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Local Profile’s 2023 Women in Business: Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk

The annual Women in Business Summit is scheduled for September 8, 2023
Mary Ann in suit at office with flags and family portrait (1)

Women in Business brings together over 600 influential women from various sectors such as global enterprises, non-profit organizations, small businesses and government agencies within the North Texas community. It serves as a platform to celebrate, unite and empower the leading ladies of the DFW area.

On September 8, 2023, women across North Texas have the opportunity to connect with notable guest speakers, participate in enlightening panel discussions and meet like-minded professionals.

Meet one of our speakers:

Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk is the recipient of the 2018 Civic Pioneer Award, considered one of the highest recognitions given by Congress to a female US citizen. She is a co-founder with her husband, Joshua Raymond Frenk, of The Memnosyne Institute, which includes FoodsourceDFW, one of the leading initiatives fighting food waste in the nation. She is also a published writer, internationally award-winning sculptor, human rights/environmental activist, socially responsible investor/conscious capitalist and international speaker, including at the UN, the White House, the House of Lords and much more.

What is the biggest challenge women face in the workforce?

The biggest challenge for any minority, be it a woman, a person with melanin, LGBT or different culture, is that like it or not you are representing every one of your unique demographic when you are the first in the door. So you have to not just accomplish your tasks to prove you deserve to be there, you better excel. Now, I know that’s not fair at all, but that’s the reality we still face as women. I am 46 years old and I still find myself being the first female to be welcomed to certain tables and stages, so I embrace the challenge because it makes me stronger each time. 

How can they overcome it? 

I was once invited by my late friend, Keith Critchlow, (a world-famous architect who designed The Memnosyne Institute’s Center for Global and Local Outreach which will be located directly behind Dallas’ City Hall thanks to developer Mike Hoque’s donation of land and the city’s approval), to give a lecture at The Temenos Academy in London. He had told me to link quantum physics with the Tolteca of Teotihuacan’s understanding of sacred geometry with the Late Dr. Don Edward E. Beck’s Spiral Dynamics and how the AI-generated Vital Signs Monitor based on it would help humanity and how all of that would relate to his architectural design…..and he asked me to deliver it all in one 30 minute lecture. The day of the event I walked into the space which was obviously old with beautiful wood paneling and hanging from every available space seemed to be oil paintings of every imaginable size of older white-haired men in attire 300 to 100 years old, and painted on the crown molding in gold calligraphy were names of men. Then filing into the space was essentially the modern version of those same archetypes…male intellectuals from political, scientific, metaphysical and philosophical pursuits. Keith pulled me to the side on stage and asked me, “Do you notice anything about this space?” I glanced around and said, “They’re all men” pointing to the paintings and names across the walls. He smiled, looking directly in my eyes,  “Exactly. You’re the first woman to speak in this space. Don’t %$%# it up.” That was my pep talk! Sure, it was intimidating, but that feeling of intimidation, regardless of where it stems from is raw, available energy and anyone can claim their own energy and choose how to direct it. I let myself feel it pulsating through my body and power up my heart and mind. These were intellectuals, so I had to appeal to the brain, but the heart is what moves the most focused mind, so when passion fuels what is being communicated, regardless of how dull the data is, you reach the listener at a deeper level. You can always practice what I call “social aikido,” turning the energy of a challenge into the source of your energy to face that challenge.  

What's your biggest motivation?

I was born in Mexico to a young girl who had been violently raped. She could have chosen not to have me. If she had, I could understand that decision completely. But she decided to not only give me life but to offer me a chance at a better life than I would have otherwise had. I was born with a tonal hearing loss in the cochlea of both ears, so wearing hearing aids won’t help as they can’t increase sound for sound-detecting nerves that don’t exist. As a child, I dealt with seizures, migraines that could keep me down for a week at a time in the dark, throwing up, fighting dehydration and asthma that could put me in the hospital for weeks at a time.  As an adult, I have had duel eye surgery to keep from going blind and duel knee surgery due to being born with tendons that were too short otherwise I would have developed debilitating arthritis. All these challenges caused me to develop profound appreciation for my blessings – if I can hear, if I can breathe, if I can hike and dance, if I can view the sun without pain, etc….it is a day to be grateful for. I learned to speak well because my parents could afford to pay physical therapists to put on rubber gloves to shape my tongue into the words I couldn’t hear clearly and now today I have spoken in The House of Lords, the White House, TEDx and at the United Nations and here in Dallas I spoke to a crowd of 5,000 for the Women’s March in front of City Hall. 

