked up of course) I got a bunch of magazines and I started cutting out pictures. Listen, I’m building my dream board of what I want to do and be and achieve in the next five to seven years.
Because what I realized about success is, the reason that I’ve done some things that have worked out is I’ve always been so future focused, that the challenges of the moment were just the thing to overcome, they were the things that kept me up at night, because I was chasing that dream. Most people don’t have a strong enough vision for what they want, so anything will knock them off track. The more you tightly define what it is you want and the impact you want to have on other people, then it becomes more difficult for naysayers or challenges to knock you off track, they may slow you down, they may bring you to a stop for just a moment —but they’re not going to make you get off of that train to success.
I’m very big on goals. I’m always asking myself ‘what do I want?’ ‘What do I need to do to get what I want?’ And then ‘who do I need to surround myself with to help me get there?’
“Lean on new sources of information, insight, and connections…A lot of times you’re
fifteen minutes away from a powerful idea based on whom you networked with.”
SM: You have served as a mentor, you’re a board member, you’re an investor. What are some things that you’re looking for when you’re about to take on that next mentee, or to coach someone, or sit on a board, or invest in a company?
DT: Can I add more value than just dollars? Because I’m a hands on investor, not so much a passive investor. I like to work with the people and the teams where I put my money both because I enjoy building teams and work with people, but I also enjoy watching where my money’s at. Right? So I just don’t write checks and kind of forget.
The second and most important thing I look at is the leader of that organization. Are they a competitive learner? Are they really open to new ideas or ways to make the ideas better? Business isn’t always about a new idea. Sometimes it’s how do we make this good idea better. It’s very important that the leader(s) have an openness aligned with commitment to their vision.
SM: What should young entrepreneurs be thinking about when building their company and trying to attract investors?
DT: When I get ready to invest in companies, I’m looking to see what kind of research have they done to understand the potential of their business in that market. A lot of people are in a hurry to build a software platform, or in a hurry to launch a new product. People need to be in a hurry to talk to 100 people about their idea. And after they’ve talked to 100 people, they’ll start to better understand product market fit, they’re going to understand if there is a market for what they have, because out of those 100 people, you’re going to get some that just don’t get your idea.
SM: Let’s talk diversity, equity and inclusion. Tell us about the motivation behind The Diversity Movement.
DT: The Diversity Movement was created by a core team of innovators at Walk West through collaboration with an international group of diversity practitioners, business experts, and marketing leaders to provide a comprehensive set of training, education, and strategic resources to help organizations move beyond compliance-based thinking to a mindset that enables business transformation. Diverse teams that are fully engaged in decision making and execution are more innovative, more profitable, and more productive.
We had clients that wanted to understand diversity, equity and inclusion internally and not just for the purpose of marketing and selling their products better. We felt if people and organizations are going to really trust us with these conversations, we might want to get some training, so four of our executives at Walk West, became certified diversity executives, and we went through a very intense training regimen —and it changed us. We then took our knowledge, and our background as communicators, our background as business leaders, and our certifications from going through these experiences and training, and said how do we want to help? We invested dollars and time, we produced videos, podcasts, hired an instructional designer, and we built ‘Beyond The Checkbox’ which is an elearning course. We want folks to move beyond just the outter and beyond just checking a box. We want people to really learn how to implement and move forward to create measurable outcomes for diversity, equity and inclusion.
SM: You serve in so many different capacities. How do you balance it all?
DT: This is a good question that I get pretty often and my answer is, there’s just phases in life. I think about where I was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and where I’m at now. Now I have a team around me, I have an assistant, etc. I have some advantages now that I didn’t then, but here’s the thing, everyone needs to learn how to swim. You have to put in the work and practice, you have to be willing to take in a little water and for me I’ve just always been willing to do the work and put in the time. I remember being on the side-line with my dad and while it was nice to hear the crowd and be there with the team, I enjoyed the practices. I enjoyed seeing them work at their craft. It made the victory that much more sweet for me.
SM: Any final words for our readers.
DT: Your past is not your future. That’s for us as individuals. That’s for us as a country. Your past does not equal your future.
The ‘Substantial’ Donald Thompson Podcast Takeover! Listen to this special episode of the Donald Thompson podcast with Substantial President & CEO Greg Hedgepeth and Editor in Chief Evelyne Del. LISTEN NOW!