Last year, the Knight Foundation invested $3 million in arts, journalism, innovation and civic engagement in Charlotte. At the helm, program director Charles Thomas—recently named the 26th most powerful person in Charlotte. Thomas just celebrated his one-year anniversary at Knight, which has offices in eight cities across the US.
From humble beginnings—his first business was selling candy in junior high school—Thomas worked his way up through unlikely paths. An economics graduate of Duke University, he left his job in corporate America after only a few years when dissatisfaction hit. A soul-searching self-assessment led him to bartending, volunteering—and eventually—his passion of photography.
He founded Sankofa Photography and was subsequently named education director for The Light Factory, a Charlotte-based arts education nonprofit. During that time, he co-produced a book, Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, and traveled to South Africa.
Then, after reading Banker to the Poor by Mohamed Yunus, he was introduced to the concept of social enterprise—business that functions around the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. His trajectory began to shift once again. When the founding of Queen City Forward, a social enterprise incubator, was announced in Charlotte, Thomas found his next calling as its executive director.
“Queen City Forward taught me so much about myself and about how to create value,” he says. “It taught me how to start something new, how to take a concept people didn’t know about and make it simple, to provide a service and value to the community.”
When Knight Foundation offered him the role of Program Director in 2016, Thomas experienced a huge role reversal, from knocking on doors to sitting at the table, making funding possible for nonprofits much like the ones he built from the ground up.
“It’s different,” he says. “The scale is much larger and I am thinking much bigger. I really want to make our city better and the world better, and have fun along the way.”
Throughout his unlikely path, Thomas says that his entrepreneurial instincts—passion and listening—illuminated his way.
“I did these things and if you look back it’s like, should I have jumped off that cliff, or should I have tried that?” he says. “You’re like, I had no choice. It seemed doable, so you did it. Or you didn’t know any better or you only saw a little bit, so you did it. And all of a sudden you find yourself flying and people are like, ‘I don’t believe you’re flying,’ and you’re like, ‘What else would I be doing?’”
“I’m very thankful for my family, for love, for the hustle of people like my mom who gave so much to support me,” he says. “Without a lot of resources, I knew I was loved. I think that was the greatest gift I received. My mom said I could be anything I want to be, and here I am.”
“And I also believe that my circumstances, being poor—I didn’t understand what that meant—it helped me, by not getting stuck in that framework, to be in spaces where a poor kid didn’t belong. It also makes me think, we can solve all these problems. They just don’t make sense.”
Thomas now works to solve systemic problems through the Knight Foundation’s support of efforts to expand economic opportunity, attract and retain talent, and increase civic engagement in Charlotte.
“Our focus is framed around fostering a more inclusive community,” he says. “We have all this incredible growth happening. How do we ensure this growth is including everyone and providing opportunity for all?”
In this vein, look for Knight Foundation partnerships with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, OpenStreets704 and the Historic West End.
For more information on Knight Foundation in Charlotte, visit: https://www.knightfoundation.org/communities/charlotte/