This article was originally published by Lakay Cornell on Jan. 22, 2020, on Conscious Company. This article was a part of a series recognizing 13 women who are leading the “fourth wave of social enterprise.” Thomas was recognized for her efforts in the Business Sustainability Collaborative at NC State and B Academics by working to advance the state of academic study into business as a force for good.
Jessica Yinka Thomas was born in Miami to an American mother and Nigerian father. When she was quite young, they moved to Nigeria so her father could be an Economics Professor. After three years, they moved to Senegal. They spent school years in West Africa and summers in the US — two completely different worlds that she learned to reconcile as a child and young adult, two worlds that mirror those of social good and capitalism.
She has described being keenly aware of the dichotomy: one place where people needed so much, in contrast with one place where people had so much. I suspect she was viewing this through her incredibly talented STEM brain and the critical thinking skills of an Economics Professor father when she said, “I always knew I’d do something to help bridge that gap.”
In some ways, it reminds me of a time when I lived in Texas and we hadn’t had rain in months. The news was showing flooding someplace that was so horrible. People were losing everything. I wondered out loud why (with all of our modern technologies), we couldn’t get some of that excess rain to Texas.
These are the kinds of questions that Thomas has been asking and answering for the same 22 years. She got a degree in engineering from Stanford (she could literally be a bridge-builder) and has been building bridges ever since. Some examples: LeapFrog, combining play, music, and math to an interdisciplinary business plan competition to commercialize a technology specifically for use in developing countries at Duke; UNC to build and run BASE (business accelerator for sustainable entrepreneurship); North Carolina State launching the globally renowned first-of-its-kind B Corp Clinic, which led her to the position of Director of the Business Sustainability Collaborative; and eventually, the creation of B Academics, the global B Corp Academic Community, working to advance the state of academic study into business as a force for good.
And Thomas is so much more than all of that.
She expands when people’s lives change. I read an interview where she said one of her favorite moments was in 1999, when Oprah chose a LeapFrog toy for her Oprah’s Favorite Things episode. “The camera zoomed in on this young black girl who was just bopping along to this toy where you twist a dial,” Thomas says. “She was just doing multiplication tables, jamming away.”
She engages the youthful energy of her students. Her hope is that by influencing them while they are still trying to figure out where they fit, she can inspire them to use business as a force for good. She works with hundreds of students a year through teaching, running programs, and speaker events. B Academics is now over 1,900 people strong and has the collective potential to engage over one million students each year.
She elevates her understanding of the world and its problems continuously. Once overwhelmed by understanding the challenges of the world at a young age, she is now inspired by the innovative solutions and creative collaboration that she sees.
She examines, educates, encourages, and excites. She is equal parts engineer and equilibrium. She is also every bit human. And, she is a woman. A woman who is keenly aware of the important role women have always played in community building and ensuring long-term stability — a woman who knows that academics is one of many pieces of this puzzle that must come together to solidify the Meaning Economy.
She is a woman who envisions a world where every student, consumer, policy maker, investor, entrepreneur, and community member understands the power they hold to address the world’s greatest challenges by making purposeful decisions about where we work, how we spend our money, how we engage in our community and how we build businesses.
And is making it happen one bridge at a time.