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Raquel Riley Thomas: “Learn how to listen. Sometimes you learn more when you are quiet”

With a large team, it’s important that the leader establishes a mission. From there, several managers and supervisors can lead individual teams that communicate often with the whole, always connecting back to the mission and reporting up to leadership. This strategy allows departments to thrive within their specialty and training while remaining connected to the […]


With a large team, it’s important that the leader establishes a mission. From there, several managers and supervisors can lead individual teams that communicate often with the whole, always connecting back to the mission and reporting up to leadership. This strategy allows departments to thrive within their specialty and training while remaining connected to the mission of the organization and their individual roles. I also believe in the selfless service philosophy. As a leader, the welfare of your team should always be a priority.


Raquel Riley Thomas is an Entrepreneur, Pageant Queen, and Military-Veteran. She is the Owner of An Officer and Gentlewoman, LLC, a production company headquartered in Washington, DC. She is also, Mrs. Maryland America 2010 and Mrs. America 2011 (1st Runner-up) Raquel is a decorated military veteran, having served nine years in the U.S. Army (5-years Enlisted photojournalist; 4-years Ordnance Officer). She is a graduate of Hampton University with a degree in Psychology. In September 2011, Raquel started her own production company, An Officer and Gentlewoman LLC, (AOAGWLLC). The company specializes in producing beauty pageants and casting television. Her company has won over 21 awards since its inception in 2011. Raquel’s accomplishments have been noted in both her military and civilian career. In the Army, she was awarded the Army Commendation Medal (2x) and the Army Achievement Medal (3x). Recently, Marquis Who’s Who of America awarded Raquel the “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Raquel was also titled a “Leader of the Future,” by Ebony Magazine, Marquis “Who’s Who of America,” (5-consecutive years), and Washington Business Journal “People on the Move.” Raquel is dedicated to helping other Veterans. A portion of her production proceeds go to a non-profit that focuses on the Veterans and their families. For her commitment to fighting for military Veteran’s rights, Raquel was selected as the “Veteran of the Year” 2011, by Women Veteran’s Rock. She was recently inducted into the Library of Congress under the “Veterans History Project” where her military history is now stored in video and pictures. Raquel is on the board member of Mrs. America Ethics Committee and she is on the advisory board of the non-profit, Operation Renewed Hope. Raquel is married to West Point grad Ron Thomas, Esq. with four children, a cat and six robots in their blended family.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory?”

I always knew I would go into the military at a young age, following in the footsteps of my women in my family: my mother, my aunt and my grandmother. It was in my bloodline, so it only made sense to continue the tradition.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am an entrepreneur with a production company that focuses on theatrical productions, television commercials, and television casting. We have several subsidiaries as well under our brand.

As part of the theatrical productions, my company produces several Mrs. America-qualifying pageants. As I write this, I’m at the national pageant in Las Vegas, Nev., supporting our state titleholders as they take their ambitions to the national level.

Following the national pageant, our executive team will return to our Washington, D.C., headquarters and begin to plan for our slate of theatrical productions for 2020.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I served nine years in the U.S. Army, right out of high school at the age of 17. I was an enlisted photojournalist for five years. I then received a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to Hampton University where I received my degree in psychology. (I am currently taking classes online at Harvard University). I was then appointed an ordnance officer and served in that capacity for four years. I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a captain in 2002. From there, my entrepreneurial path began.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

First and foremost, the military taught me how to be a team player. In basic training, you are suddenly thrown into a world where you are sleeping side-by-side with strangers from all over the country, each with diverse cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, but a common mission.

Our platoon quickly learned to pull together to survive the rigors of basic training. Instead of focusing on our differences, we celebrated our individual strengths and created an environment of trust and respect.

We discovered every person in that platoon had something valuable to bring to the table. One woman knew how to shine boots really well. One was great at making the beds with “military corners.” I was great at pressing our uniforms. Our individual strengths and talents fed the collective strength of the platoon.

