Microsoft Chairman John Thompson on Racism and “Assimilating” to Succeed in Silicon Valley

The chairman of Microsoft, regarded as the most powerful African American in Silicon Valley, John W. Thompson, opens up with details on his life and career

Image: File
Image: File

“We don’t mind people of his color in our store, but we don’t want them in our office…” was part of the recount of a racist incident that Microsoft’s Chairman John W. Thompson experienced during his early days as an IBM salesman.

In a fascinating fireside chat, Thompson spoke of a harsh incident of racism he was subjected to during his years at IBM and also spoke of the need for blacks to “assimilate” to corporate culture.

The chat was held during a gala event as part of the week-long Wall Street Project Economic Summit in New York City. The discussion also included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and was moderated by Navarrow Wright, president, Maximum Leverage Solutions.

How a Racist Incident Turned Beneficial
“The first time the issue of my ethnicity came up, I had been at IBM for six months and I was riding with the sales rep who was a year and a half or two ahead of me,” said Thompson in response to being asked about the first time his being black intercepted his rise in the technology industry.

Thompson recalled that day when he and the senior IBM sales rep drove to Dade City, Florida, to complete a sales order at a Napa parts distributor.

“Tom [the IBM sales rep] gets the guy to sign the order and then he whips out three cigars. And the guy looks at me and says, ‘So what do you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I am a sales trainee and in another 12 months or so, when I get through my training program I am going to be a sales rep like Tom,’” Thompson told the audience.

“And he says, ‘Oh, really?’ I went, ‘Yeah, really.’” And so he looks at Tom, looks back at me and says, ‘Don’t bring him here ever again.’” The Napa parts distributor then explained that black people were not welcomed in the office although they were allowed in his store.

Thompson explained that the ugly incident actually helped accelerate his career at IBM. He was concerned that as a salesman, he would have to try and sell computers to “yahoos like that” to support his family. IBM, a company with a history of supporting diversity within its walls, acknowledged the difficulty that being black posed for Thompson as a salesman and fast-tracked him to selling large, enterprise accounts.

“I immediately started selling to large accounts and it cut, literally, five years off my career path in the very early days. And I got a lot of support from the branch teams,” remembered Thompson.

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