Mission, Money and Ministry Motivate This Entrepreneur
Stephanie Thomas-Gordon, a Bronx, New York native, has received recognition for making people’s lives better through community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which are often nonprofits that offer financial services to help underserved communities build wealth—much like a bank would for mainstream America.
On Thursday, June 24, I connect with Stephanie at 11:00 a.m. on a video call. Her small home office in Washington D.C. is curated to impress strangers entering her world. She is not someone who is going to leave any detail to chance. This executive is in control.
Stephanie, 45, is dressed to impress in a blue blazer and pleated white shirt; large earrings dangle from her ears. Her makeup is flawless, along with her glossy pink nail polish—it’s her favorite color and matches the fading pink leaves of the poinsettia on her desk. She arranged her hair in a ponytail; her eyes sparkle behind her large eyeglass lenses.
Windows let in a flood of sunlight behind her. Before the start of the interview, Stephanie interrogates me, like a judge presiding from the bench over an important case, on what my agenda is for this interview. I assure her that I don’t have a predetermined story. This answer satisfies Stephanie for the moment; she permits me to proceed.
The Work Found Her
Stephanie’s parents immigrated from Jamaica to New York City, where she and a younger brother were born. Her brother is a desk trader for oil and supply chain commodities. Her grandmother came to the United States when she was four months old, and a great uncle, who is now deceased, was an overseer of the Church of God in Kingston, Jamaica. Ministry is in her family. To this day, the church fills her need for spiritual peace and sets her soul at ease, guiding her life. This first-generation American is filled with gratitude and an appreciation for life.
When I started my career, I did not know that it was an industry that could connect mission and money to really make impactful communities.
In 2005, she began working as a commercial documentation specialist for the National Cooperative Bank (NCB), which had a CDFI arm. NCB has the distinction of being the only bank focused on providing nationwide financial solutions to cooperatives and member-owned organizations. Her one-year stay at the bank would set her on a path to empowering communities.
Her favorite CDFI experience was working at Industrial Bank, a Black and minority development institution. “That’s where I understood the heart of what it meant to lend in communities of color, where the people with whom we were engaged, the majority of them, were historically disenfranchised—certainly disinvested, but also historically doubted.”
Stephanie took a break from the CDFI sector for a few years, when she worked for the Georgetown University Law Center as a taxation interview program manager. She returned to New York City and eventually worked for Carver Federal Savings Bank and TruFund Financial Services in New York City, both CDFIs. Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, in late 2017, she returned to Washington D.C. to work for the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif). She worked there for six years, with increasing responsibilities in management. After making a significant impact at Wacif, it was time for her to start her own business. Net Positive Strategies was born.
Around this time, an opportunity came her way that she was not expecting but was too good to turn down. She put her business on hold during the pandemic to assist small businesses in a time of need. She worked for the Great Streets and Retail, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development in Washington D.C. A little over a year later, she was back at the helm of her own business.
A Special Client
Leaders make tough decisions and execute. While at Wacif, Stephanie put her leadership skills to the test when she was tasked by the then-executive director (now CEO) to revamp the Ascend Capital Accelerator program. Stephanie met with an entrepreneur who was operating a food business and would benefit from the accelerator program, but her revenue was below the $50,000 threshold. Stephanie decided with her gut; she threw out the revenue criteria.
Oh, my goodness, me and Stephanie are so cool!
There was something special about this entrepreneur. Initially, Stephanie didn’t mention her name because “It’s important to understand someone’s journey before you hear where they are now.” After completing the nearly 12-month program, that entrepreneur, Pinkey Reddick, had $300,000 in revenue, according to Stephanie.
I connect with Pinkey (yes, that is her real name) Reddick over the telephone on Saturday morning, June 26th. The voice of this dynamo jumps with energy. Pinkey is spending some rare time away from the kitchen this Saturday. Business has been good for the thirty-six-year-old entrepreneur, who also is the mother of three kids ages 21, 13 and 3.
Stephanie says, “I love her.” And the feeling is reciprocated by Pinkey. “Oh, my goodness, me and Stephanie are so cool!” says Pinkey. They developed a friendship. During the pandemic, Stephanie would order meals “literally every Friday.” She continued to promote the business and help Pinkey after she left Wacif and started her new job in the deputy mayor’s office.
