Movers & Shakers: Teleangé Thomas on innovating in Cleveland, promoting inclusion and carving her own path
All over Ohio, entrepreneurs are on the cutting edge of their fields. And across the state, very few organizations are as close to their entrepreneurial community as Cleveland’s JumpStart. For the entrepreneur-focused group, the next step in connecting with their community comes in the form of Teleangé Thomas, an exciting new addition to the JumpStart team in the brand new role of Chief Advancement and Relationships Officer. Thomas has worked with healthcare companies, city government, nonprofits and more, and is no stranger to blazing her own trail. We sat down to talk about her goals for the new position, her career and Cleveland’s next steps.
What is Teleangé Thomas all about?
I’m a proud hometown girl, born and raised in Stark County, Ohio and originally from Alliance. I’ve lived, worked, played and contributed to northeast Ohio for the majority of my life. I am a person who likes to solve problems, build community, and be creative when I can and who believes in the full potential of not only the individual but the community as a whole.
Your JumpStart role is a new one — how are you defining the position?
This is the first time that JumpStart has hired this role of Chief Advancement and Relationships Officer, so I’m very excited to have the opportunity to influence, inform and help guide their strategy. What that means is working with leaders, institutions, organizations, innovators and others to think through smart strategic partnership and collaboration centered around unlocking the full potential of entrepreneurship. We want to make sure that our region is coordinated and supported to move in a direction that’s going to provide growth that’s inclusive and engaged.
What interested you about this kind of work?
I was drawn to the idea of building and growing an inclusive thriving economy that’s centered around entrepreneurship, all of those things resonate in a very real way. I think about Cleveland and where I grew up, economic opportunity was something that was and is evasive in a lot of ways for people who didn’t have access to all of the resources Ohio has to offer. So to have the opportunity to be part of the problem-solvers in that equation and bring new ideas to create opportunities and pathways for people who look like me and come from communities where I come from is very exciting and fulfilling.
Equity and diversity are important to your work — how can you make an impact in those areas in your new job?
Another thing that I’m really excited about with this role is to advance our commitment to inclusion. When you talk about the full potential of entrepreneurship, that’s only realized if we’re creating space and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams, cultivate those ideas and make them real.
I think about the African-American community, Black and LatinX community and other communities of color that may not have been engaged. I see a clear horizon for opportunity and a different conversation in a different context where I think the broader community is more excited, has a deep commitment and really wants to ensure that we are creating pathways for an inclusive economy and tapping into that talent in all parts of our region. We want to ensure that ideas can be seeded and supported and cultivated regardless of your background, your racial makeup or whether you’re a man or a woman. Those are things that excite me. And I think as long as we keep that at the core of our work, we’ll realize some great potential.
Where does your passion for entrepreneurship come from?
At the end of the day, it’s about problem solving. I have been that person since I was a little girl. My mother used to call me her little computer. She could see me in the corner of the room kind of taking in all the conversations and then figuring out what’s the next step or how we get to the goal, whatever it was. That absolutely motivates me and attracts me to this type of work. I get excited thinking about the possibility of what could be through the collective versus the individual.
I also feel like I have a particular knack for startups as well. I love the thought of taking really ambitious ideas that are in concept but haven’t been fully translated into a business. Being able to find the right partners, put a strategy together, go into execution, course correct, communicate effectively to the stakeholders — I think I bring all of those things to the table. I never grow tired of that, I’m just constantly energized by it.
What was your childhood like?
Growing up in Alliance, Ohio was amazing. I’m the eldest of two, but I come from a large family on both my parents’ sides. I have 11 first cousins on my mother’s side and 23 on my father’s side. We were always involved and being part of the community was important. It wasn’t just about what we did as individuals or as a family, but how did the world look around us? So if we saw problems, we tried to help solve them. I was really fortunate that, whether it was my parents or grandparents, they encouraged us at a very young age to be courageous and to try things that seemed more mature for our age instead of just being outside playing.
How did you make your way to this stage of your career?
I’ve had this really interesting journey that started in healthcare. I’ve been somewhat entrepreneurial minded in the sense that the positions I’ve had didn’t exist before me. They either entailed me pitching ideas to leadership at the various institutions — University Hospitals, the City of Cleveland, the Sisters of Charity Foundation — or thinking about what could be and what was possible. I’ve worked in major healthcare, local government, private philanthropy and most recently a very large global non-profit.
