Isiah Thomas played basketball with a tenacity not often seen in today’s game.
Whenever a team outscored his Detroit Pistons, it only meant a negative mark in the loss column but never total defeat for Thomas.
An NCAA champion at Indiana and a two-time NBA champ with the Pistons, Thomas has followed up his on-court success with an almost peerless triumph in the business world.
He said his accomplishments as an entrepreneur result from what he learned playing basketball – teaming up with the right individuals, seeking sound advice and closely monitoring the success of others – attributes that have made him a giant in several industries.
“The first [thing being a business owner] teaches you in terms of basketball is teamwork. You have to work together collectively to make something happen in terms of vision and goal,” Thomas stated.
“The goal of winning a championship – how to do it together. So when you’re managing people, it’s about giving them a vision and a goal and ensuring that we have the right game plan to get there. Basketball gave me a lot of those [tools]. Having perseverance, getting knocked down, failing and regrouping.”
However, Thomas hasn’t experienced getting knocked down in his business ventures, always displaying a deft touch and a championship pedigree in boardrooms.
The chair and CEO of ISIAH International LLC and Isiah Imports, Thomas has an extensive portfolio of investments.
His holdings include Isiah Real Estate, Cheurlin Champagnes, One World Products, GRE3N and RE3 Recycling, Sweetgreen and Popcorn Indiana.
“I started my firm in 1990 to uplift the second-generation behind me out of poverty,” Thomas said. “We always talk about generational wealth. The best way to do that is to start and get involved in the business. I didn’t know that I was an ESG company – environmentally and socially conscious when I started.”
“I was always interested in investing in things that impacted the community, impacted the family and had a chance to make sure there was some legacy coming behind. My economics teacher told me to invest in things that I like.”
“So one of the first investments was popcorn because it was a staple in my home. After all, we didn’t have a lot of food, so my mom would pop a lot of popcorn,” he said.
His Popcorn Indiana, which comes in red packaging, marked him as one of the first to put colors on popcorn bags.
His foray into the industrial hemp business also counted as significant and rare.
“When you talk about industrial hemp and carbon reduction – industrial hemp takes more carbon out of the air than any other plant on the Earth,” Thomas asserted.
“What you see at Isiah’s One World is how to replace plastics in automobiles. Looking at hemp and carbon reduction, it goes across every business, even the cosmetics space. It runs the gamut of its usage and at One World, we have the largest supply of hemp on this side of the equator,” he said.
Thomas’ Cheurlin Champagne also counts as one of the best with the bubbly pressed from the first grapes.
And globally, he represents the most prominent African-American owner and importer of first pressed grape champagne.
“Anytime you buy champagne, you should ask if it’s from the first pressed [grapes] – that’s important,” Thomas stated.
He also noted how his champagne allowed him to remain in the agricultural space.
“I didn’t realize I was entering the agricultural space when I entered champagne,” Thomas said. “I learned that the soil, the sun and the farmers make the best grapes.”
For the legend, it all goes back to the family.
His late mother, Mary Thomas, remains an inspiration.
“We were poor but my mother was always positive and always gave of herself,” Thomas said. “I remember walking in the snow with my mom and I had holes in my shoes and put cardboard in them. I looked at her and she had glad bags over her feet. We were on welfare but she used the money not to pay rent or buy food but to ensure we got an education.”
With his children and other family members having roles in Thomas’ businesses, the legend said his mission for them remains simple.
“We put them through school. They got student loans using the “Thomas Bank” and we require them to come back and put in six months or a year, free labor. That’s how they pay off their student loans,” Thomas stated.
After that, there are no strings attached, he said.
“If they decide they like what they are doing in one of the companies or entities that we have, then this is a place where they can make a living, get a paycheck, pay their rent and buy food,” he said.
“If they want to stay, great. If not, they’ve gained the experience and knowledge to go elsewhere. But, when you talk about trying to uplift your family out of generational poverty, that’s the vision of Isiah International.”
“So, the diversification of the spaces we’re in is because we have family members and me who have specialties in those spaces,” he said.