July 29, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 44th 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).
Glen: Thank you for sharing that! The Y is grateful for amazing people like Buff. As our board chair, what do you think about the Y's future? What would you like to see us do?
Ravi: The Y helped set a foundation for me, as a young person who was very impressionable. And again, someone looking for the love, nurturing and investment, that is traditionally derived from your family structure, it was critically important to me. Knowing that there was a safe place.
Now, at that time, we weren't digital, and you weren't going into these digital environments. You actually needed the physical real estate. So that “swim/gym” model made a bunch of sense. But what COVID is showing us is, we can't just wait for people to walk through those doors to be that asset. We actually need to proactively reach out in a more scalable way to be competitive in today’s marketplace. Hence, why a "Y 2.0 strategy" and going beyond our four walls makes complete sense.
Also, I think the Y has a really great opportunity. It's one of the strongest brands that exists in the world. It is up there with Coca-Cola, right?
In Minnesota, the Y is one of the largest nonprofits, with tentacles in an environment that's really unique. In fact, if you assess the public sector, one of the biggest issues is the rural and urban divide. Ironically, the Y is in a great position to act as a trusted, solutions intermediary.
That’s why I think our equity definition and its universal application space is so critically important. There's as great a need for equity initiatives in small, rural farm towns, as there are in dense inner cities, where we may have a more diverse population.
The Y has such a unique opportunity in Minnesota to bridge the divide because we have a rural and urban footprint that allows us to provide a universal methodology with idiosyncratic applications. In addition to providing our traditional services, in combination with new solutions generated local strategic partnerships. There are many great, community-based organizations working on the ground in those communities who have been doing it for a long time. They know the issues, priorities and best solutions, but oftentimes lack capacity. What the Y can do is say, “Listen, not only can we provide fiscal agency and fundraising support because we have such a strong and broad donor base, but we can also provide administrative support and co-location opportunities.” Ultimately, in many instances, those are the capacity constraints that smaller, community-based organizations have.
Glen, in collaboration with your leadership, we tested this hypothesis in response to the challenges of both the COVID pandemic and George Floyd's murder. Those challenges accelerated our focus on socioeconomic issues and brainstorming ways that we could be even more of a community hub player and responder. We pivoted quickly and ensured our relevancy to the community, in order to help people survive and function during difficult times. While also creating an operational model for the future.
During that brainstorming process, we also theorized that Minnesota needed a new social compact. Personally, I had the privilege of serving on several nonprofit boards and executive committees, including the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, Greater MSP and Summit Academy OIC. My challenge was to figure out how to bring all these organizations, together with the Y of the North, to create something that hasn't been done in other places. To trail-blaze a new model for accelerating systemic change.
When we came up with the “Minnesota Social Compact,” we determined we needed to redefine a more “just” relationship between community, private businesses, philanthropy, and government. We wanted to consider a way to explicitly and implicitly create ways to ensure historically marginalized communities could be more intentionally engaged and supported for sustainable growth.
The Y had a unique opportunity to be out in front of that coordination model. Ultimately, we do so much with youth and their willingness to learn creates a wonderful opportunity to teach certain key equity principles. Yet, we also understand that the repetitive requirements and structural challenges require adult engagement as well.
What I love about the Y is, we want to connect to each segment of people's lives. We'll do something with a Silver Sneakers program, just as easily as we will with the Beacons Program. Our ability is to connect with the whole life cycle around equity, wellness and sustainability. I actually believe the P.R.I.C.E. model (discussed earlier) fits perfectly within our broader wellbeing concepts. Teaching people how to tie all of their behaviors and actions back to their stated principles and reasons. Transparently evaluating their inputs and constraints against clearly stated expectations, maximizes the authenticity of the individual, organization, or community.
I think it integrates seamlessly into our wellbeing and our wellness concepts, that Bill and Penny George, Wendy Dayton, Mick Johnson and, of course, Sally St. John are leading that work.
I'm also really excited about our digital and innovation scalability, as well as the traditional offerings that were critical to me as a seventh and eighth grader. Synthesizing these new initiatives with what has worked 165+ years creates enormous opportunity for the Y.
Glen: Great stuff! Given how important the Y was to you in your youth, what did it mean to you when you were invited to join our board?
Ravi: It was very significant and it does go back to relationships. Unfortunately, I will say this is a bittersweet thing because there's probably not enough representation in these leadership rooms for African-Americans, women and other people of color. There are credible arguments that this disproportionate representation is due to both utilization and capacity issues. I tend to fall more on the utilization side of the discourse because of my awareness of significant overt and concealed capacity in those communities. The bittersweet aspect is that I have had the access to those relationships that drive opportunity and recognition. It was through my relationship with (former executive chairman and president of U.S. Bancorp) Richard Davis that I ended up making this connection back to the Y. I think Richard conveyed that I would be strong board candidate from our time serving together on the Greater MSP board. So it was via that relationship that I got brought back to the Y because, honestly, I got a bit disconnected after I left high school. I don't know think I had been back in a Y until I got reconnected to the board.
