If you’ve driven through Rogers in Northwest Arkansas, you might have noticed a building with the words “World Trade Center” at the top and wondered, “Why is there a World Trade Center in Rogers, Arkansas?” And, “Does Rogers need a World Trade Center?”
CEO Denise Thomas answers the latter with an emphatic, “Yes!”
The WTC in Rogers is one of more than 300 centers (spanning more than 100 countries), all members of a reciprocal agreement and under the umbrella of the World Trade Center Association in New York. Founded in 2007, this location is part of the University of Arkansas Office of Economic Development and serves as the trade promotion arm for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. It works with state and government leaders to increase the state’s exports to other countries, giving Arkansas a greater opportunity for global presence.
Arkansas exports have remained strong over the last few years and, in 2019, accounted for $6.2 billion in trade.
At the helm of the World Trade Center Arkansas is Thomas — promoter of all things Arkansas, champion for small business owners, advocate for a better world through trade, and the first Black woman to become CEO of a U.S. World Trade Center. Thomas was promoted to CEO in July 2021 after nearly 15 years at the center. As the leader, Thomas provides what she described as “hawk eye” vision for the WTC while keeping her foot on the gas of the whole operation.
“We work with other World Trade Centers, the U.S. Department of Commerce, our department of agriculture, American chambers, entities all over the world — consulates, embassies — to say, ‘Hey, Arkansas has a valuable product to trade,’” Thomas noted. “Our job is to make sure people know about us, find partners for Arkansas companies, especially small businesses, and help facilitate the movement of our goods so it makes us more competitive. It also gives us a diplomatic advantage over other states that don’t have World Trade Centers.”
A self-confessed type A, Thomas aims to stay on top of it all. She oversees the overall export strategy, keeping one eye on what’s currently happening while looking ahead to strategize how to move forward.
“We’re always looking at the big picture. I call it hawk vision. You have to fly really high and look really low at the smallest little detail scurrying across your field that could potentially cause a challenge, opportunity or threat.”
This involves continuously analyzing what’s being exported the most and to which countries, figuring out what’s being missed and where the opportunities are. At the same time, Thomas and her team think through possible supply chain issues to head them off at the pass. They ask questions like: “What are some of the policies coming down the pike that could potentially impact business? What could become a trade barrier? How do we avoid getting paralyzed by a possible natural disaster? How do we mitigate the risk of a ship getting stuck at a port?”
Similar to exports, imports play a vital role in economic development as well, Thomas said. By helping local companies import raw materials, the WTC helps smaller businesses identify technology that can help improve their manufacturing practices.
“That helps create more jobs here in Arkansas,” she said. “Believe it or not, imports can do that because it may increase their sales and may improve their cost of production.”
The WTC helps local companies identify potential partners that can provide what’s missing for the manufacturing of their products. Once those products are completed, the WTC helps them get exported.
Thomas wasn’t always an import/export expert. Surprisingly, she went to a fashion school in California and earned her bachelor’s degree in fashion design. She managed her design work as a small business, earning contracts and creating for friends and family. But, although she was good at it, fashion wasn’t an industry where she felt she could flourish.
“I’m a person who moves based on how it feels,” she explained. “If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it.”
In time, Thomas married and moved to Florida. She applied her small business knowledge and storytelling skills to attain a job at the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce as a small business center director. There, she worked for several years before landing a job as a Walmart recruiter and eventually relocated to Arkansas.
“In between those roles, there was a lot that happened,” Thomas said. “But for the most part, my career path was one that was based upon what was right for me at that moment, moving into it and falling into situations and scenarios that made me uncomfortable. I don’t mind jumping off the cliff with my eyes closed into the rocky water, not sure of what’s going to happen. I’m OK with that because that’s where you get that flying sensation.”
For Thomas, that flying feeling is equal to the feeling of success, like she’s being propelled forward toward the next great thing.
“It doesn’t scare me to say ‘Hey, I don’t know how to do it, but I’m going to figure it out.’”
Her advice for those who are coming out of college or working their way up in business is to follow the path that compels you to move forward.
“That feeling or compulsion will lead you to the next victory and the next victory and the next victory. Falling into a hole in life doesn’t mean it’s the end. It just means it’s a new beginning and an opportunity for you to emerge bigger, better, stronger, faster and more determined.”
Perhaps her challenging background is what makes her so versatile and unafraid. According to Thomas, she has “dealt with roadblocks” her whole life — beginning with dyslexia. Nowadays, there are proven interventions to help kids with reading disabilities, but “dealing with it in school in the ’60s and ’70s was a big thing.”
Thomas also wore braces on her legs most of her childhood.
“Not the kind Forrest Gump wore,” she joked. “Those bent at the knee. Mine were straight so I walked like a stick woman, forever wobbling.”
Being confined to leg braces meant she often couldn’t join in to play with other children, and since she was an only child, she ended up spending a lot of time by herself. She recalls sitting on the sidelines watching others interact, watching their body language and learning how to predict their actions.
“There’s something that comes from that sense of isolation that either makes you crazy or makes you better. In my case, I feel it made me better.”
That ability to read people has served Thomas well in her current position. Much of her day-to-day work involves building close relationships with clients, understanding their values and knowing their goals.
Yet, as if things weren’t hard enough for Thomas as a child, her mom moved them to Montgomery, Ala., where her mother’s family was.
“I went to a private, all-white elementary school with braces and a learning disability in the newly nonsegregated South. That was difficult too, because I was the only brown child there until two years later when my cousin came.” Some parents pulled their children out of the school. One little girl told her frankly, “My mommy and daddy told me I can’t play with you because you’re Black.”
Regardless of these challenges, Thomas chooses to see the beauty in it. She had one friend at the school, and the teachers and principal were supportive. “I look at all of that, and I’m grateful for every single wound, every single scar, every single hurtful word, and I offer a level of gratitude and appreciation for it because it makes me better and it makes me who I am.”
These past experiences have shaped her leadership style. Thomas explained that she has a strong personality and she’s ambitious, but at the same time her approach to leadership is a careful balance of strength and kindness.
“I’m definitely driving the car. However, I am a female of color, and I have a soul, and kindness and humanity are what are most important to me. Showing that is important. It’s not a sign of weakness. It takes courage to appreciate the good, the bad and the ugly of who you are. When you show kindness, gratitude, generosity, appreciation and humanity to other people, it’s so much easier for them to be who they are because you’ve given them a safe place to do that.”
In business, Thomas is able to wield her social skills as a powerful negotiating tool.
“Accepting people, not passing judgment, allows you to come to a mutual understanding a lot quicker,” she said. “You find a common ground faster, even if it’s agreeing to disagree and part ways and not do business together. Or you can agree to agree and find a way to make it a win-win situation for everybody, so all parties walk away from that negotiation in a positive way getting a little of what they wanted and giving a little in return.”