August 5, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 45th 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: Can you share an example from when you were a young professional, of an instance when others reminded you of your race?
Ravi: As you can imagine, the reminder of race never leaves. It's interesting, too, if you looked at my skin color, I'm probably as light and fair-skinned as an African-American can be. I can honestly say that in my life, I’ve witnessed that the darker you were as an African-American, the more discriminatory the treatment in Caucasian-dominated cultures. This is also magnified by class segmentation. Furthermore, discriminatory practices were felt as a group. I recall instances of being with other friends and simply walking into a store and the premise is, "He must be here to steal something." And so we'd be followed and watched in the store, whether it was a grocery store or retail store and they thought, "Oh, I don't think he can afford this, why is he here?" And the truth of the matter is, I couldn't afford it back then. But the reality of it is that you felt the intensity of, "Boy, they certainly are treating me differently than it seems like they're treating our white counterparts."
Earlier, in this conversation around equity, I mentioned the importance of the definition and the need to incorporate a resiliency factor in the application formula. Here is an empirical example of why. When I attended high school, the SAT (the standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States) high score was 1,600, and I scored a 1,520 and received some form of recognition. There was an award ceremony, and I remember on stage, there were Asians, Caucasians, Indians but no other African-Americans. I can remember the questions and commentary all being about the nominal score. Under that assessment, the 1,520, was evaluated as inferior to the 1600s. For most, this seemed like a meritocratic evaluation process. However, my feelings were that this did not reflect who was the best steward without a deeper understanding of the starting inputs, structural challenges and support mechanisms. I noticed that the evaluators never asked anybody who had a higher score than I did, "How did you get your score?"
Let me elaborate. I never took the practice test because I just wasn't in the loop of when the practice test was. The day I took the SAT, I just had my pencil and calculator and went and took the test. Then I also knew from direct conversations with the other students, that they had two-parent households, where every day they would go home and practice the SAT. Get repetition. Guess what else? Some of them had tutors.
I did none of that. And my point to you is, my 1,520 — relative to the structural challenges I was overcoming because of all the craziness going on in my household, and the fact that I didn't have any support mechanisms — was actually a higher stewardship score than a 1,600. But people doing the evaluation never asked the question. They never asked, "What'd you start with? How did you get this? Who supported you? Did you have any tutoring? Did you have repetitive practice? Was there an adult interacting with you?"
That's the point that I started to feel, "Wow, they think that they're more valuable than me, according to the nominal expression of our score." But they actually have a completely different set of circumstances, and my resiliency factor was higher. That led me to start thinking about, in the future, a way to deal with asymmetrical information and asymmetries that I think distort valuation.
The other place I noticed it was in youth sports. I noticed that adults would position themselves to either be coaches or position themselves to get on the board of whatever the little group/association was, so they could control opportunities for their kid. As a result, opportunities and recognition were not based on the meritocratic skill sets or the competencies.
Here's the funny thing about sports, though. As you get further up, and the more competitive it gets, you can either hoop or you can't hoop. Your parents can't keep controlling that when the incentives are ultimately tied to winning. It was refreshing to see how that meritocratic process intensified as the competition levels increased. Some of the more subjective and nepotistic ways of discriminatory practices when I was younger (where the parents could control what was going on with the kids) eroded.
Then here's a business example for you. The THOR Construction business model was a very interesting data set and sample size, about Minnesota entrepreneurship. THOR Construction got to a point where we were Black Enterprise's 11th-ranked company nationally. No. 11. Big deal! What many people didn't recognize was that over an 11-year period, from 2006-2017, the organization grew from $15 million to $372 million, and most of that growth happened outside of the state of Minnesota. That is extraordinary growth. But let’s dig deeper into the data. Oftentimes, when people talk about the disparities issue, the root causation tends to fall into a utilization or capacity issue. On one side, they'll say, "Hey, the reason that we're not using you is because you don't have the capacity and there's performance constraints and standards." But then there's the other argument that comes from the ones that are marginalized and they say, "No, it's not about capacity. It's that we can't get the necessary capacity because they will not utilize us."