All the medical treatments I received were made possible because of my adoptive family’s financial means. None of this takes away from the hard work that has been required. But, all of it helped me to find ways to deal with challenges from a privileged position. Therefore, I  have always seen life from two perspectives: there is the adopted me who grew up going to Hockaday and received assistance and guidance, and there is the me I could have been had no one trained me to speak correctly, provided eye surgery, etc….if I had managed to survive the seizures, migraines and asthma by some miracle, I probably would have been assumed to not be very bright because I would not have been able to read lips without eye correction and could not have learned to speak clearly. Instead, I  would have looked at all the hoity-toity tourists who walked by and thought, “If I were her and had her opportunities, I would do_______.” and whatever that “me” would have dreamed of doing is what I challenge myself to live up to today. Not everyone gets the opportunities I have been blessed with, so I need to earn them by recognizing my blessings are gifts spirit has given me to be in service to this world. I owe it not just to my adopted family, the Thompsons, to myself and to spirit to feel responsible to make my life about making as positive and impact in the world as possible, but I also owe it to every child that did not get this opportunity.  That, along with the legacy of my adopted family, the Thompsons, who used their business as it grew in the 1920s-1960s to fight against segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes at their own risk, set a high standard that inspires me deeply. 

How do you change a company's culture to promote inclusivity and diversity? 

Recently, one of my companies, Thompson Fine Arts, Inc, has branched out into publishing via a relationship with Waterside  Productions led by William Gladstone wherein the first book we are sponsoring the process of is the autobiography of Reverend Peter Johnson who was the man Martin Luther King Jr. assigned to help fight for desegregation in the state of Texas. Peter and I  met while protesting the putting of children in cages at the border where we were both sitting in front of the bus filled with the caged children so that the press could capture photos. After that, and through a common relationship with Isabell Rossignol, we began to collaborate our activist efforts for human rights. Then, after a year and a half of these collaborations, he came to my office and was shocked to see a painting I’d commissioned of my father, John Philp Thompson, Sr., alongside his brothers, Jere and Jodie and their mom, Margaret Philp Thompson. Turns out that sometime in the 1950s or 60s, just two doors down from my office, at The Stoneleigh P, he and my dad had shared a hamburger off the same plate while discussing ways to create greater economic opportunities for African Americans. People were so shocked to see the white blue eyed red haired CEO of 7-Eleven splitting a  burger with a black man in a then-whites-only establishment, that it made the front page news of the then-Dallas Times Herald. But Dad had gotten this from his father who had promoted people on the basis of the quality of their work when Oak Farms Dairy had begun. Charles Dawson had been one of those people and as this was before he learned to write, had dictated a letter written to my grandfather, Joe C. Thompson, Sr., telling him while he appreciated his fighting to desegregate the State Fair, the truth is that more of a significant difference was made by the for-profit company promoting on the basis of quality of work.

My family had crosses burning in their front yard and threats from those days but my father watched what his parents did and years later when we got threats on our answering machine for his refusing to disallow the Gay Pride Parade on the State Fair Grounds because “to do so would be spitting my in parents faces”, it set a standard of ethics for me. It also set an example for me: If you give people equal opportunity to prove their value and the quality of their work, you will naturally cultivate a wide diversity of people. For example, today in my for-profit companies, UTF Holdings focused on investments supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development  Goals, with my partner, a brilliant finance man of Igbo heritage, Kalu Kalu Ugwuomo or with Eco-Eco/Green Energy a development  company focused on economical and ecologically responsible solutions from establishing solar farms to commercial and residential  green development projects, with Tania Arrayales Rodriguez, or with Thompson Fine Arts, Inc, which is focused on literary, visual  and performing art production with my husband, Joshua and our partner, Alan Kieth, or with our non-profit, The Memnosyne Institute with leadership spanning from all over the world with Shinto priests to Native Americans to those in their 80s to those in their 20s to those on food stamps to those of greater wealth than me and with different sexual orientations, religions, cultures, etc. led with the help of our Executive Director, Phillip E. Collins, that diversity only serves to increase opportunities for innovation, contacts, insights  and more. So I would argue to the companies resistant to diversity that diversity of demographics dramatically increases your ability to strategize, comprehend and react to the changes in the demographics you serve and seek to appeal to. My family’s legacy is just one example of how each generation’s prioritizing on the basis of quality of work increases your chances for success. In fact, I would argue that if your organization, be it for-profit or non-profit, isn’t diverse, you are robbing yourself of a wealth of ideas, innovation, contacts and insights that could otherwise lead you to better and better-informed strategies. 