All businesses need capital. But Stephanie is quick to state that what she needed was “the investment of belief,” for people to believe in her and the vision. Stephanie and her staff believed; the accelerator filled the knowledge gap. Pinkey says, “Oh, excellent program… excellent, excellent.”
In the background, I hear Pinkey’s youngest child screaming. Pinkey says, “Hold on one second.” She puts me on hold to give her daughter instructions. The line goes silent for 30 seconds, and suddenly she is back with a warm hello. Several times during our call, she yells commands to her daughter, as only a mother can. This is an example of how women strive to balance their family responsibilities and work.
Based on what she learned in the accelerator, Pinkey combined her business Pinke’s Eats with Mac’s Catering to create Flavorture—a portmanteau blending “flavor” and “culture.” Her partner is Lew Mcallister, who goes by the name “Mac.” Since the accelerator, her business has “really grown.” The company has government contracts. In fact, in the last 18 months, the business has produced over 800,000 meals, according to Pinkey. She states, “So yeah, we started out just like, you know, a mom and pop catering company, and we’ve grown it into something nice.”
Pinkey’s success shows what is possible when given a chance. According to Pinkey, the business had $1.9 million in revenue in 2021 and should reach $2.3 million in 2022. In the first week of August, she and Mac will open a new restaurant in Washington, D.C. The sky is the limit. Others have taken notice. She was featured in an advertisement for JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Stephanie’s work is an amalgam of economic development, financial education and government at various levels. All these areas are important to her, as is her involvement as a deacon at 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington D.C, founded in 1839. She became an ordained deacon three years ago and is active in deacon board governance.
Leadership is at the core of everything she does. Her work falls into three broad categories: mission, money and ministry. CDFIs are mission-driven organizations that help empower communities by creating wealth. Having worked in both the CDFI and the banking space, money matters—especially in communities that have been systemically underserved and shut out of wealth building. And ministry grounds her.
I don’t water down the remark; I’m always going to speak truth to power.
Stephanie identifies her greatest strength as her ability to bring people together, often when they have different views and opinions. She is focused on solutions, which is difficult in an environment where it is hard to reach a consensus on the problem or the facts. She doesn’t hesitate to say, “I don’t water down the remark; I’m always going to speak truth to power. This thing is happening because of a, b and c—it doesn’t have to continue in this way; we can go ahead and change its trajectory.”
I ask what leaders she admires. She pauses to think and mentions Cathy Hughes, a black woman who built Radio One (now Urban One) into a conglomerate while staying true to her culture. “I absolutely adore her,” says Stephanie. She admires Joy Reid, Oprah and the Gayle Kings of the world, and adds Luvvie Ajayi Jones of Awesomely Luvvie. “If I had one person that I absolutely like swoon on their leadership style, it’s Barack Obama,” she says confidently.
Stephanie also mentions Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, an early Black businesswoman, entrepreneur and philanthropist--the first female self-made millionaire in America, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. She was born on the same day that Stephanie was, December 23, but over 100 years earlier, in 1867. Stephanie is in awe of her tenacity and resilience to overcome adversity and build her business as an entrepreneur while providing opportunities for women.
Ian Lawrence is the vice president at the Enterprise Centers in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that invests in minority entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic region. He worked with Stephanie at Wacif, where they were both directors. I reached him over the telephone as he was driving.
When asked about Stephanie, he says, “She’s very smart. But at the same time, she was very open to bouncing off ideas—we actually still do that. We still work through ideas that we have in our respective areas right now.” Ian credits her with putting Wacif on the map in terms of helping small businesses with the accelerator program.
Referring to Stephanie, he says, “I would describe her as an incredible thought leader, in this case, who is very passionate about helping people—particularly the ones who are not getting the sort of services they need.” He states that she looks at things from a lens of equity. “She’s really in tune with that, in terms of making sure everyone gets a fair shake and not only services but high-quality services.”
I always told her, ‘you’re an incredible leader.'
