The Big Picture: Denise Thomas Tackles International Trade at the World Trade Center in Arkansas


If you’ve driven through Rogers in northwest Arkansas, you may have noticed a building with the words “World Trade Center” on top and wondered, “Why is there a World Trade Center?” Center in Rogers, Arkansas? And, “Does Rogers need a World Trade Center?

CEO Denise Thomas responds to the latter with a “Yes!”

The WTC at Rogers is one of more than 300 centers (covering over 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 site is part of the University of Arkansas Office of Economic Development and serves as the business advocacy arm for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. He works with heads of state and government to increase state exports to other countries, giving Arkansas a greater opportunity for global presence.

Arkansas’ exports have remained strong over the past few years, and in 2019 accounted for $6.2 billion in trade.

At the helm of World Trade Center Arkansas is Thomas – proponent of all things Arkansas, champion of small business owners, advocate for a better world through trade, and the first black woman to become CEO of a World Trade Center American Center. Thomas was promoted to CEO in July 2021 after nearly 15 years at the center. As a leader, Thomas provides what she described as a “hawk’s eye” vision for the WTC while keeping her foot on the gas for the entire operation.

“We’re working with other World Trade Centers, the U.S. Department of Commerce, our Department of Agriculture, U.S. Chambers, entities around the world — consulates, embassies — to say, ‘Hey, Arkansas has a product. valuable to trade,” Thomas noted. “Our job is to make sure people know about us, find partners for Arkansas businesses, especially small businesses, and facilitate the movement of our goods. in order to make us more competitive.It also gives us a diplomatic advantage over other states that do not have World Trade Centers.

A self-confessed A-type, Thomas aims to stay on top of everything. She oversees the overall export strategy, keeping an eye on what is happening now while looking ahead to develop a strategy moving forward.

“We always look at the big picture. I call it hawk vision. You must fly very high and look very low at every little detail rushing across your terrain that could potentially create a challenge, opportunity or threat.

This means constantly analyzing what is exported the most and to which countries, determining what is being missed and where the opportunities are. At the same time, Thomas and his team think about possible supply chain problems to avoid them at the pass. They ask questions like, “What are the upcoming policies that could impact business? What could become a trade barrier? How to avoid being paralyzed by a possible natural disaster? How do we mitigate the risk of a ship getting stuck in port? »

Just like exports, imports also play a vital role in economic development, Thomas said. By helping local businesses import raw materials, the WTC helps small businesses identify technology that can help them improve their manufacturing practices.

“It helps create more jobs here in Arkansas,” she said. “Believe it or not, imports can do this because it can increase their sales and improve their cost of production.”

The WTC helps local companies identify potential partners who can supply what is missing in the manufacture of their products. Once these products are completed, the WTC helps them to be exported.

Thomas was not always an import/export expert. Amazingly, she went to a fashion school in California and got her bachelor’s degree in fashion design. She ran her design work as a small business, securing contracts and creating for friends and family. But, while she was good at it, fashion wasn’t an industry she felt she could thrive in.

“I’m a person who moves based on how she feels,” she explained. “If it’s not right, I’m not doing it.”

In time, Thomas got married and moved to Florida. She applied her small business knowledge and storytelling skills to get a job with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce as the director of a small business center. There she worked for several years before landing a job as a recruiter at Walmart and eventually moving to Arkansas.

“Between those roles, a lot happened,” Thomas said. “But for the most part my career path was based on what was good for me at the time, moving through it and falling into situations and scenarios that made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t mind jumping off the cliff with my eyes closed into the rocky water, not sure what’s going to happen. I’m okay with that because that’s where you get that flying feeling.

For Thomas, that feeling of flight equals the feeling of success, like she’s being propelled toward the next big thing.

“It doesn’t scare me to say ‘Hey, I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll find a solution’.”

His advice for those fresh out of college or moving up in business is to follow the path that compels you to move forward.

“That feeling or that compulsion will take you to the next win and the next win and the next win. Falling into a hole in life doesn’t mean it’s the end. It just means it’s a fresh start and an opportunity for you to come out of this bigger, better, stronger, faster and more determined.

Perhaps her tough background is what makes her so versatile and fearless. According to Thomas, she has “dealed with roadblocks” all her life – starting with dyslexia. These days, there are proven interventions to help children with reading disabilities, but “dealing with it in school in the 60s and 70s was a big thing”.

Thomas also wore braces on his legs for most of his childhood.

“Not the kind Forrest Gump wore,” she joked. “Those who are bent at the knee. Mine were straight, so I walked like a stick woman, wavering forever.

Being confined to leg braces meant she often couldn’t play with other children, and as an only child, she ended up spending a lot of time alone. She remembers sitting apart watching others interact, observing their body language and learning to predict their actions.

“There’s something about that feeling of isolation that drives you crazy or makes you better. In my case, I feel like it made me better.

This ability to read people has served Thomas well in his current position. A big part of her day-to-day job is 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, his mother moved them to Montgomery, Alabama, where his mother’s family was located.

“I went to an all-white private elementary school with braces and a learning disability in the newly non-segregated South. It was difficult too, because I was the only brown child there until two years later when my cousin arrived. Some parents have taken their children out of school. A little girl told him frankly: “My mom and dad told me that I can’t play with you because you’re black.

Regardless of these challenges, Thomas chooses to see the beauty in it. She had a friend at school, and the teachers and principal were supportive. “I watch all of this, and I’m grateful for every hurt, every scar, every hurtful word, and I offer a level of gratitude and appreciation for that because it makes me better and makes me who I am. .”

These past experiences have shaped his leadership style. Thomas explained that she has a strong personality and is ambitious, but at the same time her approach to leadership is a delicate balance between strength and kindness.

“I definitely drive the car. However, I am a woman of color, and I have a soul, and kindness and humanity is what matters most to me. Showing it 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 others, it’s so much easier for them to be who they are because you’ve given them a safe place to do it.

In business, Thomas is able to use his social skills as a powerful negotiating tool.

“Accepting people, not being judgmental, allows you to come to a mutual understanding much faster,” she said. “You find common ground faster, even if it means agreeing to disagree and parting ways and not doing business together. Or you can agree to agree and find a way to make it a win-win situation for everyone, so that all parties walk away from this negotiation in a positive way by getting some of what they wanted and giving a little in return.


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