July 15, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 42nd in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.
As we pass the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.
My 21st guest is Ravi Norman, the CEO of Norman Global Enterprises, a holding company of various businesses. In the past, he was promoted from CFO to CEO of Thor Construction, once the largest minority-owned business in our state. He is a long-respected Minneapolis entrepreneur and currently serves as the chair of the YMCA of the North board of directors. He's brought so much wisdom to our board with his unique command of analytics, equity, finance and operations, and strategy. Not surprisingly, Ravi has served on many important committees and boards, including The Minneapolis Regional Chamber, Summit Academy OIC and The Greater MSP.
Ravi is the proud husband of Amanda and father to three children, Sydney (24), Richard (18) and Saylah (11).
I hope you'll enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Ravi Norman.
Glen: Thank you so much for joining me. I'd like to start out with who you are and where you come from. Tell us your personal story.
Ravi: I was born in Washington, D.C., at Sibley Memorial Hospital. I had a very interesting family structure because my father actually left my mother when she was nine months pregnant, so I didn't actually get to formally meet my father until I was 15 years old.
I immediately went to my grandparents' home in Trenton, New Jersey, which is where I grew up through high school. And then my mother ended up pursuing another relationship and moving when I was in fourth grade. But I didn't go, staying at my grandparents' house. So I didn't really live with either my mother or my father from fourth grade on.
My grandfather, my male role model, wound up passing away when I was 13. I always tell people he was my Martin Luther King. He was the greatest man ever. He worked at General Motors for 47 years. He built the house that was there in Trenton with his own hands.
He was into golf before a lot of African Americans necessarily were into golf. Very well read. I can remember A Tale of Two Cities, and The Odyssey, and all these other cool books that he would introduce me to. But after he passed away, it was just my grandmother. She was born in 1915, and I was born in 1974, and so by the time I was with them full-time, my grandmother was already of a certain age, and you don't really have time to teach a lot of things to these young boys. You just want to make sure that there is food on the table, and there are clothes on their backs.
I will say, I didn't have anyone in my house looking at a report card after fifth grade. So a lot of self-determination and "village-type" work was required. Across the street was a family called the Williams, and they really acted as surrogate parents to me. And my best friend growing up was a guy named Delmar Glanton, and his mother Barbara was like another mom to me. I would stay at their house for sometimes two to three months in a row, and that's the way I grew up.
So I had a real sense of community, but it was also a really tough environment. An uncle was a male, adult role model, and he was a heroin addict, and I ultimately had to deal with a lot of the things that come with growing up in that kind of environment. There was abuse and trauma of various types that were a part of it.
And, honestly, my faith became really important. The relationship that I had with God and certain underlying Christian principles that allowed me to navigate my way through and find and seek connection. And he also put a lot of different people — like the Williamses and Glantons — in my life, basketball coaches.
Coming out of high school, I was an honorable mention McDonald's All-American in basketball. I grew up in a really tough community. There was a rap line by Notorious B.I.G.: "Either you're slingin' crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot." Having a wicked jump shot, there were people in my community who wanted to see you make it out in some ways. And so I was protected, in a lot of ways, that cousins I grew up within that same household — who didn't graduate from high school, a couple of them didn't even make it out of junior high school — fell prey to that community in the streets. I was protected because of basketball.
And so I used that to not only get an opportunity to get a scholarship, but I think also to learn how to develop certain skills. When you play championship-level basketball, you learn different things about perseverance and role-playing, and you know how to deal with adversity, how to create synergy. These are things that actually work well in any organizational development setting, and it became championship principles of life.
From there, I got a basketball scholarship to Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU where I played for legendary coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines. Then after two years, I wanted to transfer schools, and I wound up reconnecting with my father, who was living out in Lakeville, Minnesota at the time. So I made my way to Minnesota. Thought I was going to play at the University of Minnesota. But I was playing in the Howard Pulley professional amateur league, and broke the humerus bone in my right arm, trying to dunk on a guy on a fast break. So another story of resiliency and things that have to be overcome in the pursuit of your dreams.