At THOR, the Minnesota experience and facts were that 89 percent of our utilization (revenue) during that 11-year span occurred outside of the state in which we were founded and headquartered. How is it that, ultimately, the only really major corporation we were able to get to utilize us was Target Corporation? Or a stadium project with Mortenson?
So we wound up going to Vegas, California and Florida in order to grow our business. However, basic business school principles denote that it's easier to keep what you already have and grow it from that footprint then it is to go find new. And it's certainly easier — and less risky — to do it in the known marketplace than having to go into a new marketplace, where you have to establish yourself. You usually have to expend a bunch of time, energy and money in order to create the requisite relationships in a new market because you weren't there and didn't cultivate them over time. You can imagine how expensive it was for us to have to go establish ourselves in other markets in order to generate the revenue required to sustain and grow our organization. When right in our own backyard, where we had already been founded and should have been a known commodity, we weren't getting utilized to the extent that we needed to.
I will also acknowledge that it was a very competitive contracting marketplace, and Minnesota does have some of the best contractors in the country right here. In addition, there were personal circumstances that impacted optimal governance and management decisions. But I will say that it seemed like many people only wanted to utilize us as part of a charitable endeavor or an ancillary marketing benefit, and not as a primary driver of value. But the reality of it is, we weren't sharing in the major economics of those relationships. We weren't actually getting put into enough of the pivotal roles that allowed us to be thought of as a strategic peer. We were definitely like, "Okay, you're the minority partner, and this is what it looks like." So that whole concept of not having the right utilization, but then also not being recognized for all of the value that I thought we could have produced, it could have led to much more synergy. I think it could have resulted in outcomes that would have changed and accelerated some of the issues that we are still being plagued by today.
I honestly think we had answers and solutions for some of the issues that we talk about around George Floyd and other social-economic issues. We were at the forefront of knowing how to do that and institutionalize it, and I don't think it was utilized and adopted to the extent that it could have in our industry and in our community.
Glen: As a community, what will it take for the rest of the world to not look at Minnesota in a negative light?
Ravi: I start from a position of you are the most important variable in this whole equity dialogue. You. Not what's outside of you that happens as a cascading result to you. And so I tell people at 10 years old, you can grab something really clear: "You are what's most important."
You have to know you, through and through, and then ultimately no one can take your ability to dream. They can try. There's a bunch of people that can try to be dream-killers. Your responsibility as a young person is to dream as big as you possibly can. Dream, dream, see a world that's bigger and better than what you're living in, at this moment. "Dream, dream." Even your parents, don't let them kill your dream! Dream as big and as bold as you possibly can.
Then I would say something that's easy to retain in all of this, if we really want transformational change. I tell people, "Guess what? You're going to have to work You can't get at this without putting in the effort, and it's going to have a level of discipline to that effort. You're going to have to go for it. You're going to have to bust your tail to get what you want out of this life." Then build competencies, build skills. No one can take that away from you.
You are the most important variable in your equity equation because if you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, in terms of your dreams, work, and competencies, then you're going to be able to go out into a place — whether it's a community, whether it's a market, whether it's an organization, whatever — and you can start to demand that your value is recognized appropriately. You can start to demand the access, demand and recognition. I deem that to be justice. This is a justice ethos that drives stewardship. I tell people, even if you're not getting the access, opportunity and recognition, you never settle for that situation, if you know yourself well enough. If you know that you have the requisite dreams, effort and competencies, there is no external player that can stop you. No one.
They can try to halt you. They can try to redirect you. But I'm telling you, stay resilient because God brings light. Be the light! Your dreams, work and competencies are your light. (Singing) "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine."
