World Trade Center Arkansas Selects First Black Woman CEO

The center is the first in the country to appoint a Black woman to the post.

Denise Thomas, first Black woman CEO of World Trade Center Arkansas speaks to a man

Denise Thomas, a longtime trade director at the World Trade Center Arkansas, has been named the center’s next leader. She is the first Black woman to become CEO of a World Trade Center in the United States, according to a press release.

Thomas, who oversaw trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, replaces W. Dan Hendrix, the center’s first president and CEO. Hendrix retired in June after more than a decade leading the Arkansas center. 

“I have big shoes to fill. Dan worked hard to lay an incredible foundation,” Thomas said. “The center has helped enhance opportunities for bilateral trade with Arkansas businesses. I’m optimistic about the future role that the Natural State and the center will play on the global stage.”

Hendrix, who worked with Thomas for nearly 15 years, said her tenure in global commerce and her sterling reputation will aid the center’s function as the state’s nexus for international trade.

“Denise is a 14-year veteran of the trade center and is well respected internationally as well as statewide,” Hendrix said. “She will bring enthusiasm and professionalism in her role as she continues international trade development for Arkansas companies and we resume our trade mission, trade show and commercial diplomacy activities that are crucial for Arkansas exports,” he said.

Thomas, a California native, began her economic development career in 1998 in Florida at the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. There she worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration to create a networking hub for entrepreneurs that combined several chambers of commerce and small business development organizations, creating a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs in one location. She was later appointed to oversee the Jacksonville chamber’s division of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Thomas moved to Arkansas in 2002 and joined Walmart as a senior recruiter. She worked closely with hiring managers to build strategic teams in diverse markets, both domestically and internationally. Thomas joined the World Trade Center Arkansas five years later, becoming one of its earliest staff members.

“Denise has been an asset at World Trade Center Arkansas, and I am pleased she will be stepping into this new role where she can use her expertise to build and expand successful international partnerships,” said U.S. Sen. John Boozman, who helped establish the center in 2007. “She has been a leader in developing opportunities for Arkansas businesses in the global marketplace, and I look forward to continuing working together to support our businesses and enhance economic growth throughout the Natural State.”

The center was created to grow trade and increase Arkansas exports by connecting Arkansas businesses to the world through international trade services. The center is part of the University of Arkansas Office of Economic Development and serves as the trade promotion arm for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

In 2019, Arkansas exports accounted for $6.2 billion in trade while supporting more than one-fourth of the state’s workforce, according to data compiled by the center. Arkansas’ small businesses played a vital role in international trade. Nearly 80 percent of exporters in Arkansas were small businesses. 

Over the last few years, Arkansas trade-related jobs have grown six times faster than total employment, paid up to 18 percent more than similar jobs at non-exporting firms and were shown to be more secure. International trade in Arkansas has spanned more than 160 countries.