That the first Black woman to lead a World Trade Center in the U.S., who met Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks as a child and overcame not just physical, but learning disabilities in her formative years, thinks she’s not interesting is laughable.
But it’s important to note the sentiment doesn’t come from a diminished view of herself. Denise Thomas, CEO of World Trade Center Arkansas in Bentonville, exudes confidence without arrogance. She also practices and prefers to see others practice transparent directness in their communications.
In recent years, Thomas has brought that practice to her participation in the Arkansas Business Women’s Leadership Summit in Jonesboro and Fort Smith and took the mic once more at the Soirée Women's Leadership Symposium in Little Rock on April 28.
“Women in leadership is hugely important to our economy,” Thomas says of her decision to be a part of these events. “It's hugely important to making sure that we have a strong government, that we have a strong state and that we build strong families, because an empowered woman will empower hundreds of other women. And it's the ripple effect.”
Thomas also recently helped re-establish the Arkansas chapter of the Organization of Women in International Trade, a global association for women who work in international trade and business.
She spoke from well-earned experience in her SWLS session topic on cultural fluency and how it impacts leadership. The overarching idea was, she says, that we must recognize that everyone is a work in progress. We are more alike than we are different, and "there's a level of humanity and loving compassion that comes with that."
Thomas learned such principles from the dynamic women and independent thinkers who raised her.
From role models that include her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts and others, Thomas says it's from them that she learned to actively listen, be an excellent communicator, love herself as well as her neighbors and — though it’s cliche — actions speak louder than words.
“I feel very lucky and very blessed," she says. "I feel favored in every aspect of my life because, even now, I still have wonderful, amazing people who are part of my life's journey. I have taken it upon myself to live a life that is joyous and happy, even in the sad moments, in the tragedies that happen.
“We all experience some form of pain and suffering in some aspect of who we are, but I choose to walk through the pain with a grace and a compassion for others, but also compassion for myself and for whatever grief or loss that may be attached to that emotion, because I want to be happy, and I want to have other people around me, and I want them to feel joy and love and laughter.
“I want to bring about a sense of peace and compassion for humanity. And that's really what's important to me.”
Born in Los Angeles, Thomas grew up in San Jose, California. However, plenty of growing up took place in the few years she lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and during the summers she spent with her family there and in Atlanta.
In Montgomery, Thomas stayed with her great-grandmother, who passed at the age of 107, while Thomas’ mother completed graduate school.
An only child of an only child, Thomas spent most of her childhood surrounded by her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s peers, who believed children should be seen and not heard.
“So I learned quickly when to speak, when not to speak, how to speak. ‘Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Miss So-and-So. Mr. So-and-So.’ And I would have to ask permission: ‘May I speak?’”
To this day, Thomas says, she is respectful of others and their titles, and this has served her well in her career.
Born in 1968, Thomas was in Montgomery in the 1970s as the Civil Rights movement was ending. Her family was active in the movement, participating in the marches and attending many meetings.
It was then Thomas met icon “Miss Rose,” better known as Rosa Parks, at her church, Day Street Baptist Church, but she was too small to recall much of those days. It was also then that she became the first Black kid to enroll at the private Greengate School in Huntsville, Alabama.
While the administration there was progressive and never asked her to leave, Thomas was not welcomed by many of her classmates’ parents.
“Having experiences like that at such a young age makes you very courageous and makes you feel good about you and makes you comfortable in your own skin very quickly," Thomas says. "Because if you don't, you just perish."
She fondly recalls a loyal friend whose parents were kind to her, and she chooses not to dwell on the “not so good” incidents, like when paramedics refused to carry her after she fell off the monkey bars on the playground and was knocked unconscious. They wouldn't touch a Black child; “that’s how it was,” she says.
Thomas' parents took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion and given to six weeks of recovery.
It wasn’t the only ailment of the girl's early years. Thomas wore leg braces and has dyslexia, a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. Despite this, she excelled academically.