I ended up at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Because of transfer rules, I never played, but the best thing that ever happened to me is that I met my future wife there. Amanda and I were married in our senior year of undergrad, and I never did wind up playing because I got involved in INROADS, a nonprofit that "places talented, underserved youth in business and industry." You had to maintain a certain GPA and do some volunteer work, and I wound up getting an internship to Norwest Bank. And after three or four different internships, I was able to work on a static pool analysis project my senior year in undergrad.
After working at Norwest and Wells Fargo, I was tapped to be the youngest Twin Cities commercial banking manager at 26. And then by 30, I just started my own syndication group called, The Syndicates. Exactly as the name implies, syndicating loan deals. Made a little bit of money before 30, and then eventually started a small cap, private equity fund that leveraged supplier diversity programs. I got introduced to Richard Copeland, who was running Thor Construction. At the time, it was the largest African-American owned company. He wound up outsourcing his whole accounting and finance departments to my firm, growing the business. And then he went through a pretty devastating run, and he asked me to step in.
So that's a big background! But I've been married 25 years to Amanda, and we have three kids.
Glen: Ravi, thank you. Just a great backdrop. But I know you and I have both suffered some personal loss in the last year. Can you share how you came through the summer of 2020 in Minneapolis last year and how that's shaped you?
Ravi: We all went through this global pandemic with COVID and based on the amount of deaths that have actually been quantified, I'm probably in the higher end of the statistical category of folks who've actually experienced direct death in relationships. I had four of them, during the COVID timeframe. I had mentioned before that I had surrogate parents across the street that really stepped up, providing that kind of love and a safe space to just be a kid.
Mrs. Williams fought for about 57 days in the ICU, on a ventilator and all those things, and then passed away. That was very tough on her kids, but I'm also named in the eulogy as part of her kids because she was like a mom to me. So that was tough. And then unfortunately her husband, got COVID as well. Seemed to be recovering from it but then by the time July came around, he too was in the ICU and then was in there for 87 days before he passed. And then in August, my 40-year-old younger brother, who had some mental health issues, committed suicide, and some of the COVID impacts — that feeling of isolationism — didn't help. Him not being able to be in contact with family in the way that we would have wanted to, and then I had a cousin in December of 2020 who also passed away from COVID.
And then George Floyd's murder. I have family out east who experienced Eric Garner's murder, and we know what happened in Ferguson. We know that these kind of race issues are not something new, they've been systemic, as are other class issues.
They manifested themselves in Jamar Clark, and people responding and saying, 'What can we do about it?' We got a consortium of black leaders together, wanted to talk about self-defining the problem. At the time, I think the approaches were still very much anecdotal, and a bit incremental, in trying to solve the problem.
And if we probably would've done some more transformational things, then maybe it would have accelerated change enough that maybe we would have been able to prevent some of the things that ended up coming back in that same cycle with George Floyd, Philando Castile and now, of course, Daunte Wright. So I look at George Floyd as an inflection point to maybe people recognizing that we have to be more intentional, and we have to accelerate more systemic solutions.
I know we're all focusing in on the George Floyd piece as the thing that moved it. But it's been something that's been going on in our country for a long period of time. And I've been on the front lines trying to deal with equitable solutions for a long time. And I look at equity, define it, universally apply it, and think about it in a broader sense then just one particular identity group application. So not just on race, not just on a particular gender, not just on a particular sexual orientation, not on a particular religion. I use and define equity in a much broader sense that has universal application.
Glen: Ravi, one of the things that's been clear is, we're called for such a time as this. And if any board chair in the history of the Y in this region was called as for such a time as this, it feels like you've been one. And you have been a mentor, and I have learned so much from you, and you have really helped us further, and more deeply, and more thoughtfully define who we're going to be in the space of equity.
So would you share how you are defining this work?
Ravi: Absolutely. I define equity very clearly as a stewardship ideal that ensures dignity and respect for everyone. And to do that, you have to reinforce a positive correlation between two really important kind of dynamics and datasets. On one side, it's about internal generativity. So the things that you are responsible for generating. I don't care if you're an individual, if you're a family, if you're an organization, or if you're a community. I tend to segment them into three real distinct categories. One is dreams.
