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Engineer Don Thompson On His Journey To Becoming McDonald’s First And Only Black CEO

Don Thompson, CEO and founder of Cleveland Avenue, is seen March 15, 2021, at Taste 222, the restaurant storefront for Cleveland Avenue which also serves as a culinary test kitchen for new food and beverage creations. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

 

Meet Don Thompson, the first Black Chief Executive (CEO) of McDonald’s in its almost 100-year history. Thompson spent over 20 years working for the global fast-food giant and rose through the ranks to become the company’s first Black CEO between 2012 and 2015.

The businessman was raised by his grandmother and moved to Indianapolis when he was only 11 years. Thompson moved to his grandmother’s in order to escape growing violence in Cabrini-Green, a crime-ridden public housing project that has since been demolished.

He joined McDonald’s in 1990 as an engineer designing food transport and cooking systems after working six years at defense contractor Northrup Grumman. Thompson built a steady but fluid career, occupying one top position after the other at McDonald’s and eventually becoming its CEO in 2012. His rise to the top was largely due to the support of senior Black directors already at McDonald’s. They encouraged him to join an accelerator development program in operations, which meant he had to work in McDonald’s restaurants and learn how the company worked across the U.S., according to Unleash.

By 2006, he was the president of McDonald’s U.S. and Canada before moving into a global role as COO and then CEO in 2012.

His first four months at the helm of the fast-food giant saw its sales decline in a decade but picked up after he spent a year into the job. He recorded some massive success, including a higher stock price. Nonetheless, he “grappled with the economic slowdown and an investor base unaccustomed to disappointment,” according to Chicago Tribune.

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“There are several things we’ve done quite well, despite the fact that it’s a difficult global economy, and probably one of the worst we’ve seen collectively around the globe at the same time,” Thompson told Chicago Tribune in June 2013. “We’re maintaining and even growing our market share, which is one of the things we strive to do, particularly in tighter times for consumers and discretionary spending.”

Since quitting his role as CEO of McDonald’s, Thompson has been engaged in a number of initiatives to empower the Black community. He launched Cleveland Avenue, a Chicago-based venture capital firm that has invested millions in fast-growing food startups such as Beyond Meat and Farmer’s Fridge, according to a report by Chicago Tribune.

The early success of Cleveland Avenue includes Farmer’s Fridge, a startup based in Chicago that sells salads at venturing machines. It has also invested close to $500 in startups like Beyond Meat, Red Bay Coffee, and Bartesian.

Thompson’s newest venture is a $70 million fund called CAST US. In April, the 57-year-old began seeding a new crop of minority-owned businesses on Chicago’s South and West sides that are traditionally overlooked by venture capitalists for support.

“One of the first beneficiaries of the CAST US fund will be Chicago-based AYO Foods, which produces frozen West African entrees such as Jollof Rice, Cassava Leaf Stew, and Puff Puff, sold locally at Mariano’s supermarkets. The business was started in July by husband and wife Fred and Perteet Spencer, based on their Liberian family recipes,” according to the Tribune.

Through Cleveland Avenue, Thompson is hoping to foster diversity and bring investment to Chicago neighborhoods. “That model of collaboration can support our entrepreneurs and it can support all of them,” Thompson said. “So we’re going to prove it by supporting our Black and brown and women entrepreneurs. We’re in the game for everyone, not just a small group.”

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Written by PH

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