From Designing Toys To Promoting Business Sustainability: Meet Jessica Yinka Thomas

Jun 1, 2020

Jessica Yinka Thomas grew up in both the United States and West Africa. Her father, a Nigerian economics professor, and her mother, an American computer scientist, raised their four kids between Miami, Nigeria, Senegal and eventually Maryland to get them ready for college in the states.

After studying engineering at Stanford University, Thomas took a job designing satellite systems. It bored her, so she thought back to a toy design project from her senior year for a career-change inspiration. She walked the aisles of a Toys-R-Us and was drawn to the educational games that the then-new company LeapFrog offered. She cold-called them and asked for a job, and in the mid-90s she became a toy designer. As much as she loved her work, Thomas could not shake her concerns that the companies did not prioritize sustainability. That desire to better understand business decisions brought her to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Now, she is the Director of the North Carolina State Poole College of Management Business Sustainability Collaborative and runs the NC State B-Corp Clinic, which pairs businesses with students to enhance a company’s environmental and social impact. She started the nonprofit B-Academics to connect educators and researchers around the world to expand and support the sustainable business movement. She is also the author of two social justice novels, “How Not To Save the World” (Lulu/2012) and “How Not To Make Friends” (Lulu/2019). Host Frank Stasio talks with Thomas about how she balances her STEM background with her creative side and what she hopes to teach her students about a better business future.

Interview Highlights

On the flying grape story, aka how her parents met at a dinner party in college:

They love to tell this story. Every time they tell the story the [dinner] table gets longer and longer. Apparently they didn't have a chance to meet during the dinner, but some glances were exchanged, and I suspect some smiles. My father says that towards the end of dinner, he picked up a grape from a bowl of fruit that was in front of him, so there was some silent communication happening there. He threw it across the table and somehow my mother managed to catch that grape in her mouth. And that was that.
 

''I love that balance between the science and technology and the creativity of designing products.''

On the song kids would sing at Thomas and her family when they first moved to Nigeria:

That was a song essentially about white people and not being able to tolerate hot Nigerian peppers, and how white people turn bright red when they eat hot Nigerian peppers. I just assumed that they were singing that to my mother, because we'd go together to the market. And then once we got to school, the kids would sing it to me. And so that was just a really eye-opening experience. This is how they see me, as a white person [even though my father is black and my mother is white].

On getting a job with LeapFrog after leaving a traditional engineering job:

I went to Toys-R-Us, and I walked the aisles. I looked for toys that I thought were innovative and engaging and were really pushing the envelope when it came to educational toys, and so I had a shortlist of companies. I had taken down their 1-800 numbers from the packaging, and I just started cold calling companies. It ended up being [the first company I called] because the company at the top of my list was LeapFrog, which was a startup at the time. They kind of passed me around before I ended up on the phone with the one product designer … They said [they] could really use a second product designer so they brought me on board as employee number 11.

''I think we're seeing investors recognize there's an opportunity for both financial impact as well as broader social environmental impact.''

On seeing her toy, Twist & Shout, on Oprah:

I remember we were all gathered around a TV watching the show when it aired. And she had the kids toy segment … And there was a young, black girl who walked up to the Twist & Shout, picked it up and just intuitively started playing with it. And the camera zoomed in on her face, and I just remember her smiling and singing her multiplication tables. And so that for me was the highlight of my experience at LeapFrog— seeing something I designed in the hands of a young child and just to inspire love of math.

On what being a B-Corporation means and what using business as a force for good looks like:

I think companies recognize that increasingly consumers care about [social and environmental] issues … And it's hard for consumers to know, which are the companies that are greenwashing where they've invested a significant amount of dollars in marketing … And so I think B-Corps see the opportunity to differentiate themselves in a way that is transparent.
[A B-Corp asks]: Can we build innovative business models where we're providing products and services that were made in a way that benefit people across the value chain— from the people who are working on the factory floor to the customer themselves and how [the customer] uses and maybe even disposes of [the product].

Note: This program originally aired February 10, 2020.