What was the most difficult decision you’ve made in your career so far?

One of the hardest decisions was to let go of a good deal of my fine art career due to limited time and finances. It was hard to feel right about putting $30,000 into a sculpture that might not sell right away when I know that it costs $3,000 just to move a truckload of food from Dallas to Miami. I had to do a lot of praying for guidance to tell the difference between what serves my ego from what is in service to spirit. I realized that my fine art, while it won awards and is in private collections, served my ego primarily whereas what we were building through The Memnosyne Institute’s FoodSourceDFW program which has now saved $55M worth of food to date would otherwise have gone into landfills, and redirected it to food pantries and homeless shelters or to FEMA across the USA, Puerto Rico, Haiti and more, didn’t compare value-wise. On one hand, we had this incredible selfless man in Reverend Dr. Todd Collier who was transforming and growing the program to a remarkable extent and who had walked away from a high salary in order to pursue being in service to humanity, and on the other hand, I had my art which served me and whatever wealthy person who might like it. When I grew honest with myself, I realized that being able to support this invaluable program which has now extended outside our country, and all the other things The Memnosyne Institute is doing locally and around the world, was of much greater importance. When I let go of what was just about my ego, and put my energy 100% into being of service, synchronicities began to unfold one after the other. So while it was a hard decision, it was the right one and that ability to pause and ask “does this serve my ego or spirit’s will for my life?” continues to be the key question I guide myself with.

What is your most noteworthy achievement as an agent of change? 

That’s a tough one….historically speaking, helping to negotiate the first treaty/alliance between the Hopi and Navajo Nations in 300 years is probably up there. That sounds impressive, but it was surrendering to being used and putting the pieces of a puzzle together that just kept falling into our laps. Summarily, making it possible for the Māori people of New Zealand to reclaim their knowledge of “birthing flutes” that had been destroyed when the British first invaded New Zealand because back then they had a  literal interpretation of the Bible so believed women were supposed to have as much pain as possible from childbirth as punishment for Eve eating the apple and therefore not only sought to destroy all the Birthing Flutes designed to reduce the pain of child labor but also attempted a genocide to kill all the midwives, flute carvers and musicians, is probably up there. Thanks to our Executive  Director and the leadership of The Menil Collection in Houston, we were able to bring Chief Rangitunoa Black, Māori midwives musicians like Marama Mete Smith and their royal family, Tinamarie and Cris Winata, to The Menil where the flutes were studied, a soundbank was recorded, the flutes were put into an MRI so the carvers could learn how they were carved inside and more. Now Chief Rangitunoa is in charge of a number of programs in New Zealand that have enabled this ancient technology to be brought into their hospitals where it is used to reduce the pain of childbirth for any woman, not just Māori, who can’t take medications for reducing the pain. The Maori taught the Alabama Cochatta Tribe outside of Houston their sacred prayers which the Native American tribe now gives those artifacts in the museum. Lastly, the longest-fought achievement I’ve been blessed to do as an agent of change was on behalf of the Tolteca people of Teotihuacan. It has been very hard for them to be taken seriously due to the New Age appropriation of their culture, but they are real, living ancient people who still live in the seven towns surrounding the ancient pyramids. Mexico is part of the UN and therefore signed an agreement to allow any recognized indigenous people to have freedom of religion to pray in their traditional houses of worship. But the Tolteca weren’t recognized. My husband, Joshua and I learned that the mural which had been stolen from Teotihuacan decades ago had eventually been donated to the San Francisco De Young Museum. Thanks to Phillip E. Colins reputation as one of the most acclaimed curators in our country, we had the opportunity to arrange for the Chief of the Tolteca, Ricardo Cervantes Cervantes, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, to visit with the then-recognized world authority on the Tolteca of Teotihuacan. She was so blown away by the depth of their knowledge that she immediately recognized the Tolteca of  Teotihuacan as still living people. This may seem like a simple thing, but what it meant for the people in those 7 towns was religious freedom, the right to pray and meditate in the areas their ancestors built. And now, today, there is even a government sign acknowledging the Centro Cultural Tolteca de Teotihuacan our organization has built to serve their community in collaboration with the Tolteca themselves. 

