4 Business Insights from NBA Legend and Entrepreneur Isiah Thomas

NBA champion and entrepreneur Isiah Thomas shares his experiences as a businessman, investor, and philanthropist, and emphasizes the importance of ethics in business.


Air Date: October 28, 2021

Moderator: Myron Brilliant, Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Penny Naas, President, International Public Affairs & Sustainability, UPS

Isiah Thomas is a two-time NBA champion, a former NBA coach, general manager and executive, and today, a successful international entrepreneur.

Thomas had a challenging upbringing, growing up in poverty in Chicago's West Side. Despite this, he went on to build a three-decade career in professional sports, as well as become an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist who addresses ethical issues affecting small businesses.

Recently, Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, interviewed Thomas about his business experiences. Here are some of his key takeaways for other entrepreneurs and leaders.

Business Is All About Community, No Matter Where You Are

When discussing how he approaches doing business in other countries, Thomas emphasized the importance of community. Even though there are different international laws, regulations, and customs, Thomas and his business teams strive to impact that country’s local community, just as he would if supporting a local shop in Chicago.

“When you're doing business in another country, you definitely want to do business with the government,” said Thomas, referring to the fact that entrepreneurs should understand the local political climate in that country. “But what it really does come back to is families. It comes back to mom and dad, sister and brother…we go into every country trying to help and trying to improve the workforce [and their families].”

Thomas Wants To Eliminate the ‘Race Box’

When asked if America is making progress as a country in terms of equal racial opportunities, Thomas was quick to point out that the United States is the only country in which you have to classify as a minority. In the international business space, he doesn't have to be classified as Black; he's just an American doing business, and whoever has the best product and the best team rises to the top, he said.

Thomas stated that a big way to help create equality is to eliminate what he describes as the “race box.”

“We still haven't come to a clear definition of what is race and [I’ve] lived long enough to realize that we've been classified in a multitude of ways,” said Thomas. “We all need to reclaim our nationalities…these colored boxes that we now find ourselves in, I just don't think it's good for our country. I don't think it's good for business.”

“At some point in time, we have to stand up for nationality and we all have to get uplifted to be Americans and eliminate these black, white, red, blue, green, orange, purple boxes that we play,” he added.

There’s Always Room for Human Rights in Business

As an ambassador for the NBA, Thomas was asked about recent comments that players and executives have made in regard to human rights and China. Thomas defended the player’s freedom of speech and advocated for human rights in every capacity.

“Human rights, the dignity of people everywhere, not just in China, but here in the United States ... those things should always be protected,” said Thomas. “There’s business and then there's government, and those two have to find a happy medium at times. But the place that they always should meet … is a place where human rights, the dignity of people, is always upheld.”

Cannabis and Hemp Will Revolutionize Business Manufacturing

Looking ahead to the future of the business world, Thomas — whose holding company ISIAH International owns hemp-derived product supplier One World Pharma — believes that hemp and cannabis are going to revolutionize and change the world. In 10 years, he said, products that are made from plastics will be replaced by biodegradable products made from hemp.

“The medical industry will gravitate and start going back to mother nature and using the plant,” Thomas shared. “We are on the forefront … and I believe that we’re going to revolutionize the world with these two ingredients.”