“I always told her, ‘you’re an incredible leader,’“ says Ian. I believe you can have more impact on your own.” “She’s very New York in her style—she’s very frank and open. If you want an honest opinion, she’s the right person to ask.” He believes she has a “C-suite” personality and skill level. He wouldn’t limit what she would accomplish in the future.
Nobody has a perfect life. And everybody has secrets that are closely guarded and protected from everyone. Stephanie has a personal side that she has kept private because the details were too painful to share. And because of this, she believed people might judge her and look at her differently, possibly impacting her career.
Love was in the air. When Stephanie was at Lehman College, she thought she had found her college sweetheart. There were plans for a wedding. She says, “I was all in.”
She describes the relationship as a “brief whirlwind. I love you – you love me relationship.” Her boyfriend enlisted in the military and was preparing to leave for basic training. She says, “When I reflect on that time, I don’t know if I was happy with my life.” She felt, “I didn’t know where or who I was.” The opportunity to leave New York seemed exciting at the time.
The couple married six or seven months after meeting. Shortly after, she was living in West Texas and was pregnant with her son. The adjustment to leaving college and living in a new area proved to be a challenge. Stephanie states, “We didn’t have enough life experience. And we had our own sort of baggage that came with us into that, and we were not equipped enough.“
Her marriage would become “really, really, difficult.” There was frustration, anger, and deceit that culminated in her husband being physically abusive. She left the marriage for the first time with her son, who was seven months old.
Describing her story, Stephanie gets emotional. Tears run down her face; she wipes her eyes. She recalls having to create a safe space for her son and the financial and housing insecurity that comes with being a single mom.
I’m going to figure this out, and no matter what, this is going to be a chapter that’s behind [me.]
Because she wanted the marriage to work, she returned about two months later. They were like “star-crossed lovers,” she says. Within two weeks, a “massive, massive, physical altercation occurred. It was bad.” She doesn’t talk about this incident because she has done everything in her power to erase it from her mind—like a computer hard drive. During this time, her faith was her north star. She said to herself, “I’m going to figure this out, and no matter what, this is going to be a chapter that’s behind [me.]”
She pressed forward. While most people stay at a job for years, she says, “I did not do that. If you’re going to pay $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 more,” she had to take it to support herself and her young son.
Stephanie made it out of a bad relationship. Today, her son is 23 and a graduate of Bowie State University. He appears to be well adjusted, according to Stephanie. But many don’t adapt or make it out unscathed. And the emotional pain always remains.
The statistics are sobering. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that in the United States, almost 20 people per minute are “physically abused by an intimate partner.” (Help is available here.) During the year, more than 10 million women and men are impacted. Stephanie knows there is no playbook for moving on from domestic violence, but she tells other women they have to do it. She leads by example.
She laughs when asked if she plans to run for public office in the future. “Oh, my goodness. You know what? I’m not taking that off the table.” In 2011, she attended The Campaign School at Yale (formerly Women’s Campaign School at Yale) in New Haven because she was considering running as an at-large D.C council member. She earned a certificate in political campaign and campaign management to improve her knowledge of the process. And she had worked for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004.
She has fond memories of the Sterling Law building at Yale. Stephanie says, “I love Yale.” Two years after receiving her certificate, she took the train to New Haven. “I went and took a picture of myself there, just to remind myself, like, this space is not off limits to you. You can do great things.”
While she considers a future run for public office, she is not afraid to jump into the controversial subject of the best pizza. “I know they [New Haven] are big on their pizza, but it still doesn’t beat New York pizza!” Spoken like a true New Yorker, with confidence, bravado and certainty.
Poverty, trauma, and faith have been part of Stephanie's life, as have the many people she seeks to serve. Past trauma will not stop her from doing the work, which brings her “immense joy.”
While she has experienced challenging lows, things are now better. She met someone at a church singles ministry in 2008. They started dating seven years ago and were married on September 5, 2020. With her life’s partner, she is happy.
Stephanie’s backstory is one of triumph and perseverance. She will continue to use her 3 M’s (mission, money and ministry) to uplift others.
Like any great politician, she has the last word: “The world needs people who will lead, and leading sometimes does not mean you will have the greatest stage or the loudest microphone.”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.