A hunger for knowledge.
Thesis is driven by curiosity and problem-solving, given our name.
One of the biggest riddles we face daily: How do we run a successful business while leaving this world better than we found it?
In light of his recent nomination as a finalist for EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2021 Pacific Northwest Region, Ryan Buchanan, our CEO / Founder, sat down with Koko Udomah, a Junior Copywriter at Thesis, to chat about Ryan’s approach, beginnings, philosophies, and what success — in business and community — looks like to him.
The interview, in full.
Koko: What’s your background? How did that affect your view on DEI?
Ryan: I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC. If I’m honest, a pretty privileged suburban area. It was an international type of audience — relatively diverse from race to gender to religion.
I played sports in the schools that I went to, so I had a lot of friends of color.
It’s interesting to see why this happens across America, but I feel like there’s a lot of diversity. And then you go to college, and many groups form that tend to be more homogenous. And then you get into the workforce, and before you know it, if you’re not intentional about it, you can subconsciously create, from a racial standpoint, a pretty homogenous scenario.
I was raised not to see color, which denies folks of color their lived experience. But I was always raised around equity, just not necessarily intentional around racial equity in particular.
Koko: Tell us the story behind Thesis. When and how did it come about?
Ryan: Sure. After college, I was a financial analyst at Intel. And I left when a lot of my friends were going to Dot Com [companies]. I left to start my own software company. I was super naive to think I knew how to start a tech company when I was 25 years old — I knew finance but didn’t know software.
But the cool thing about that whole journey around entrepreneurship is that I met some other dynamic entrepreneurs. And two of those entrepreneurs were a couple of guys who started an email marketing software company. And when my construction-related software companies began to fail, and I saw the writing on the wall, I began reselling their software. I ultimately created a full-service, email marketing, creative agency around their software, and we white-labeled their software.
So, I started a company called Email ROI, which led to us doing microsites and other things online. We needed to move from email-only into email, web, and other digital experiences, so we went from email ROI to eROI. And then, just two years ago, we rebranded as Thesis — because we wanted to start a more strategic conversation with our clients. We want to know their North Star, where they want to get to, and how we can run different hypotheses with the campaigns we’re doing to get to that thesis ultimately.
That’s how it all happened. There are some high-highs and some low-lows in that journey. And I’m just thankful that we are at a high point and still moving up in that entrepreneurial journey.
Koko: What are some of the core values Thesis was founded on? And what are we doing currently to live up to those ideals?
Ryan: Our current values are:
- Be lean and take action.
- Say what you mean, mean what you say.
- Seek the truth.
We’ve revisited our values throughout the 19 years we’ve been in business, but I think some of the things that are true to me personally and the company are creating a loving community. And building the business around the community and seeing and hearing people as they are.
I think the key piece is to have people show up as they truly are. And I think that’s really, really hard to do. It’s easy to say — and it’s funny when a lot of business owners talk about their culture, it often seems like such an ideal place — but we strive to live into our values and address them weekly in our all-company staff meetings, in our DEI trainings, and in the stories that we share daily. And I think that’s when we’re most successful. It’s when you kind of set it and forget it that you get into trouble. And you stray from your values.
Koko: How do you think the culture at Thesis has changed since you first started eROI?
Ryan: Well, I guess what I’ve seen is that my role [has gone] from being more of a doer to much more of a mentor — and a little more behind the scenes as an advisor. And, of course, relationship builder in the community. For us, it is a little surreal where we are now in that we have hired 163 people that we’ve never met before since the pandemic started; we’re roughly 250 people now. So growth, usually when you grow that fast, your culture suffers.
I am also so proud of our President and COO, Keely York, and our Senior Leadership Team for really guiding and leaning into onboarding new employees, making sure our tenured employees feel seen, and have strong individual growth and promotion plans. I meet with every new employee within the first two weeks of them being here — I know that I might get some biased responses because I am the CEO, but I do feel like we are leaning in to create a welcoming atmosphere. People notice that it’s far different from any other agency they’ve worked at, that there’s something special at Thesis, and I think that’s because we live into our values.