Currently, I am working with my business partner, Tania Arrayales Rodriguez, who is recognized as the top female green architect in Mexico by the country’s senate, in establishing solar farms across the state. We are told we are the only females entering the energy market in Texas so this is a glass ceiling situation. But we are also seeking to plant plants that support the Monarch population which the USA needs if the cost of grain is to be lowered. As board members of The Memnosyne Institute, we are both aware of how 5,000 families a day rely on FoodSourceDFW to get food and thanks to Memnosyne’s GreenSourceDFW program, led by Wendel Withrow, we are aware that when the wall was redirected to go directly into the Monarch sanctuary built by farmers on the border the result is a reduction in population. This means people have to pollinate crops with paintbrushes. So if people want the cost of a loaf of bread to cost less, the Monarch population has to be healthy. So it is my hope that our company,  Eco-Eco, with its Green Energy arm, will not only create more desperately needed energy for our state but also provide the opportunity to supplement food for the monarch species, making it easier ultimately for families to purchase a loaf of bread.

What are you most proud of?

Empowering people, whether it be an individual or a community. I don’t want to just give money to something for a one-time pat on the back, instead, I want to invest my time and money into creating leaders in all parts of the world so that they can uplift their communities. When I see Angel Sulub of our Mayan Cultural Center in the Yucatan being cited by UNESCO as a leader of such note that they fly him to Europe to speak to leaders from around the world, or when I hear that the Shinto of Oomoto has created interfaith relations among diverse religions in Japan who, although polite, never used to work together and now collaborate, or when I can put incredible rock star local leaders like Marcus X Russel and Reverend Peter Johnson together with someone known on the national front, like Van Jones, then I feel like I am succeeding in helping the world to benefit from knowledge and experience we too often dismiss.

If we want to change our world, we have to invest in our leaders, recognizing the importance of their voices being heard and uplifting their talent so others can benefit in turn. Now, with UTF Holdings, I feel privileged to be working alongside  Kalu Kalu Ugwuomo who before meeting me, put together a just under $1B fund to help communities in Africa. He has a brilliant financial acumen and network and most importantly, he has integrity. So I am extremely proud to be working together with him to dramatically increase our scope and ability to affect positive change in the world. I see humanitarianism as having different modalities, one is non-profit, one is for-profit and one is an activist/advocate. When used together, you don’t stop marching in the streets, but you bring those causes into Wall Street and you can effect change by creating opportunities for it that didn’t exist before. I’m extremely proud of what we have built in The Memnosyne Institute with our chapters in Japan, Mexico (with two campuses – one serving the Maya and one serving the Tolteca), Israel/Palestine and soon to be the UK, and our programs serving the local, state, national and international communities, including The Memnosyne Center for Global and Local Outreach to be located behind  Dallas’ City Hall which will house, among other things, the AI-based Vital Signs Monitor designed by Thomas Q Johns based on our late Advisory Board Member’s, Dr. Don Edward Beck’s life’s work, created to support communities and organizations in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals which our species must meet in order to maintain the quality of life we enjoy today….so I’m deeply proud of all these things, but it must be stressed that these achievements are made possible by remarkable teams of people.

On the personal side, I am deeply honored to have been a recipient of the 2018 Civic Pioneer Award, considered one of the highest recognitions given by Congress to a USA female citizen which means a lot to me as someone who was adopted into The United  States, receiving an honorary doctorate from Grace International Seminary, being awarded a Fellowship by The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce for “Contributions to Social Progress and Development”. Those things were kind of milestones for me, letting me know that I have been on the right path. 

What's the best advice you've received in your career? 

