Anthony “Tony” Thompson
President and CEO
Kwame Building Group
2013 Commencement Speaker
Anthony Thompson founded the Kwame Building Group in 1991, offering services as a construction management/project management firm. Kwame is the first African American ESOP corporation in Missouri. Its public and private sector projects include educational facilities, major airports nationwide, light rail systems, hospitals and government facilities. Since its founding, the company has grown to employ 75 construction managers, engineers, architects, attorneys and support staff. With headquarters in St. Louis and division offices in Dallas, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Seattle, Kwame Building Group oversees more than $250 million in construction projects annually.
Mr. Thompson holds a master’s degree in civil engineering from Washington University, a master’s degree in business administration from Webster University, and bachelor’s degrees in architectural engineering and environmental design from the University of Kansas.
He is a fierce advocate of diversity in the business community and workforce. At Kwame Building Group, women and minorities make up more than 75 percent of the company’s roster of employees. He also is committed to community service, serving on the boards of several local civic entities including the Regional Business Council, St. Louis Regional Crime Commission, St. Louis Public Schools Foundation, Gateway Leadership Foundation, St. Louis Black Leadership Council, and Forest Park Forever.
He is a recipient of the Mayor Francis Slay Business of the Year and Spirit of St. Louis awards. He and Kwame Building Group received the St. Louis American’s Salute to Excellence Entrepreneur of the Year award, as well as being recognized by the newspaper among the Top 25 Minority Firms in St. Louis and a Stellar Performer for Excellence in Education. He received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from Webster University and the Alumni Achievement Award from Washington University, School of Engineering.
In 2000, Mr. Thompson and his wife, Kim, founded the Kwame Foundation to fund scholarships for African American college students. The Foundation has endowed more than $600,000 in academic scholarships at 15 institutions of higher learning, including a teaching scholarship at Maryville University.
He was instrumental in establishing the Gentleman’s Club at Carnahan High School through which Thompson and about 15 other men from the Kwame Building Group volunteer to mentor and serve as role models for young African American men.
More recently, Mr. Thompson founded the Tyrone Thompson Institute for Nonviolence—a program that recruits St. Louis Community College students to tutor and mentor St. Louis Public School students through the eighth grade who have been suspended. The objective is to reduce violence by providing encouragement and hope to students who otherwise would face a bleak academic future.
In addition to delivering the Commencement Address this year at Maryville University, Mr. Thompson will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University.
Mr. Thompson and his wife reside in St. Louis. They have two children, Kristin and Michael.
Good morning Maryville University,
I want to first thank the President, board of trustees, graduation committee and distinguished alumni for inviting me to deliver this year’s commencement address.
When I was informed of my selection as your speaker today, several thoughts went through my mind. First, why me: what have I done to deserve such an esteemed honor? I am doing what I was raised to do. Second, can I deliver a speech worthy of occupying the 20-30 minutes of the intellectuals’ time that they will never get back? And last, but not at all least, how can I rock this cap and gown with the proper swag consistent with the cool of today’s millennial youths?
I hope that at the end of my message, I have inspired and motivated you to live your life pursuing your dream as if your life depends on it, because it does. I will share anecdotes and advice that I’ve shared with my kids. So parents, trust me with your kids for a few minutes. There is nothing I will not do for my two kids; and if it’s good enough for my kids I hope it’s good enough for yours.
My message today is for both graduates and parents. Parents, I have learned as a parent of a recent graduate and of a college senior that your job is more crucial during this transition to independence and adulthood than at any time in their development. Our goal is to teach our kids to live without us. Graduates, your life is your parents’ gift to you, what you do with it, is your gift to them.
I have some good news and bad news.
You’re learning and searching for wisdom does not end today. You will continue to learn and to be amazed at how much you don’t know as you grow older.
Today is the first day of your new educational experience and you have me as your first new instructor.
While I’m not the strapping, young, Methodist progressive I used to be, I am still full of energy, hope and optimism for the future of our society.
What separates me from all of you? Not much. There’s nothing special about me. I’m not a genius. I’m not an exceptionally gifted athlete. I don’t possess Denzel Washington good looks. What I do have is passion and a desire to be the best that I possibly can.
A Male, I am
A Man, I grew to be
A Father, I’m proud to be
An Engineer, I worked hard to be, but
Black, I must be.