We are doing things differently. Nationally, the creative industry is 86% White and looks a lot like me at the top. And Portland is even more homogenous than that. So, I think, Thesis being 42% BIPOC — and having a strong BIPOC, LGBTQ, and female presence at all levels of the company — I think we’re doing something right. Our growth and our financials confirm that brands demand that their agencies, like us, reflect their consumers. And suppose you are an agency that is struggling to have diverse representation. In that case, you’re probably not going to grow as fast for that reason.
Koko: How did you start your DEI journey? What inspired you to turn your attention toward social equity?
Ryan: It’s one of those things where I had a significant — almost spiritual — moment six years ago when I was at a business meeting hosted by another group. 90 business owners were in the room, and over half of those folks were friends of mine. I looked around, and it hit me: I was one of 85 White guys there, with three women and two men of color. I had been part of this business community and nonprofit community for so long in Portland, but I wasn’t intentional about creating relationships and communities of color to ensure more representation in that room.
Even though it wasn’t my event, I could have still influenced it.
I immediately thought of my own company, I hadn’t been intentional, and it reflected (we were roughly 10% folks of color at that time). So, I had this AHA moment to write a blog post the next day called Portland Business Community: Too White, Too Male with the call to action for CEOs like myself to sign up to have a super talented Portland college intern of color.
I had conversations with Ben Sand and Sue Embry to co-found the Emerging Leaders Internship. It has very quickly scaled from the 35 folks that signed up in the first month for the summer of 2016, and this year, we placed 157 Emerging Leaders Interns at 100 Portland companies.
It’s been amazing to get an outpouring of gushingly positive sentiment from CEOs, HR folks, and hiring managers across those 100 Portland companies over the past six years about how exceptional the talent is when the myth was that there was no diverse talent in Portland. Well, we’ve completely dispelled that. And then from folks like yourself, Koko, we get so much gratitude pouring of like, “Hey, normally, I don’t have doors open for me like this.” Because, you know, that’s the way our society works.
And it’s just not hard for people like me to open a door. But because a lot of my peers don’t know how to get involved, I think Emerging Leaders has created a window to make that happen.
Koko: What does diversity at Thesis mean to you?
Ryan: I think diversity is typically about who is in the room. And for the most part, we often look at race and ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation, things like that. I do think diversity should be rooted in lived experience. I believe when certain leaders, especially from a dominant culture, say, “Oh, we have a diversity of thought and a diversity of perspectives,” I don’t think it accomplishes very much.
If 100 out of 100 employees are White, but have diversity in thinking, it’s still very homogenous. So, I think diversity is about lived experience and representation of who you have in different levels of leadership and project teams.
Koko: How did you get involved with The Contingent (the organizing party of ELI), and how is that partnership supporting Thesis’s mission of working toward a better world?
Ryan: The CEO of The Contingent, Ben Sands, is one of my best friends. And he had been doing work with high school seniors of color, getting full-ride college scholarships in Oregon. His organization had already created those relationships in colleges, so it was a natural extension to partner with The Contingent and Felicia, who runs the program and works side by side with Ben, to scale that internship program.
Together, we have launched several social movements, in addition to Emerging Leaders Internship. From Every Child Oregon — an initiative that brings awareness to the foster system in Oregon to Know Me Now — a brand built to reduce recidivism, the leading cause of foster needs.
We have since launched a pilot program called SINE — Survival Is Not Enough — taking alumni from the ELI program — folks like yourself — and going through a program where you take a five-week personal financial literacy class taught by a woman of color. Ultimately, it’s built-in small groups, and there are several mentors for each small group. It’s all about building a career and building personal wealth — really opening doors throughout your career to make sure that you have allies to help you move from college grad to the C-suite at some point in your career.