My father, John Philp Thompson, Sr., used to say, “The easiest job is to be a critic. Anyone can complain about something and say ‘Someone should do something about that.’ But, if you are intelligent enough to recognize a problem, then you are intelligent enough to do something about it. So, you be different. Be the person that finds solutions. Because this world owes you nothing. But you owe it to the world to make it a better place.” 

Who is your biggest role model? 

Definitely my father, John Philp Thompson, and while I didn’t ever meet him before he died, my grandfather, Joe C. Thompson, Sr. as well because so many stories were taught to me as a child about his willingness to do what was ethical. My Dad used to say, “Integrity is only integrity if you stick to I when it’s inconvenient.” When I was little, my Dad brought me to his office and would tell me to be quiet and observe as he had meetings. After the people would leave, he would quiz me, asking, “Who had something to offer that he didn’t put on the table? Who was telling the truth? Who was lying? Who was the real decision-maker in the group?  Etc….etc." Years later, he would explain to me that when I was born, he had gone to the then-bar on top of Southland Corporation’s headquarters and looked out over the city. From there he’d reflected on how he’d raised my two brothers, John and Doug, and my older sister. Peggy, then “decided to raise me like he would a son and let my natural femininity take care of itself.” This meant teaching me how to read people, how to stand in such a way as to dominate a room, how to do a handshake that sent the right tone, how to negotiate, how to handle a bully, etc. 

Many nights he’d read to me from Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” and look me in the eyes as  he’d read the last words, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” When we’d go to  New York at the 21 Club, he’d send me back out on the street with burgers to hand to the people on the street and tell me to look them in the face and converse respectfully when giving them the burgers. The point he wanted me to know was to realize the privileged position I was in and to never take it for granted, but to recognize that our job in this world is to be one of positive impact and that real leadership is in uplifting those around us. But sometimes this means heading into a fight and sometimes this means breaking bread and building progress on a foundation of commonalities. Much of what he taught me, including recognizing that it is not realistic to be the best in all things, but that a good leader recognizes one’s own shortcomings and surrounds themselves with those who excel in those things. Today, if there is anything I have accomplished, it is never just because of me, but rather because of the remarkable hearts and sheer determined intelligence of those I work beside from my husband, Joshua Raymond Frenk, to our remarkable team at The Memnosyne Institute, to my partners in our for-profits, Kalu Ugwuomo with UTF Holdings and Tania  Arrayales Rodriguez with Eco-Eco/Green Energy and my advisors Chase Robertson and Felix Meneses. It takes a team for anyone to achieve anything sustainably impactful and for all of them I am deeply, deeply grateful.

How can you be a role model to others?  

I never set out to be a role model. But after walking away from millions of dollars two different times in my life in order to do the right thing, and standing up for things even when it wasn’t popular, I have been told others consider me a role model. I will quickly tell anyone I am flawed with my ego, vanity, competitive nature and more being among those flaws. But, if I have found a way to be in service to this world each day, either to people or our earth, then it has been a good day. Not every day is a huge brag-worthy project. Perhaps it's getting a meal to a homebound friend or helping out with someone’s rent or just meeting the eyes of a stranger  struggling on the street and acknowledging that they exist by saying, “Good afternoon.” Everyone deserves dignity. Everyone deserves to be treated as a life worthy of acknowledgment and care. If you take the time to recognize the common humanity we share with others, then you will look up one day to discover others have cited you as a role model.  

What is your motto?

Stay Inspired! The word “inspiration” originally meant to inhale spirit, just like genius originally referred to being temporarily possessed by spirit. As a sculptor and writer, I can tell you that the most brilliant moments often come from what we first think are mistakes. But when we stop striving to force our goals to manifest in a particular way, but instead cite the goal as being one of achieving a desired outcome, we will often discover life offers us unexpected synchronicities leading to that outcome. It may not happen in the way we hoped for, but it often unfolds in ways that we will later recognize as way better. So to be inspired is to be open to those possibilities and their role in helping you to fulfill your potential, whatever that is. So staying in an inspired mindset is key to success, not just for ourselves, but also towards ensuring we have the greatest positive impact in our world! 

What book do you recommend every professional woman read?

The Lexus and The Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman is a must for any man or woman striving to understand our world. As for books that address the uniqueness of being a rising female leader, The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women by Harriet Rubin and for a book explaining how women can navigate the unique culture of the American South, I suggest What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should) by Ronda Rich.

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