The largest gift in the history of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke will help fund an endowed chair for entrepreneurship.
A gift from the Thomas Family Foundation, founded by Los Angeles real estate developer James A. Thomas and his wife Sally, will fund a distinguished professorship in UNCP’s School of Business. The Thomas Family Endowed Professorship in Entrepreneurship will be a faculty position that will serve as the cornerstone for a new program to be anchored in the School of Business.
Ultimately, it is planned that this professorship will direct a Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship. The Center would be the first of its kind in southeastern North Carolina, and would uniquely impact the University, the School of Business and the Pembroke community.
The Foundation contributed $500,000 to the project. UNCP will apply for a matching grant of $500,000 from the North Carolina’s Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund, which was established in 1985 by the North Carolina General Assembly to create endowed chairs at all 16 constituent UNC schools.
Thomas, who is chairman, chief executive officer and president of Thomas Properties Group, Inc., is a Pembroke native and a Lumbee Indian. He said this gift was prompted by the Foundation’s desire to impact the Lumbee community in some significant way.
“We are excited about the potential of this project,” Thomas said. “Sally and I have had a chance to meet with some of the faculty in the School of Business, and of course with Dean Dent, and have come to understand that their commitment to the Pembroke area is very real.”
“They believe, as we do, that this professorship will play a role both academically at UNCP and in the community,” he said.
Once the Center for Entrepreneurship is established, Thomas will sit on the Center’s Advisory Committee to help guide the direction of the center.
Thomas has supported several UNCP projects, including an endowed scholarship and naming of the Thomas Assembly Room in UNCP’s Native American Resource Center. Both gifts honored his parents, Ophelia and Earl Thomas.
In 1990, during the administration of Chancellor Joseph B. Oxendine, Thomas was given an honorary degree following his speech at commencement. Thomas’ connection to the Pembroke community is spelled out in his hopes for the project.
Once appointed, the Thomas Professor will plan and direct the planned Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship, which will be developed to address three primary objectives:
- It will serve as a resource center for existing and prospective businesses in Pembroke and surrounding areas, enabling these business people to obtain information and resources that will help them maintain and grow a business.
- It will support an undergraduate courses in entrepreneurship, allowing students to pursue education that would provide them with a professional level of business expertise.
- It will support additional opportunities in graduate education that could include elective courses in entrepreneurship or a certificate program in entrepreneurship.
The Board of Trustees of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke formally accepted the gift on July 29.
“A gift of this size helps us accomplish something extraordinary for the institution, for our Business school, and for the community, and it sends a message that Pembroke and UNCP are engaged in a partnership of remarkable proportions,” Chancellor Meadors said. “This gift is creating a faculty position that will directly impact our community.”
“On behalf of UNC Pembroke, I wish to thank the Thomas Family Foundation for it’s generous gift, Chancellor Meadors said. “The Thomas Professorship and the planned Center for Entrepreneurship will have a tremendous impact on the entire University and the community it serves.”
Dr. Eric Dent, Dean of UNCP’s School of Business said the impact of the gift would be large on business programs and outreach into the business community.
“This gift from the Thomas Family Foundation will have an electrifying effect on our University,” Dr. Dent said. “This professorship will allow us to bring a faculty member with a national reputation in entrepreneurship to Pembroke.”
“I can envision area businesses getting assistance from the planned center and our students preparing themselves to start their own businesses or be innovators in large organizations, Dr. Dent said.”
Thomas spent his early years in a home that was directly across the street from the University. His parents, Earl and Ophelia, were both educators and UNCP graduates. Although the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952, Pembroke and its people had a lasting influence on Thomas.
He talked about his life and career in a recent lecture at the School of Business.
“I was a so-so student until the seventh grade,” Thomas said. “I had a seventh grade teacher named Mr. Joseph Sampson who was a legend in Pembroke.”
“He created a competitive situation every week and class ranking was reflected in where you sat in the classroom,” he said. “I became a straight ‘A’ student.”
Thomas said his competitive nature was an asset in sports and later in business. He followed the Oxendine brothers, Joe (chancellor emeritus) and Ray, to Catawba College on a basketball scholarship, but his father’s health problems brought him back to Ohio before finishing school.
Night school and law school were followed by a job as a tax attorney for the Internal Revenue Service. Thomas started a private practice in tax law, and in 1983 it happened.
“It” was a client who convinced Thomas to form a real estate development company. Twenty million square feet of high-rise commercial property later, Thomas Properties trades on the NASDAQ (TPGI) with a market capitalization of more than $400 million and an enterprise market value of more than $600 million.
Thomas Properties owns real estate across the U.S. The full service company engages in ownership, acquisition, development and management of office, retail and multifamily properties.
Thomas said his venture into real estate was completely accidental, “absolutely terrifying” but extremely gratifying. He offered career advice to future entrepreneurs at UNCP’s School of Business.
“For me, the law did provide some background but not much,” he said. “If I had my life to live over again instead of going to law school, I would get my MBA. We live and die on numbers.”
Thomas will pass the entrepreneurial spirit to a community that needs it. In the past decade, Robeson County and its surrounding region lost thousands of jobs as international competition completely revised the rules of the manufacturing sector of the local economy.
UNCP will recruit a national leader in business education to the Thomas Family Professorship for Entrepreneurship.
At a July 29 special meeting of the UNCP Board of Trustees, the University approved the professorship and initiated an application for state matching funds.
For more information about the Thomas Professorship or planned Center for Entrepreneurialism, please contact the School of Business at 910.521.6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about giving to UNCP, please call the Office for Advancement 910.521.6252 or email email@example.com.