There has been so much positivity with Emerging Leaders and SINE. But we will really know we’re on the right track if we see that the leadership in the greater Portland community is starting to reflect the population here and beyond.
Koko: What’s so effective about ELI? And what’s something about SINE that excites you?
Ryan: So, I think there’s so much untapped potential that companies are now, in our sixth summer, realizing, okay, this isn’t, “Ryan is trying to sell me on there being a great talent, and I don’t believe it” kind of thing. It’s more, “Wow, this is the beginning of a transformation for my company’s culture.” And I am so impressed with this. Super bright, hungry, energetic, or just insightful young professionals, I will look at hiring differently. I will look at some of my employee benefits differently, which may go beyond expected things. So I think ELI is the start of a transformation in a very low-risk way to companies.
And I think ELI can be transformative to folks like yourself, Koko, where you may not have had that door opened to you if it weren’t for the ELI program. As per SINE, you’re right, we are very early on, but we believe it’s far more. It’s far more applicable to more professionals, allies, and professionals of color because many companies are not set up to hand-holding an intern program. It’s just more work than then they’re set up for. In contrast, in SINE, any mid-level manager up could volunteer to be a mentor. Any professional color college grad 22 to 3,035 years old can be a member and gain all these benefits from it.
The general appeal is much wider, so we feel like SINE has more opportunities to scale. And for us to make an impact on starting to close the racial wealth gap. We need to serve several thousands of young professionals of color, at least in Portland, and then do that in other communities as well. We have a pretty lofty goal with SINE. And, so far, so good with really good reviews coming back from the pilot program.
Koko: Have you encountered any kind of pushback or any kind of obstacles that have made your mission a little bit difficult?
Ryan: I’d say 99% of it is rallied around the cause, especially now, in the past year, there’s been so much more awareness around it with the murder of George Floyd. I think a lot more people are a lot more aware that they need to get involved in some way. Early on, you got many typical comments from White leaders like, “I don’t want to lower the bar,” and things that are just unknowingly racist. I would say 99% has been positive; the 1% is more my journey that I’ve come to appreciate. But something painful at the moment was a bit of cancel culture.
When I gave a version of a TED talk to a small audience of 300 people, I spoke about embracing being uncomfortable as a White leader and getting involved in programs like Emerging Leaders. One of the women of color in the audience who didn’t have any context or know anything about [the program] thought that I was tokenizing college students of color in this program. She didn’t realize that the folks who run it were a mix of folks of color and White people like myself. We got through that moment, and our mutual friend, Lou Radja, helped me gain perspective on being called out. It means that you have a platform now, and that you’ve entered the arena, and that’s okay. And that’s actually to be celebrated. So, I ended up patching things up with the person who called me out, but we have all kinds of learnings.
The whole transformation — that AHA moment that led to me co-founding Emerging Leaders — was also the start of a transformation at Thesis. We had four Emerging Leaders Interns in the summer of 2016. Over that time, we’ve had 34 Interns, and we’ve hired over half as full-time employees. Some have moved up toward middle management. So, it was a great starting point, and it would have been a failure if that’s the only thing that we did at Thesis.
Koko: How can we better genuinely support other marginalized communities during times of need while avoid being performative?
Ryan: I’m going to come back to an answer around deep listening and not, especially as a White leader, projecting what I think we should do. In most cases, Keely is driving it. And I commend her for really talking to our ERGs to understand their perspectives and their needs.
In the community, we ask if there’s a nonprofit we can support and how We don’t even have to talk about it publicly. But we do what feels right for our agency — empowering and truly giving a voice to our ERGs. Because I think many ERGs at companies don’t have the ear of the executive team. At Thesis, over half of our employees are engaged in ERGs, and they have a strong voice. It does matter. And so I think that is the solution.
Koko: What’s something that you’ve learned that stands out to you during your journey?