If we are all descendants of Africa and my ancestors were able to survive the horrific experiences of slavery, when those taken were not the weak or the sickly or slow or intellectually inferior, then they were the strong, wise and innovative, with survival instincts unseen.
We Americans have withstood the scars of the Holocaust, Jim Crow, Civil Wars, Plagues, Financial and Natural Catastrophes, but stand today as the greatest nation on earth.
Millions died during the transit: stacked in the ships’ hull like sardines for weeks, chained together and lying next to dead bodies, arriving at the new land, chained to individuals unknown, where millions more died from disease and violence.
Fast forward to today where we are descendants of the strongest and brightest that Africa had to offer. That serves as a reminder to me that it is in my DNA to do what I’m doing. It does us no good to brag about the increased number of MBA’s and PhD’s if we are mis-educated as Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book, The Mis-education of the Negro. The fact that I have two undergraduate technical degrees and two graduate degrees was necessary to give me credibility in an industry dominated by white males who did not have a comfortable track record or healthy experience with other minorities.
I needed to be prepared when opportunity arose. Sometimes you have to create your own opportunity. After high school I attended the school of engineering, where I was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the architectural engineering program. The dean of the school of architecture once told me, when asked why we didn’t have more African Americans or women in the program, that black’s don’t have the aptitude to be architects.
Upon graduating, I went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian engineer on the Lock and Dam 26 Project in West Alton, IL: the largest public project in the country at the time.
I always knew I wanted my own business, but didn’t know in what area specifically.
THAT’S WHY EXPERIENCE THROUGH INTERNSHIPS AND SUMMER JOBS ARE SO CRITICAL.
While giving a tour to a group of engineers one day, a couple of gentlemen remembered me from my summers as an intern and asked if I was interested in coming to work for Monsanto. I was happy with my current job and didn’t know what to say, so I asked my boss. He suggested I take the job because he knew of my enthusiasm for design and passion for learning.
I accepted the job at Monsanto and went to work in Sauget, IL at the W.G. Krumrich Plant where I was a mechanical engineer responsible for the design and construction of several projects including P2-S5 [Diphosphorous pentasulfide] Conveyor System and DCB [Dichlorabenzene crystallizers]. Now, there are 2 things you don’t want to do in a chemical plant:
1) Never hold your hand out under dripping liquids (there’s a story
behind that if you want to ask me later)
2) Never walk over manhole covers (there’s a story behind that too if you want to ask me later)
I began working on my MBA while working during the day. I would design home expansions and old building rehabs on the side. While in MBA class, I met an individual who worked for the world’s largest brewery, Anheuser-Busch, that said A-B was looking for someone with my background of field and design experience for the project management group.
He said there would be an ad in the newspaper that I should respond to and that he would also take my resume to his manager. Well, I got a rejection letter in the mail one day and a call for an interview the next.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF RELATIONSHIPS.
I worked for A-B for 9 ½ years, responsible for human resource projects at 11 of the 13 breweries and experiencing tremendous highs and lows: from having an admired and respected manager tell me that “all niggers steal” to being responsible for designing and constructing quality assurance and control labs for the now defunct Bud Dry brand [for those of you that don’t know or remember it was one of a their premiere brands].
It was my travel schedule and night classes that allowed me to work on my business plan and hone my entrepreneurial skills. Also it was a time when I began mentoring in the public schools when I was in town. I developed my business plan before completing my MBA and chose to leave A-B when I grew confident that I could do better on my own.
I presented my business plan to a wealthy, local African American businessman from whom I was seeking funds to pursue my dream. When I finished presenting my plan to him, in his luxurious office in downtown Clayton, he asked why I needed the money. After being stunned with silence for a moment, I stated “for office space.” He slid keys to the space across the desk to me and gave me the security code. He then asked again, “why do you need this money?” I replied, stuttering, still in shock from the previous response, “to add a phone line.” He said, “I’ll have a new line installed tomorrow.” He then asked again, “why do you need the money,”? I ran out of reasons and moved into the space where I spent an entire year developing business without the worries of rent and utilities. He clearly gave me a valuable lesson that took away any excuses from getting out here and busting my tail to move on with my dream.
Now, 70+ employees later with offices in Dallas, Seattle, and Accra, Ghana, we have completed assignments in Pittsburgh, Oklahoma and Florida, and are now listed in Engineering News Records “top 100 construction managers” in the United States.
