Magazine

Game Changers

Corey Thomas is a tech CEO in rare company

Rapid7’s chief executive is one of few African-Americans running major public company. But what really stands out is his leadership.

Boston, MA - 12/3/15 - Corey Thomas, President and CEO of Rapid7, in the company's downtown offices. Lane Turner/Globe Staff Section: BIZ Reporter: leung Slug:
Lane Turner/Globe staff/file
Corey Thomas rose to the top job at Rapid7 in 2012.

It’s a classic scene when a tech company goes public. The clapping, the ear-to-ear smiles, the confetti flowing as the Nasdaq bell is rung to mark the first day of trading. But what made Boston firm Rapid7’s initial public offering stand out was the sight of Corey Thomas at the center of the festivities.

He’s black, and he’s the CEO.

In a year when Silicon Valley’s biggest companies revealed just how few black employees they have, Thomas is helping to change that narrative. He is, for now, among high tech’s rarest outliers.

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Rapid7 helps companies detect and manage cybersecurity risks, and it was the only Massachusetts tech firm to go public last year. Thomas, who just turned 40, has been at the helm since 2012. On his watch, the company has roughly doubled its revenues, to $110.5 million last year, and its workforce has quadrupled to more than 800 during the same period. On its first day of trading, the company soared past its initial public offering of $16 a share, peaking at about $27, but has been trading below its offer price for much of this year amid sector turmoil.

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Thomas credits his success to those who have given him the benefit of the doubt, starting with Rapid7, which brought him in as its sales chief in 2008 and later promoted him to chief operating officer before his rise to chief executive officer. “They could have gotten a professional CEO, who had been there, done that,” says Thomas, sitting in his corner office in the financial district, “but they gave me a shot as a first-time CEO.”

Alan Matthews, cofounder and chairman of the board of Rapid7, says Thomas exhibited the dedication and attention to detail to run the fast-growing company. “The fact that he’s black doesn’t have any relevance,” Matthews says of the board’s decision to promote Thomas. “In tech, we don’t really get caught up in the other stuff. You don’t have time.”

There’s no official tally of how many black executives run major companies. But a list provided by the Executive Leadership Council, a nonprofit created to boost the ranks of blacks in corporate management, pegs the number at about two dozen CEOs, including American Express’s Kenneth Chenault, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, and Xerox’s Ursula Burns.

From an early age, technology drew Thomas in. He grew up in a working-class suburb of Atlanta, where his father was an electrician and his mother a secretary for a school district. The younger Thomas was always tinkering and wanted to design and create things.

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At Vanderbilt University, Thomas double majored in electrical engineering and computer science. He benefited from summer programs geared toward placing minorities in corporate America. He interned at AT&T and spent a week at Harvard Business School’s Summer Venture in Management. After spending two years at Deloitte Consulting, he got his MBA at Harvard, where he graduated as a Baker Scholar, a distinction given to the top 5 percent of the class.

Rapid7 chief executive Corey Thomas, center, and other Rapid7 employees ring the opening bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange on Friday, July 17, 2015.
Marking the company’s IPO last year.

The first in his immediate family to go to college, Thomas knows his journey is an unusual one, recalling his own high school aspiration. “If I could sit behind a desk and make $60,000 a year, the world would be awesome,” he used to say to himself. In 2015, he earned a base salary of $532,000, and with stock-based incentives, he’s a millionaire.

Thomas is where he is, he says, because his mother steered him toward a magnet school instead of a vocational track and because mentors later in life counseled him on the kind of leader he should be. And he’ll never forget the advice from one executive who told him: “Look, you are smart. You are ambitious. You can be CEO in the next two years. The question is, Are you going to be good at it? Is the company going to do meaningful work in the world?”

Thomas spent the next few years collecting experiences at Microsoft and a Seattle-area startup. Twice he took pay cuts so he could gain skills to be a better CEO. He met black role models along the way, but as to whether he has experienced discrimination in the tech industry, Thomas prefers not to think about it that way. “The answer is no,” he says. But “if you asked the other way, Have I felt people didn’t want to work with me or gave me a hard time? Yes, absolutely.”

So this is how Thomas handled those situations. “I just thought of those as obstacles to drive around or drive over,” he says. “It’s how you process things.”

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On this issue, Thomas heeds wisdom from another family member. “My grandfather had a very simple attitude in life,” Thomas says. “Racism exists, and so you just got to decide if that is going to stop you from what you are going to do.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.