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8 companies owned by Black executive Donald Thompson

Thompson: The visionary engineer who transformed McDonald's and empowered food startups

by Feyisayo Ajayi
Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, an accomplished African-American engineer and business leader, left an indelible mark on the American business scene during his stint as president and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation from 2012 to 2015.

Beyond the golden arches, his visionary initiative took root in Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods, where he injected substantial investments into burgeoning food startups, sparking their rapid growth.

Ascending through the ranks at McDonald’s, Thompson’s elevation to CEO was a distinctive achievement for an electrical engineer navigating corporate America. He played a pivotal role in McDonald’s global expansion, steering initiatives in beverages, sustainability, and digital advancements.

Thompson’s influence transcended McDonald’s when he founded The Cleveland Avenue, LLC, a trailblazing venture capital firm in Chicago. This firm strategically invested substantial sums—from $100 million to $500 million—into food startups such as Beyond Meat, Red Bay Coffee, and Bartesian.

A standout among Black American entrepreneurs and business executives, Thompson’s wealth story mirrors his influential career trajectory and unwavering commitment to fostering innovation and growth in the food and beverage sector.

Billionaires.Africa has identified several companies linked to Thompson, with eight of these companies highlighted below:

  1. The CAFE Group
    Established by Donald and Elizabeth (Liz) Thompson, The CAFE Group is a beacon for leaders of color. This organization tackles educational challenges, guiding individuals from college internships to established leadership roles. By harnessing community wisdom, The CAFE Group aims to bring about lasting systemic change, transforming the narrative of philanthropy to more equitably distribute resources and develop leaders.
  1. Cleveland Avenue
    Founded in 2015 by Donald and Liz Thompson, Cleveland Avenue is an investment group that has poured millions into fast-growing food startups such as Beyond Meat and Farmer’s Fridge. This Chicago-based venture capital firm focuses on building new food, beverage, and restaurant concepts, contributing to the evolution of the culinary landscape.
  1. Cleveland Avenue State Treasurer Urban Success Fund (CAST US)
    Initiated by Donald Thompson and Andrea Zopp, CAST US is a $70 million fund supporting entrepreneurs from Black, Latinx, and women communities within Chicago’s South and West Side neighborhoods. This initiative, backed by $16 million from the Illinois Treasurer’s Office, aims to bridge the capital gap for minority entrepreneurs, exemplified by success stories like AYO Foods.
  1. The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education
    Founded in 2014 by Donald Thompson and Liz Thompson, The Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and mentoring students and professionals. This 501c3 organization focuses on promoting African-American philanthropy in education and fostering a sense of community among its members, with Liz serving as its passionate President.
  1. Farmer’s Fridge
    A Chicago-based startup founded in 2013, Farmer’s Fridge, revolutionizes healthy eating by selling salads through vending machines. This minority-owned startup has thrived with support from the Don Thompson-led Cleveland Avenue, showcasing the power of strategic investment in innovative ideas.
  1. Beyond Meat
    Beyond Meat, Inc., founded in 2009, became the first plant-based meat analog company to go public in 2019. Cleveland Avenue, led by Donald Thompson, owned 5.4 percent of Beyond Meat at the time of its initial public offering, showcasing their forward-looking investment strategy in sustainable and innovative ventures.
  1. Red Bay Coffee
    Headquartered in Oakland, California, Red Bay Coffee, founded in 2014, has blossomed into a notable wholesale coffee roasting company. With a focus on developing exquisite coffees and embracing delightful approaches to living, Red Bay Coffee reflects Donald Thompson’s commitment to diverse and thriving communities.
  1. Bartesian
    As the latest venture of the Cleveland Avenue venture capital firm, Bartesian, a Chicago-based maker of home cocktail machines, has attracted attention. Founded in 2014, Bartesian secured Series A funding in 2019 led by visionary executives including Donald Thompson, emphasizing the firm’s dedication to supporting innovative and creative enterprises.

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