Nearly every day after school, Thomas says, she was learning to work through her dyslexia or engaged in physical therapy.
Though she had friends to play with, and even figured out how to climb trees, activities like riding a bike, running and jumping rope didn’t come easy or at all. She was an introvert until college, and by then, the braces had come off.
Introverted is the furthest thing from who she is now, but being that way for a time is why she can easily meditate twice a day and for hours at times, Thomas says. This brings her closer to God and inspires her.
"The world just opens up before you; it just kind of unfolds.”
Although her early life was different from that of many of her peers, Thomas says, “it was what it was. … I look back on it with, you know, that was a part of my life experience and it helped shape me into the person that I am, and I'm very grateful for who I am now.
“And I'll even be even more grateful for the amazing old lady that I'll be because I get that that's really what propels you into your greatness, are the tragedies and the things that make your life a little more challenging than others."
Eye for Fashion
Teenaged Thomas attended Independence High School in San Jose, where she fell for photography, flexing her creative muscles as she developed her photographs. But fashion design and merchandising are what she majored in at the then-American College for the Applied Arts in Atlanta. Thomas earned her bachelor’s degree and did well enough in school to deliver the keynote at her graduation.
She credits her pursuit of fashion to an aunt who taught her how to sew and manipulate patterns. From those lessons, she was hooked, pun intended.
Thomas had fun poring over outfits in magazines, cutting out pictures, making clothes for her dolls and using the kind of machine that had a pump instead of a foot pedal. Good hand-eye coordination was needed to avoid lobbing one’s finger off on one of those, she laughs.
After college, Thomas found a job as a buyer, but didn’t care for that. A few years later, in 1998, she landed an economic development position at the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in Florida.
Thomas moved to Arkansas in 2002 to work as a senior recruiter for Walmart. She joined World Trade Center Arkansas five years later, first serving in a public relations role before overseeing trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. She was named CEO in July.
She replaced W. Dan Hendrix, the WTC’s first president and CEO and a longtime colleague. He called Thomas “very articulate and very knowledgeable and very much a people person, and loves to work with people and be with people and building relationships.”
“She brings great vision, strategy and energy, and we need all of those attributes for the leadership of the [WTC]. I think she's a very warm person, very personable, outgoing. I don't think Denise knows any strangers at all. And that's a real asset for this type of position,” says Beth Keck, one of the WTC’s earliest board members who worked at Walmart with Thomas. “She's definitely all about promoting other women and bringing others along.”
On The Town With Thomas
What do you like to do when you’re in the Little Rock metro?
“Ok, so I'm a museum person.” Denise Thomas says she’s visited the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts), Clinton Presidential Center and Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in downtown Little Rock.
Do you have a favorite local exhibit you’ve visited?
The 2013 "Oscar de la Renta: American Icon" at the Clinton Presidential Center. “It was an experience because one of the ladies I work with, I was walking it with, loves fashion. So we had this very deep conversation about the gowns and how they were made. And, you know, we were telling different stories about the people who were wearing them.”
Is there a show or event that caught your attention recently?
Elton John’s "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" tour show that was rescheduled from July 2020 to January 2022 because of COVID. Thomas didn’t hear about the new date until it was too late. “I was ticked off because, you know, Elton John is a grandpa now, so it’s like you’ve got to keep up and catch him while you can.”
What do you do when you visit your friends in the metro?
“Eat and talk. That’s pretty much all we do, sit around and laugh and just talk and catch up, talk about our children.” She has a 14-year-old daughter.
Are there other activities you enjoy here and elsewhere?
Thomas is a fan of hiking and yoga. “Arkansas is beautiful. That's one of the things I love about this state, is that there's no bad place to go hiking. … I've been here for 20 years, and this is my home. It's not where I work. It's home. I feel my roots are here. I've had the privilege of living in different parts of the U.S., but this is home for me.”