Nine-year-old John Thomas used to dumpster dive.
On the weekends, when other children his age were out riding bicycles, playing catch with their dads or relaxing at home, he and his family plodded through poverty-stricken neighborhoods in southern Dallas, mining garbage for aluminum cans.
Recycling by the pound wasn’t an elegant enterprise, but hard work always put food on the table — a lesson his grandmother who helped raise him and 11 siblings often reiterated, and one Thomas never forgot.
Now, more than 30 years later as a military veteran living in Atlanta, Thomas runs his own company, RedBag Gifts (redbaggifts.com), which sends personalized gifts to those who can’t be with their loved ones. He’s also helping other veterans find careers in technology through a nonprofit he recently started.
Thomas credits his success to more than humble beginnings. He said the lessons he learned in his 10 years of Army service also helped prepare him to run his own operations. He served from 1995 to 2005, including service in the Iraq War. He was in a field artillery unit, “calculating the firing solutions for artillery. … Basically, we had to use a bunch of formulas and charts and wind speed and rotation of the Earth and all this … magic to tell people exactly where to shoot.”
Yet for Thomas and other veterans, it can be a rough transition into corporate America.
“I honestly feel veterans are one of the nation’s most underused resources, because transitioning vets come out (of service) with a lot of skills,” which can transfer well to other jobs, Thomas said.
After leaving active duty, Thomas attended dozens of job fairs and submitted many resumes yet couldn’t find a job. Ultimately, he found a nonprofit that helped him make the transition to successful, business-minded civilian.
While driving in June 2013 near one of the Georgia Tech campuses, Thomas saw a sign advertising a career fair for veterans. He met with a representative of the organization hosting the event and was later accepted into the program.
According to Workforce Opportunity Services’ website, the organization recruits, educates, trains and “place(s) high-potential candidates with leading organizations around the world.”
Thomas went through the program and then worked with WOS corporate partner Hewlett-Packard.
When he reminisces on his time with WOS, he expresses a great deal of gratitude for Jim Minta, the organization’s Southeast regional manager at the time. Minta, who had retired from the Navy, worked with Thomas from August 2013 through December 2014.
Minta said Thomas “was one of those individuals who stood out from the first moment I met him. He was very confident. He was very well-spoken. He knew what it was he wanted to do and had the fortitude to go out and get it.”
Instructor Molly Badgett, who taught Thomas business communications in the program, said, “(Thomas) had a lot of intellectual curiosity, which I found to be refreshing.”
Badgett said there is unfortunately a bias against veterans sometimes when companies hire.
“They too often get categorized as risks for companies … (But) if I was a hiring manager, I would think that because they know strategies and tactics for getting things done, they’d be among my first hires.”
Thomas agreed that it’s very hard as a veteran to find work.
“When I first got out (of the military), I went to dozens of job fairs,” Thomas said. “There were no jobs for us, nothing we could transition into without taking off four years of our lives with family and children to go to school.”
Thomas started a nonprofit in 2016 called VetEngage (vetengage.com), which helps veterans learn about careers in cloud technology, business intelligence, analytics and data visualization. Thomas said that since it started, his organization has provided knowledge and training opportunities for more than 25 veterans.
He said veterans are an excellent addition to the civilian workforce, because they “are used to doing the hard work. We’ve had to get in there and persevere. We’ve had to do more with less.”
Every day, working at his startup business, RedBag Gifts — currently housed at Atlanta Tech Village — he brings these tools to the table.
RedBag Gifts client Herbert Smith of Atlanta, who is a disabled veteran of the Iraq War, said Thomas runs a good business.
“(Using RedBag) was a really good experience … very efficient, easy to use,” said Smith, who recently used the personalized delivery service to buy a gift package for a significant other. “I travel a lot, and because I’m a disabled vet, I don’t have the energy that others may have. This was a one-stop shop that had everything I needed.”
Added Smith: “It means a lot to me that it (RedBag) was run by a vet, because a lot of times, it’s really hard for you to get back into the workforce coming out of the military … and to see a businessman like (Thomas) give it his all, I think that’s important to vets like us. It makes us real proud. It’s inspirational.”
Thomas is happy that his business inspires others, but without the inspiration his grandmother gave him decades ago — when he was working with his siblings to put food on the table — he wouldn’t have made it this far.
“I think for me … from very young, the onus was always on me to help make things happen,” Thomas said. “My grandmother told me, ‘Hey, if you can’t find a job, make a job. If you can’t find an opportunity, you create one.’”
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