Today, respecting and understanding individual cultural and personal backgrounds is a key-value I try to instill in my executive team, and it undoubtedly builds a better organization.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I believe every person in the military is a hero in their own right. To single out one person as a hero is a dishonor to all of the men and women I worked with who raised their hand to serve and protect our country even through great sacrifice. The military really is a community of heroes.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero is someone who goes above and beyond the call of duty despite the challenging circumstances. A hero is someone who does the right thing without giving a thought to being recognized. Everyone I met in the military embodies that to some degree.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

We have heroes to our left and to our right. Heroism isn’t necessarily a grandiose act. In fact, heroism can be found in our day-to-day activities, even in the mundane. There are mothers and fathers making sacrifices so they can put food on their tables — to me they are heroes. There are people pushing through pain and trauma just to go about their day — to me they are heroes. As a society, we look for “superhero-type” heroics to celebrate, but there’s a hero sitting next to you, and definitely a hero looking back at you in the mirror.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”?

  1. Respect the cultural, personal and professional backgrounds of the people around you.
  2. Stay in your lane. Allow subject matter experts to do their jobs with diligence and respect.
  3. Learn how to listen. Sometimes you learn more when you are quiet.
  4. Take self-care seriously. It’s imperative to take care good care of yourself — body, mind, and soul — so you can take care of others and share your gifts.
  5. Follow your instincts, especially your first one. Take the hard left, versus the easy right. Stay focused, trust your gut and do the hard work.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

When you own your own business, it forces you to be flexible, patient and open-minded. At the same time, you have to be able to make decisions quickly. You can’t constantly change your mind or you will lose sight of your vision. In the military and in business, you have to stay focused and you can’t deter from your mission.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

Transitioning from military life to civilian life can be a challenge. There are hundreds of negatives you could pull from being in the military, but on the flip side, there are thousands of positives.

For Veterans having trouble transitioning into the civilian world, I recommend shifting their focus to a hobby or a skill they feel passionate about, then begin building a life and a career around that. It sounds simplistic, but that shift can take someone’s focus off some of the traumas they perhaps received in the military. I believe, if you can sacrifice and fight on behalf of your country, you can fight for yourself, your goals, your business, and your future. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My production company continues to build its resume and cast for several major television channels. Being in the production business, we have the wonderful opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of beautiful, extraordinary and accomplished people from around the world.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

As I learned in basic training, teams are successful when you give each team member a specific job that allows them to thrive and feel accomplished. It is important for leaders to hire the right experts for the job — but it’s also imperative for leaders to step aside and allow them to specialize and shine.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

With a large team, it’s important that the leader establishes a mission. From there, several managers and supervisors can lead individual teams that communicate often with the whole, always connecting back to the mission and reporting up to leadership. This strategy allows departments to thrive within their specialty and training while remaining connected to the mission of the organization and their individual roles. I also believe in the selfless service philosophy. As a leader, the welfare of your team should always be a priority.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am very grateful for my husband, Ron. He’s a West Point graduate and has a significant amount of leadership tools he has so humbly passed down to me. Ron is also a Veteran and successful business owner.

The best piece of business advice he ever gave me is that perception is everything. You may know your mission, vision, and values, but how you are perceived by the public must be considered. You must examine and address your business’s weak links, even if those weak links are just perceived.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My godmother raised me, and one of the things she would do is host “card parties” for the neighborhood. She would take what’s called the “house cut.” A portion of the house cut was for her family’s own finances, and a portion went to a community member in need. Fast-forward to today, I use her same mantra. When we have productions and events, a portion of the ticket sales goes back into the community from the “house cut.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to spark a movement of purposefully understanding each other’s cultures. When I was stationed in Korea, I became very close to a woman who owned a restaurant right outside the gates of our base. I called her “Ahjumma,” which means a respectful married woman in Korean. She made the best bulgogi and rice and really provided me with a place of comfort and sanctity during that year of deployment — a mother of sorts. When I returned to the United States, I made a point to take time to learn about other cultures and experiences, paying forward the kindness and generosity the Ahjumma shared with me during that challenging time. So, if I could start a movement, it would be to learn more about the people around us. It can only make us better as a society.

Can you please give us your favorite ”Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am solution-driven, which backs my favorite strategy: For every challenge, I approach it with three potential solutions. I first learned this in the military, and now I use it as a business model. Whenever a colleague comes to me with a challenge, they must bring three solutions to the table.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I admire Warren Buffet as a businessman, philanthropist and one of the most successful investors of all time. As an entrepreneur, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit across from the “Oracle of Omaha” and ask him how he created a successful model for success. He bought his first stock at age 11 and filed his first tax return at age 13, so I would invite my young daughters to our private lunch too!

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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