Ryan: For one: It’s a lifetime. My life purpose is around community, creating a loving community to help close the equity gap and bring people together. It’s been incredible to have some of those powerful, meaningful, deep conversations with people on my back deck. I feel like I have personally grown more since I’ve started my DEI journey, intentionally, than I ever have before.
Because White people tend not to want to talk about race, and White men tend not to want to get into the differences in business between men and women and leadership styles and things like that. To have conversations where you’re learning and growing — there’s a richness to the relationship that comes from those conversations where you may hear some things you might not want to hear. But you soon start to look at the world more realistically. It’s just really powerful. I feel like I lived my life pretty sheltered before I had more direct conversations, and I was willing to have those and initiate those conversations.
Koko: What’s something everyone should know about DEI?
Ryan: I think, in particular, for White leaders, everyone seems to be scared in the beginning, like, “Am I gonna say the wrong thing?” It’s only doubts. There’s joy in DEI; it doesn’t have to be this weighty, shame-ridden thing. If you’re White, you should be proud of who you are. I’m a White man. And I have privilege. And I’m going to use that for good.
I believe that my business is a platform for good in the world and that there are good things that I can do with it.
Koko: Why do you think Portland has a problem employing a diverse workforce, and what’s one step the business community can take to solve this issue?
Ryan: I think something like 85% of mid-level management and up in Portland is White leaders, and most are men. White men or White women, we do not, on the whole, tend to like being uncomfortable. Even though we know that diverse teams might perform better, it’s just too much fear; there’s too much shame, there’s too much whatever to be to take that first step into creating a relationship with folks from a different race or ethnicity. And that taking that first step is the problem.
Most of us don’t want to take that first step. And if we do, we often treat it as a checkbox instead of a commitment to a relationship. And I think there’s so much to be gained from having friends who are different than you. And I do believe in business we like to compartmentalize — it’s not a place for friendships or anything but being serious. And the reality is, it has a huge impact on peoples’ lives. And it is a very human thing to be part of work. So why not have real, connecting relationships?
Koko: How would you suggest other organizations get involved and start their DEI journey? And what can be done to improve participation?
Ryan: I think getting a great DEI consultant, someone like Lou Radja, Sherry Dunn, Cinthia Manuel — there are probably a dozen in Portland who are fantastic. I think getting involved with organizations like Partners in Diversity. Creating a DEI committee (but it’s helpful to do that with a consultant to set the ground rules, framework, and proper context). And, of course, participating in the Emerging Leaders Internship and SINE.
Koko: How do we check our biases on a corporate level?
Ryan: You know, it’s funny. We all have biases, and we are all going to continue to. And yes, we want to always be aware of those and get better. But what comes to mind is I’m part of a group of technology execs — there are like 30 of us focused around DEI in Portland. Sometimes you can get so nerdy with your DEI scorecard, doing all the measuring of objectives every month and every quarter and all that. You lose the relational piece, which is the most crucial piece. But I think there’s a balance where you can work with a DEI consultant, a third-party survey to get a pulse check of where you are on creating an inclusive culture.
So, you want to measure some internal things like that versus only measuring representation and diversity because you only have one piece out of the three out of the diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think it’s important to measure all three of those areas. And the way that you do, that is certain employee surveys and, obviously, representation and diversity metrics.
As far as accountability, it’s most important to come back to how we are creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. The other side has to be there so that we all rise together.
And not that we’re just singing Kumbaya. I think some CEOs think that this is just some nice-to-have charity. But no, we’re genuinely performing better for our clients. We’re winning more business because of our emphasis on culture and how we treat each other.
It starts at the top.
At Thesis, we want to set an example. Our mission over the last six years has been directly influenced and energized by Ryan's willingness to be the change he wants to see in the business world. A world populated by real talented folks of all character and creeds, whose perspectives and insights add to our work and our culture of love, understanding, respect. A vision slowly becoming a reality by a sustained commitment from leadership at all levels.