A 10-year-old could sing that back to me really quickly and retain my concept of, "Don't let anyone take your light!" I will tell you, the African-American experience has been through some of the most horrific atrocities, as descendants of what's happened in the slave trade. Although I tell African-Americans, we're not just the descendants of slaves. If you go back in our history, we're the first peoples of the world. We are the Kings and Queens, and the biggest and brightest. We were the image God referenced. But in that process of oppression, some of the nastiest atrocities that you can imagine — the Transatlantic slave trade and the things that we've had to experience here in America — it hasn't stopped us from generating light. As a matter of fact, an African-American man is the one quoted for, "I have a dream." So we always dream bigger than our circumstances and put in the work that has led to big contributions to our society.
And, to me, that is a story of stewardship. It's a story of God's light's still shining through, no matter the circumstances, and everyone can win from that conversation. So to me, that's the most simple thing I would say: Let your light shine because as you let your light shine, you can connect to the light of others and that is how we actually mitigate the darkness. It's in our human nature to have to deal with both of those, the light and dark of our nature. But I think the light always wins out. It's why a room full of darkness can be lit by a single match in the corner. Ultimately, the light is more powerful. The dark exists as nothingness, and then through the creation and dissemination of light is where transformation exists.
So those songs that you learn when you were young have some of the greatest philosophical wisdom in them. (Singing) "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine."
Glen: How has being a father and husband impacted the man that you are?
Ravi: First and foremost, my wife Amanda is actually the best human being that I know. Honestly when it comes to spirit, a natural empathy and caring, smart, nurturing, a great teacher and patience with our children and me. I don't think I really knew what love was until I met her and had the experience of our relationship. I've learned so much from her.
I'm a better man from being in relationship with her. I'm certainly a better father as a result of learning from her. I can be very intense and she has a great way of slowing that process down and really appreciating the qualitative aspects of life that are really critically important. In fact, I have now found that EQ is even more vital than IQ and that it's an actual driver to IQ outcomes. And it's taken me a long time to develop and improve those emotional variables.
When you experience as much trauma as I have, I realized that a lot of the emotional intelligence was suppressed and the IQ was the lever that got me through. But within the relationship, I've been married for 25 years, and married since our senior year in undergrad, and we grew up as adults together.
So she has experienced and a lot of my shortcomings in those areas, and so I'm thankful for her. And then we've been blessed with wonderful children.
I talk about principles and reasons. But until they're actually tested, you don't know exactly how those really are applied. And that ties to your reasons and your purpose. Until my marriage, basketball success was the big driver of purpose for me because my family structure was so broken down. Honoring my grandfather's legacy was also important, but he passed when I was 13, and I was not evolved and mature enough yet to really understand how to move that legacy forward. It would have to happen through prayer and spiritual connection, but not having those tangible, secular ways to engage because I was a little too young to catch some of it. Although I did get more than I thought during those times, but not knowing how to apply them as a man, because I only had him, until I was 13.
My time with Amanda gave me purpose. Everything that I wanted to do was centered around us, and then when we had children. I think every parent comes into it saying, "I want my children's lives to be better than mine," even though that may be a relative concept and may not know what that really means. That's how we feel. We want our children to have more opportunity, better lives... We want to be able to make sure they don't have to make the same redundant mistakes that we've made. And so having two girls and a boy in the middle, having both genders, having that experience, it does give you purpose. Of course, there's cost, and you have to be able to afford the cost, and you want to be able to give your kids as many of those opportunities. But you're also a steward now, and responsible for their spiritual development, emotional development, physical development, mental development, relational development, as well as setting them up for financial success.
Without question, it is the primary driver of purpose for me. The dynamic feeling of creating a legacy and part of something bigger than myself. We recently had dinner with you and Wendy Dayton, and I told Amanda, "Boy, we really have made a good life for ourselves." And all of that came out of us wanting to get the best for each other and, most importantly, setting up the best legacy for our children.
Glen: Ravi, thank you so much for your wisdom, and I can't wait to continue the important work we're doing together at the Y and throughout our communities.
Learn more about Ravi by clicking here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race” next week.