Meet TOA's Board: Aduke Thelwell

September 16, 2021 Christiaan Perez

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Today we explore the story behind Aduke Thelwell, seasoned strategic communications consultant and board member at The Opportunity Agenda. Aduke tells us more about the stories of strong Black women who shaped who she is today and how we can learn social justice values from her grandmother. 

Q: Stories play a considerable role in changing hearts and minds. What is the first story that you recall having that impact on you? It could be a family story, a book, a show, etc. 

Aduke Thelwell

I am not sure if this is true, but according to family legend, my great-great grandmother escaped slavery and ran into the mountains of Jamaica to join a community of free people. Over time, she became a matriarch who helped those in need, working to make sure that the community of escaped slaves not only survived, but thrived. Now, a lot of this is based on stories that were passed down in my family, but there is some evidence to back it. This story is about forging your own path and prevailing despite circumstances and is where I draw a lot of my inspiration that I can get through hard times. 

Q: Who is a hero in your life, someone who inspires you? 

Without a question, I think of my grandmother. My grandmother was extremely gifted and, had she been born in modern times, I think she would be trending on social media under hashtags like #girlboss #femalefounder and #feministqueen. At a young age, she started working in a pharmacy and noticed that average Jamaicans would often come in to buy a Band-Aid, but couldn’t afford the entire box of Band-Aids. So, she would open the box and sell one Band-Aid individually. We now know this as “selling to the base of the pyramid” and smart business strategy, but her boss yelled at her for doing it. Eventually, she worked up the courage to leave and open her own small pharmacy, so she could serve her community. The small store she started, roughly the size of a bodega, ended up moving so much volume that the earnings put me through college, put my siblings through college, and pretty much supported the entire family. My grandmother never had a formal business education, yet she was an entrepreneur and leader in her community. 

I have worked in Wall Street and been a consultant for various major corporations and, to this day, I find that those jobs all draw upon values my grandmother taught me. A lot of my values around fairness and hard work came from her. On top of this, my grandmother instilled in me the idea that money is not meant only to buy things, but to serve people. In all the work I do, I am always looking to serve people. 

Q: What would you say is your superhero power? 

My superpower is truth-telling. In some ways, it is an adaptation to the fact that the option of blending in and engaging in groupthink is often not available to me as a Black woman. So, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started leaning into my ability to ask the questions that no one wants to ask. The skill I’ve learned is how to say what needs to be said in a positive way and without making anyone defensive. 

Q: Is there a particular issue TOA works on that you identify with personally? Why is that? 

Definitely the War on Poverty and Economic Opportunity. I grew up in a poor country where many people struggled to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I grew up middle class, but I could see that many others struggled. I could see people build homes out of plywood and watch them get knocked down by a hurricane. The issues of poverty were so immediate that you couldn’t ignore them. In the United States I think that for those who have prospered, the issues of poverty can sometimes feel academic and distant – I think we need more collective will and urgency to address these. 

Q: What is something you would like The Opportunity Agenda community to know about you? 

I feel that having the chance to join the Opportunity Agenda’s Board and further this particular mission, in this particular cultural moment, is a unique blessing that tells me I am walking toward my purpose. I know that sounds dramatic. But this feels like grace. To be a Black immigrant woman who has spent most of my career advising companies on how to use communications to drive strategic outcomes, it is really exciting to be able to apply those skills to driving outcomes in social justice and other areas I care deeply about. My mother and grandmother did not have the opportunities I have, so I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to walk through this door, to arrive in this space in this time.  

Last year, The Opportunity Agenda trained over 100 leaders and activists, helping amplify their voices in hundreds of media stories. That is not including the thousands of people who use The Opportunity Agenda resources in their day-to-day work. If you consider the millions of people reached by that messaging, that’s true impact at scale. I’ve historically donated my time and energy to a few organizations at a time, and now you’re telling me I get to support an entire ecosystem of change agents to shift a national conversation? I didn’t know I could dream that big. But that’s the scope of ambition here at TOA and I’m so here for it.