Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

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RALEIGH – This past Saturday morning I had the honor of delivering the commencement address at William Peace University. Standing at the podium in the dazzling sunshine, I looked out at the many smiling faces of families, staff members, faculty and administration and urged the graduating students to “make your mark!” 

Later reflecting on the experience – sharing graduation with the students and the University community on one of its happiest days – I realized that the hope, joy and anticipation of that ceremony, as well as my charge to the new graduates, could serve as a guide for people across organizations and experience levels. Following  are excerpts from those remarks. 

Graduating from college is no small feat, especially given the extraordinary circumstances of the past few years. I would like to begin by acknowledging the immense accomplishment that today represents for each of you – and your families, friends, supporters…and YES, even your haters. But we’ll talk more about the haters in a few moments.

You come from all walks of life, from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, and you have pursued a wide range of interests and passions. Yet, here you are, united by a common goal: the pursuit of knowledge, excellence and personal growth. I am impressed by the unlimited potential before me. Each and every one of you has a unique set of talents, experiences and perspectives that you will bring to the world. And the world needs you more than ever. 

We are facing some of the most complex and pressing challenges of our times, from climate change to social inequality to numerous public health crises. If we are to overcome these challenges, we will have to work together to find solutions.

Without a doubt, the past few years have been full of ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks, laughter and tears. You have been challenged, inspired and stretched in countless ways. You have emerged stronger, wise and more resilient than you ever thought possible. 

William Peace University has been a critical part of your lives. The University has prepared you to face challenges head-on. Now, it is time to take all that you’ve learned out into the world. 

Now it is time for you to make your mark!

But let’s not forget about the people who helped you along the way. Your families, your friends, your professors, your mentors and your peers have all played a vital role. They have offered support, encouragement, guidance and love. They have celebrated your successes, been your champions and picked you up when you stumbled or fell. The teamwork it took to get you to this graduation ceremony mirrors the kind of collaboration that leads to success in the business world, for organizations and within families.


I want to talk to you about the importance of leadership. Leadership is not about a title or a position – it’s about action, impact and influence. At its core, leadership is about making a positive difference in the world. Leadership is using your unique talents, experiences and perspectives to make the world a better place. And leadership is about empowering others to do the same. 

But let’s be clear: leadership is not easy! It requires courage, vulnerability, conviction and hard work. It requires a willingness to take risks, to fail and to learn from those failures. 

I know that many of you have faced challenges. Like me, you may have been underestimated at school, on the playing field or at a job or internship. Maybe you’ve had to stand up to a hater or even a group of haters who were actually hoping to see you fail. What I can offer you, though, is a different perspective. 

When I was underestimated, I decided that my dreams were big enough to overcome an unfair playing field. The most valuable skill I learned along the way was to bounce back from setbacks and turn even the most difficult situations into learning experiences. 

Over the course of my career, I have grown companies, sold companies and coached business leaders across the globe. By most standards, I’ve done well. But what looks like “accomplishment” was built on years – decades, really – of working hard, learning from poor decisions and understanding how to dream big – and win big – even when I was overlooked based on someone else’s vision of success – usually defined by pedigree or pigmentation. 

I want to remind you that your worst day does not define you or the lifetime of achievements laid out in front of you. Let those moments of being underestimated serve a purpose – use them as a launchpad pointing toward greatness!

  • Your past challenges don’t define you. 
  • Your past doesn’t dictate your future. 
  • It’s your values and what you do in the face of those challenges that define you. 

What the world has learned from the global pandemic and difficult economy is that the very definition of leadership has changed. The leader for today – and tomorrow – has a deep sense of empathy, compassion and humility. As you go out into the world, I encourage you to embrace the challenges of leadership. 


Be a leader in your community, at the companies or organizations you work for and among your friends and families. The world needs you to take up the responsibility of being a leader! Here are three tips, which I like to call “leadership cheat codes:” 

  • Take risks

We literally founded The Diversity Movement out of thin air – during a global pandemic – because my colleagues and I realized that people’s lives would improve dramatically if the workplace were more diverse, equitable and inclusive. We weren’t 100% sure who would respond, but one customer led to another and pretty soon we knew that DEI-led consulting and products could be the spark that changed families, companies and communities. Now, after less than a handful of years, The Diversity Movement has improved lives for tens of thousands of people. Not bad for an idea that started from nothing. 

  •  Be bold

How many companies and organizations talk about changing the world? At The Diversity Movement, our commitment is authentic and sincere. I believe deeply in corporate social responsibility and the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Businesses must be fully aware of — and fully accountable for — their impact. At this moment, we each have a tremendous responsibility to help change the world.

My personal journey is defined by a phrase I used to use everyday when I was a technology sales person: “Sell the future and manage the reality.”

  •  Never stop learning

For years, while I worked jobs to pay the bills, I searched out people who were highly accomplished, then asked them what they were reading. Long before I knew what the Harvard Business Review was – or could afford to subscribe – I sat in Barnes & Noble reading it, because I knew this was what successful business people did. To this day, I pursue knowledge from everyone around me: listening, asking questions and finding experts to help build my understanding.  


Now, let’s turn to a couple additional lessons we have learned from the recent past. We can’t go it alone. In co-founding The Diversity Movement, I’ve seen how our work in diversity, equity and inclusion has created better teams who work together with high degrees of collaboration, creativity and commitment to excellence. 

Together, we have the power to build strong, inclusive and resilient communities. There is strength in numbers. Together we can achieve just about anything, no matter how difficult it might initially seem or the number of obstacles in the path. What I am hoping is that each of you will dedicate yourselves to working together across lines of difference to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world. 

We need everyone to rise above political squabbles and the desire to choose sides on every issue to instead work together toward greatness. One of the greatest strengths you’ve seen in action at William Peace University is its commitment to diversity, inclusion and respect. You have had the opportunity to learn from and with people who come from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. You have seen firsthand the power of diversity to enrich our lives, broaden our viewpoints and create innovative solutions to complex problems. 

As you go out into the world, I encourage you to continue to seek out diverse perspectives, to listen deeply to the stories of others and to work intentionally to build a more inclusive and equitable world. We face many daunting challenges, but they are not insurmountable. William Peace University has provided all of you with the foundation for success in today’s world. Your friends, families and communities need your energy, your creativity and your leadership to create a better world for all of us. 

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenge…I challenge you to dream big, to be bold, and to make a positive difference in the world. You are a rocket pointing toward greatness – get ready for takeoff!

About the Author 

Donald Thompson founded The Diversity Movement to literally change the world. As CEO, he has guided its work with hundreds of clients and through hundreds of thousands of data touch points. TDM’s global recognition centers on tying DEI initiatives to business objectives. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, he is the author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events, and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content.