I think creating my own roles says a lot about me. When you look back on life, it’s nice to see that purpose and how you spend the majority of your time align and feel connected. For me there’s not too much difference between how Teleangé shows up professionally and personally. So I think it is a bit of who I am and what makes me tick.
How have your previous work experiences shaped you as a leader?
I’ve been very fortunate to be part of organizations and to be in roles that have very ambitious goals and strived for achievements that would place them “amongst the stars.” They saw something bigger than themselves. But they realized it’s going to take work to get there. In that way, I welcome ambition but I also appreciate the humility of recognizing that all the answers do not reside either within myself or a single organization. It’s about the collaboration and how we coordinate and work together and bring forth the resources and the talent and insights of others to achieve the shared goal.
You’re moving into the entrepreneurship scene — what excites you about founders and small business?
Entrepreneurship is really about ideas and being creative. I think that is very aligned to my character type and how I show up in the world. It’s nice to be in a space that allows for that type of cultivation, both individually and collectively. I also believe that JumpStart is already a good partner in the community, and that is something that is both important and attractive to me. That’s not just about serving the individual mission, but really thinking about collectively how it shows up in the community it’s a part of. This is an urgent mission. There’s so much potential that we haven’t tapped into that can benefit everyone in the Ohio community. So the fact that the organization is committed and dedicated to that type of work makes it feel like the right place to be at this time. And inclusion makes
How do you spend your free time — if you have any?
I am getting better at that. It’s important to have balance and thankfully I have folks in my life who remind me to schedule me into my life. I’m a big fan of music, so I’m always creating Spotify playlists, sharing them, or, in safer times, going out to hear live music, which is a huge part of my life. I will travel for music and food. Relationships are so important, too, getting time with family. I’m a proud auntie and my 5-year-old nephew is a great reminder of why I show up for the community. Other than that, it’s travel. I look forward to being able to get back to that. I was fortunate to be able to travel to Thailand and Indonesia before the world shut down this year.
What makes Cleveland an exciting place for entrepreneurs?
Cleveland is growing and coalescing around organizations like JumpStart that are being intentional about creating a great business environment. From my experience, Cleveland is a community that celebrates and supports entrepreneurs. We are still working to connect some of the dots on how to do that more consistently, but my optimism around the intention and our capacity to do that is very high. I think we’re headed toward a tipping point in that way.
I am constantly in awe by the number of folks that I meet who are creators and developers and business-minded and really embracing the spirit of entrepreneurship. They’re committed to making it happen here in Cleveland. I think it says a lot about their individual character, but I also think it says a lot about their connection to this city and wanting to be part of that growth and innovation. I’m always excited about Cleveland and always champion the opportunities and energy here. Even though I love to travel, one of the greatest things about traveling is I get to tell people about Cleveland and tell them to come visit. I see a lot of good things happening and building blocks that we continue to build upon. I’m excited about what the future will bring.
Business aside, what are a couple of your favorite under-the-radar Cleveland spots?
I don’t know if it’s so much under the radar anymore, but one of my favorite spots on the West Side is the Touch Supper Club. I think it’s reinvented itself over the years. It’s a place where you can hear some good 90s old-school hip hop music or get a great meal or just a hang-out spot with a couple of friends. I highly recommend Touch when we can go safely. Then there’s Third Space Action Lab, a new emerging spot, if you will, on the East Side. It is a catch-all where one moment you can see an art exhibit, the next moment you could be having a community conversation or have somebody doing a food pop-up. It’s a great space for the community.
What’s one piece of advice you always give to young entrepreneurs?
I’ve been fortunate to have a number of young folks who have decided to let me mentor them and the first advice I offer is to really trust themselves. You know, there’s some characteristic about an entrepreneur that makes them think differently than others because of what is possible. And it might not seem to make sense in the short-term, but it’s really about trusting yourself and trusting that there’s something to that idea, that spark you have. Be committed to go down your own path and recognize that there are going to be challenges, but it just takes one person to give you their ear and affirm you in some way to help you connect the dots. Keep trust in yourself first, then seek the support and the community that’s going to rally around you.
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