And so when I talk about dreams, I tell people that I'm referring to the combination of images, emotions, and thoughts that inspire action. That's dreams. Other people might like to use the word vision. But I think you're internally responsible for the breadth and depth of your dreams. I also think that you're responsible, from an internal generation standpoint, in the equity calculation, around a certain level of disciplined effort. And so to me, that's the action that is required to achieve a certain set of expectations because dreams by themselves aren't enough. There has to be some effort and work. And then I tell people that the third category of internal generativity that you're responsible for in the equity equation is competence. Competency denotes a set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable and improve performance. Those are the three pieces of internal generativity in the equity calculation that I think are required.
And then there must be a positive correlation between that internal generativity and the external provisions required in the equity formula. I tell people all the time, 'Yes, you are your best equity — that individual, that family, that organization or community. And this is where I think God's work comes into play, Glen. God says that worship is there when there is two or more, which means that there is a co-dependent, relational context of every human being. The relational context between internal generativity and external provisions from others is critical.
So when you talk about one side, one part of that context, having to internally generate something, there's something on the other side of that, an externality and external provision that someone else has to interact in under that “two or more” context.
I contend the external provisions fall into three categories. Number one is access. So you'll always hear people talking about access, which I define as freedom of approach or communication. Do you have access? I always equate it to, 'Do you have a ticket to the dance?' You can have a ticket to the dance, and be invited. But if you get there, you want an opportunity. That's the second part of what the external provision has to look like. An opportunity is a chance to demonstrate one's capacity to solve a problem. If I get in somewhere and I get access, but I'm not really getting opportunities, then that's not enough. If I can get access and opportunity, then I'm two thirds of the way there. The last category is recognition. The acknowledgement of something or someone's merit. Those are the three that come together.
And if there's a positive correlation where you can show a positive correlation between the depth and breadth of the dreams being generated, the work being generated, and the competencies being generated from an individual, a family organization or community, and it's positively correlated to their access, opportunity and recognition, you begin to build an equitable culture. And I'm a bit of a statistical buff, so I always mention my R Factor, Resiliency.
I tell people the financial statement has some shortcomings. But what's genius about the financial statement is that there's a balance sheet and an income statement and a cash flow statement, but the balance sheet tells you something in a point in time, and the income statement tells you something over a period of time.
That's the same thing that has to happen in equity. It can't be captured in just a singular point in time because there's a Resiliency Factor. The Resiliency Factor has three things in it. One, starting inputs because not everybody's starting in the same place. If we're going to have a true stewardship measurements, we have to know where everyone started. The second piece of the Resiliency Factor is about structural challenges. If you have structural challenges that force you to have to overcome and deal with certain different levels of adversity that you have to be resilient through, it's another variable to be calculated in the equity equation. And last, support mechanisms. If you have a certain level of starting input and you have the structural challenges, but you have a whole bunch of support, it changes the equity calculation. I think this is absolutely critical because what it does is once you start measuring it in this way, you really are identifying true stewardship.
Once you understand the equity calculation, you have to understand your internal PRICE. Because in a relational context, you're always trading your equity. We constantly see derivative markets where the underlying asset is consistently undervalued, while traders utilize asymmetries to determine or distort authentic value. Glen, I think this occurs because people (the most important asset) tend to not fully understand the PRICE of their own equity. To improve this comprehension, let’s set some definitions. When I say PRICE, people tend to synonymously use that with cost, and it's not the same. I define cost as the effort or loss of sacrifice necessary to achieve or obtain something. There's another word often confused with PRICE and that’s value. However, value is defined as the regard that something is held to deserve or the importance, worth or usefulness of something. To me, PRICE is the dynamic expression at the intersection of cost and value, but it’s also an acronym (P.R.I.C.E) and a success formula: Principles-Reasons-Inputs-Constraints-Expectations.
Learn more about Ravi by clicking here. Look for Part 2 of our “A Conversation on Race” with Ravi next week.