The first person in my family ever to visit Penn was my father. As a teenager in 1957, at the height of the segregation era, he left rural Alabama by Greyhound bus to upstate New York. He was traveling there to work as a summer laborer at a Birds Eye food-processing plant. It was his first time out of the South — a long trip made even longer by some of the racial realities he lived with and that showed themselves along the way.
My father recalls the trip to this day. “As my bus was passing through Philadelphia, the driver announced we were approaching the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most prestigious universities in America,” he’s told me. “My impression of the campus, even just the outskirts, passing by, was total amazement. I could hardly believe that I had actually seen an Ivy League school.” But his excitement was also tempered with reality: “At that time, I didn’t believe anyone in my family would ever attend a school like Penn. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for me.”
Though my father had reached Penn geographically, the truth is that he could not have been further away. He has an exceptional mind for business and could perhaps have been a tremendous addition to Wharton, but his opportunity was foreclosed due to the Jim Crow practices of the time. Through the civil rights movement, the legislation that followed, and opportunities provided by a career in the military, including service in Vietnam, my father was able to build a better life.
Today, my sister, Ameera Thomas D07 GR07, has two degrees from Penn, and I am fortunate to have earned a Wharton MBA. My family’s story and the responsibility inherent in people like me, who have directly benefited from those who have sacrificed so much, is never lost on me. Our experience reflects the positive arc of change in America in just a generation.
My mother, a proud West Indian born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, has always pushed me to be action-oriented — to take the initiative rather than wait to let things happen. She instilled the value of education in my sister and me, encouraging us to always align our work with a deeper civic purpose. My parents’ shared experience was that of being on the outside looking in, either as an immigrant in the U.S. or as an American who experienced bitter racism even while in uniform.
I hope that I have done my parents some justice thus far in pushing through boundaries while living the values fundamental to my family and their experience, from growing up as a military kid in Lompoc, California, to attending Cornell as an undergrad and the London School of Economics for graduate school, to a decade in investment banking, serving in various leadership roles. But the most impactful (and hardest) period of my career was working on Capitol Hill for my home state senator, Dianne Feinstein. My nearly six years working for her, first as an intern out of graduate school and eventually as a senior aide responsible for economic policy through the Great Recession, were nothing short of transformative. To be of service, to learn from a highly effective national leader and personal mentor whom I admire, and to fight for change truly altered my life.
Being in the room where it happens builds knowledge and confidence, the latter of which is often in too short supply for aspiring leaders of color. What has deeply motivated me since is not just who was at the table but, more importantly, who was not. Sometimes I was the first person of color given the opportunity to be in that seat. I know firsthand that representation matters.
As a problem-solver, I try to use my position and whatever influence and acumen I have built over the years, serving in government and the private sector, to operationalize change. As a numbers-and-data-driven thinker, I view the world this way: see a problem, build a set of solutions to fix it, and measure progress to adjust accordingly.
That was my attitude last summer when I took on a new challenge in becoming CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, one of the most influential business organizations in the country. SVLG member companies provide nearly one in three private-sector jobs in Silicon Valley and contribute more than $3 trillion to the worldwide economy. Since its founding by David Packard more than 40 years ago, SVLG has been a champion for our globally minded members, promoting policies and initiatives that bolster our one-of-a-kind innovation ecosystem. The organization has always remained committed to addressing issues that affect our region’s economic health and quality of life.
But the summer of 2020 wasn’t like any other time. We witnessed the consequences of a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and a worsening climate. We also faced a racial and moral reckoning brought about by George Floyd’s killing. I knew that any solution to the deep-rooted and systemic issues his death exposed would once again start with problem-solvers around a table. However, if we don’t represent more voices at those tables, we’ll never get to the best answers.
That’s part of the inspiration behind an initiative we launched this year with SVLG. 25×25 is a groundbreaking endeavor with the potential to create real, measurable impact that changes the face of business leadership not only in Silicon Valley, but throughout corporate America. As part of 25×25, participating companies commit to having at least 25 percent of their leadership comprised of persons of color or women by 2025, or pledge to increase the number of these underrepresented individuals in leadership by at least 25 percent by 2025. Leading companies across several industries, such as Twitter, Alaska Airlines, Western Digital, SunPower, and the San Francisco 49ers, have supported the 25×25 pledge.
This comprehensive action also takes into account hiring metrics, education and awareness building, employee inclusion, and direct investment in communities of color. It’s an approach that addresses systemic inequity as a means not just for acting on the moral momentum of this moment, but also in driving business competitiveness, growth, and innovation. We are taking this collective step to operationalize change while creating economic value, and to serve as a blueprint for corporate America beyond Silicon Valley.
It’s not lost on me now that I have a seat at another influential table — here with you, the alumni of the world’s best business school, an audience of so many who have changed so much in industries and business history. I ask you to join us as we pledge to realize the promise of our common possibility. We must commit to recognizing the problem and realigning our goals to create solutions that challenge the status quo and do what’s best for all our stakeholders. We must find, recognize, and nurture a more inclusive generation of business leaders. And we must create a bigger table, with shared value to benefit us all.
Ahmad Thomas WG18 is CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Published as “A Seat at the Table” in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.