When Richard and you came to me to consider being on the board at the Y, it was an easy, “Yes.” Despite a full dance card, I did not require convincing. That's how important the Y was, and is, to me. I was able to connect to that same feeling of when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and remembered the importance of the Y, even though I hadn't been there in that many years.
Now I will say I give credit to you, the executive committee and the organization because I went from the board and accelerated into really higher levels of leadership quickly! But, what it denotes is that when everybody decides to be intentional, accelerated outcomes are realistic. Our challenge is to extend that intentional acceleration for change for our whole community! So the systemic issues we are confronted with have the right people, with the right intents and commitment to accelerate outcomes. I've seen that happen, and it’s just a microcosm of how to do it. Nike was onto something with the slogan, “Just Do It.” The intentionality of Richard, you and the executive committee and your desire to want leadership that reflects different experiences. I think they recognized that diversity, equity and inclusion was critical to healthy governance.
Now I will say in that process, people are at different levels. Some people got it and could envision the unique and innovative value creation that my leadership brings to the table. And maybe some others were thinking of it through the lens of tokenism. Like, “I guess it’s time to get a minority in there.” Some may still be getting adjusted to the fact that I'm not in this position simply because of my bloodline. I'm here because of my thinking, relationships, unique value and contributions to the organization. I think that over time, even the group who may have thought, "Is he in here just because it's another marketing tactic in the organization?" They've come to realize that I was the right person at the right time.
Glen: We've got a sense for what the Y has meant to you as a young person, and we got a really great sense of what you're bringing to the Y. But what are you getting from the Y now? And as a follow up, what would you like to see me do, as a leader, in moving the organization forward?
Ravi: That's a great question. First off, I have my own detailed work that aligns with my own set of principles, reasons, inputs and expectations. However, I also recognize my constraints. I'm only one person and, to be the best father, husband, brother, nephew, cousin, friend, businessman and community member I desire to be; I must be intentional, focused and committed. But I only have a certain amount of time, energy, ideas and money that I can contribute. So what's nice about organizations like the Y, first and foremost, is to be able to connect in an environment that fundamentally and explicitly is willing to hold up its Christian beliefs and faith. I think that's important from a principal standpoint. To be able to lock arms with people from that set of principles and values standpoint, and be with brothers and sisters of Christ. It's a big part of my scalable mission.
Next, the ability to be with action-oriented and outcome-driven folks, who are actually affecting change institutionally and systemically to positively impact people’s lives. It's one thing for me to anecdotally experience it in seventh or eighth grade, but then to observe the multiplier effect of all the people, facilities and programs that the Y is leaning into and impacting people through all the stages of life: from young people to adults to elders. It’s clear that we want to connect them all through common values. It’s inspiring! Yet challenging to ensure our programmatic approach lives up to those values: Honesty, caring, respect, responsibility and now… equity. The Y is a scalable manifestation of my interests at scale.
As it relates to your personal development. Things that could be improved? As board chair, you and I spend time getting into that, and some of that we may not have to publish. But I will say this, Glen, you are a great friend and man of high character. These traits are far more important to your legacy than your ability to have vision, manage with operational discipline, and raise money, all of which you do tremendously. I’ve watched your leadership style be tested in the most challenging seas and watched how steady you were — how you align your values with your decisions you make. It’s what makes you the man you are, the husband you are, the father you are — and manifests itself through our leadership and culture of the entire organization.
I would spend more time telling you to continue to stay humble because when you got those sets of gifts, we all can fall into a little bit of the self-idolatry, right? So continue to stay humble, while also pursuing continuous technical competencies, which we can discuss in a different setting. We all can continue to build our skills and obtain more knowledge. But most importantly, I think the biggest thing I would say to you is continue to stay humble and be as open as you are to saying, “Even the best of us know, the wisest person knows nothing.” And I get this feeling from you that you're always willing to be both student and teacher simultaneously. That's a beautiful thing.
So stay in that space. Stay open. Stay honest, and stay rooted in your principles and your character, and making sure that you stay disciplined in ensuring that your behaviors, investments and decisions — from a policy, program, structure or partnerships — are always in alignment to that. Remember your true north because we're all going to be better for it, and I'm just happy to be in the bunker with you, my brother.
Learn more about Ravi by clicking here. Look for Part 4 of our “A Conversation on Race” with Ravi next week.