I am sure you have all seen the reports that say your generation is the first to not exceed the success of your parents. Well, I disagree. You are smarter, more impatient, less forgiving, more creative, more innovative and more willing to take risks. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “the imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.” You must not copy, you must be better. Strive to exceed your parents’ expectations, by striving to be better. You’re not a product of your environment; you’re a product of your own expectations. No one rises to low expectations. You have qualities your parents never had. However, you must define success for yourself. Success means different things to different people. For some, it means having lots of money, cars, luxury homes, taking exotic vacations. For some, it means living comfortably, modest, while giving back to the world that has given you so much. I believe you can do both if it is important to you. Here’s how:
Take all of the qualities you possess and write down your goals. Start with the ultimate goal and list the series of milestones or smaller goals it will take to reach that ultimate goal. Find your passion, the one thing you know you are better at than anyone else in the world and build your road to success around your passion because this is something you will enjoy doing if you were never paid a dime. It will come easy to you. If you are living your passion on your path to success, you will enjoy life. In order to enjoy life, you must enjoy the process. If you do not enjoy the process, you are not living!
This quote by writings of Bessie Anderson Stacey sums it up for me:
“To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and affection of children, to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to give of one’s self, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived–this is to have succeeded.”
As an entrepreneur, I quickly realized the importance of leadership and passion. I understand what it means to be a serious person who should be taken seriously. You must strive for respect versus “being liked.” Too often we seek love and acceptance versus respect and serious consideration. You must define and set standards of excellence for yourself. Do not allow others to define you or set a definition of excellence.
Too often, individuals come to me seeking employment, yet they assume their presence in top schools or corporations entitle them to a position of leadership in my organization only to learn that my expectations were higher than theirs. Your future employers will be seeking a confident, self-motivated leader who is not afraid of taking risks and taking charge. In order to be irreplaceable, one must be different and bring value to the organization. You must understand how your role in the organization affects the bottom line of that organization. Because “the bottom line….IS THE BOTTOM LINE,”.
I have had to fire/terminate very educated people who were not leaders — who did not show empathy or respect for women, loyalty, commitment, customer service; all the things they may not teach in school, but are important lessons only learned through living. BUT, you can’t live with your eyes closed or walking on eggshells.
If you live with passion, you learn and love and learn to love. You will be happy every day in pursuit of your dream. If you reach your goal, your pursuit and struggle was worth it. If you fall short of your goal, but enjoyed the process, you have lived well. If you follow a path chasing a superficial goal of success called money, but did not enjoy the process, was your life’s work worth it? If you fall short was it worth the pain and stress and unhappiness you went through? Will you have the mental or physical capacity to enjoy it? How long on this earth will you even have left to begin living a life of success?
My personal philosophy puts it in simple terms. Let’s divide your life into two parts:
You are about to embark upon the beginning of the first half of your adult life, a journey that will define the future of our society. This is the time for you to take chances, take risks, explore your options and live for yourself while exploring the world. Be bold and selfish while you find your passion.
The second half of your life should be lived for others making the world better. Assist the less fortunate; serve the underserved. No one gets through this world alone, with no assistance.
Now depending on how long you think you’re going to live, you decide when that second half starts, but I know I’m on the second half.
So now ladies and germs I have here in my hand my top ten pieces of advice that I’ve picked up over the years.
10: Never let the fear of difficulty prevent action- from my daughter, Kristin Thompson
9: No credit is better than bad credit and no deal is better than a bad deal
8: Don’t accumulate too many enemies at one time- from my mother, Betty Thompson
7: Never borrow more than you need. Starting out, all you can’t get from your parents you probably don’t need (Unless you’re starting the next Tesla Motors).
6: In your professional work world, no one cares what you think or how you feel but your mother. Be decisive
5: Thieves look for theft –from my uncle
4: Buy what you want, once you have what you need -from my father, Jack Thompson
3: Not only learn to read, but read between the lines
2: You deserve what you settle for -That I got from a T-shirt (you can learn something everywhere)
And the number one piece of advice I’ve picked up over my 52 years, over all the advice I’ve gotten from numerous sources, comes from Dr. Seuss:
1: Don’t Cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
You have a minute with 60 seconds in it, it’s forced upon you, you can’t refuse it, you didn’t seek it, you didn’t choose it. But it’s up to you to use it!
Congratulations class of 2013. Have a great day and a greater life!