In 2019, Bishop T.D. Jakes attended a Black Economic Alliance event in Martha’s Vineyard with top executives from Goldman Sachs and the Ford Foundation. It focused on issues affecting the Black community, including the digital divide, where he learned that the majority of future jobs would require a background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Despite not having a background in STEM, he founded the T.D. Jakes Foundation to help bridge the gap between the powerful and the less powerful.
“STEM was not the challenge of my generation,” he explains. “But I believe that leadership sees a problem and then seeks to solve it. I have a responsibility to see how I can leverage my platform to solve it. For me, that platform is the millions of people I interact with on social media, many of whom would not follow events at Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to be a part of the solution.”
Jakes lives at the intersection of two worlds. As a company CEO, bestselling author, and Hollywood movie producer, he rubs shoulders with the business elite. As a senior pastor of a large church, he interacts with community members each Sunday, seeking hope and guidance. This balance of grounded realism and heady idealism has given Jakes the means to identify grassroots problems and leverage big business to solve it.
“The best way for a leader to leave an indelible impression is not to inspire with a speech but to move forward with action,” he explains. “When I sit down with CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, I’m encouraged that many recognize that profit margins are not the only considerations for remaining relevant in the 21st century. They increasingly understand that their success is intertwined with the betterment of the community. The customer feeds the company, but the company also has to feed the customer. They are interdependent.”
At Jakes’s church, even though its doors are closed, the church continues to respond to the needs of members and the surrounding community. “We’ve been able to reinvent ourselves through technology successfully,” he says. “Through digital connections, we have been able to serve more than 7,000 freshly cooked meals to first responders in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and distribute more than 10,000 boxes of fresh food to our community members.
“We have to be intentional about closing digital divides and other societal gaps,” he continues. “My children are grown, and I’m a grandfather, but I can’t be isolated from these concerns because what affects one of us affects all of us.” The trait that Jakes most admires in a leader can be summed in a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem: “To walk with kings and not lose the common touch.” And another that reads, “To be relatable and engaged rather than to be idolized.”
“I admire leaders who are comfortable in any setting,” explains Jakes. “Whether it be among the wealthy and influential or those on the lower rungs of society. These leaders strive to do more for humanity. Randall Stephenson, the former CEO of AT&T, comes to mind. For several years, we’ve been collaborating on how to solve the nation’s criminal justice problems through the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative (TORI),
a national award-winning program for returning citizens that I founded. I love seeing leaders go the extra mile. As CEO of one of the nation’s largest companies, Randall didn’t have to work with me on this issue.
He could easily have looked the other way.”
Inspired by the reinvention around him, Jakes is partnering with major companies such as Lifetime and Sony to produce films in conjunction with his for-profit, T.D. Jakes Enterprises. The movies are designed to entertain but also conceived as vehicles for disseminating uplifting messages. “I think such partnerships demonstrate how corporations recognize the need for partnerships with community leaders,” says Jakes. “It shows that they understand the benefits of building alliances with trusted brands
that influence everyday people. For me, it is an opportunity to communicate messages of hope through new platforms.”