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The Dignity of Work:
Healing Our Nation Through Work
We were created, by God, to work, and within each of lies, unique gifts and talents entrusted to us to co-create with Him. Unfortunately, that design is being threatened by man’s design and it’s simply not working.
Our Nation is broken. Our government is divided. Many churches have closed their doors. Our schools are uncertain. Civic Organizations are on pause. The very institutions that once served as the pillars of our communities are crumbling before our very eyes.
So we have a unique opportunity – to heal our nation through work… one city, one community, one job at a time.
Ryan Ray is an accomplished, results-oriented entrepreneur with a passion for developing leaders and building collaborative partnerships across both the public and private sectors. In 2015, he had the vision to create a safe haven for entrepreneurs to dream, grow, and lead their lives and businesses. Triangle Entrepreneurial Leadership’s (TEL) mission is to educate, empower, and equip entrepreneurs with the thinking and skill sets necessary for financial, personal, and professional success; a people-focused company. The events of 2020 compelled Ryan to launch the movement ‘Year of the Black Entrepreneur’ (YBE). YBE’s vision is to redefine black entrepreneurship, serving as a resource to educate, elevate, and highlight the black entrepreneur.
In 2018, Ryan was presented the unique opportunity to lead as President & CEO of Jobs for Life ( JfL). JfL partners with businesses, churches, civic organizations, and nonprofits in communities to advocate for the dignity of work. JfL supports communities in diminishing barriers to work, creating pathways to meaningful work and entrepreneurial opportunities. Ryan believes that, together, we can help all people flourish.
Ryan is a native of Dunn, NC. He lives in Garner, NC with his lovely wife, Tamia, and their two sons, Isaiah and Austin.
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings. This is the Nonprofit Exchange, our weekly interview series that has been in progress for over seven and a half years. It’s when we talk to people who have been there, done that, not just ideas or concepts, but they have a proven track record of success. We don’t get there by always doing everything right. As a matter of fact, I was sharing with my guest today that I share the title of expert because I am old enough to have made more mistakes than anybody else. Therefore, I should have learned from all of those, so that qualifies me.
Ryan is much younger, but his maturity far exceeds his linear age. Ryan and I have worked together in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has invited me down to play in his space with his high-level leaders doing innovative work. Ryan, talk a little bit about who you are and why you are doing this nonprofit with jobs in mind.
Ryan Ray: Thanks, Hugh. First and foremost, it is a privilege and an honor to be in your space although virtually. We have had the opportunity to do a few things together. The folks here in Raleigh still speak very highly of you. It’s been a great friendship and relationship thus far, so thank you for the opportunity.
Real quick. My journey began after having a short career in sales and marketing after graduating college. I got into a near fatal car accident that would move me back home to the big metropolis of Dunn, North Carolina. Pretty much starting from scratch. Through a series of events, I would be introduced to a mentor, someone who helped me begin to think about life, who helped me to reshape my philosophy about life. That new philosophy was around success isn’t something that you pursue; it’s something that you attract by the person that you become. In beginning that journey, I took my focus off of myself and wanted to develop other people. That key component of mentoring is a role that Jobs for Life plays in people who have struggled with work, who have barriers to employment. Having that champion or mentor who can walk alongside them has proven critical.
The other piece to that that really helped me in my journey toward leadership was better information, new ideas, that I didn’t know everything. I needed some new ideas, and I needed to hang out with people like Hugh Ballou who could shape my thinking. We brought those two pieces to the table, and that’s what really aligned my life work up to this point with the nonprofit work we get to do with Jobs for Life.
Hugh: Jobs for Life. That’s a 501(c)3 in North Carolina? Did you found it? How did this get started?
Ryan: No, sir. I did not found it. We are at our 25-year anniversary this year. Interesting story. It was founded in 1996 by a pastor here locally who needed to have his parking lot paved. He called one of the local paving companies here. Pastor McCoy called Mangum Paving Company. At the time, CC Mangum was going through a bit of a life transition himself, thinking about life and relationships differently. When this pastor called, the president of the company said, “I am going to come down and measure your parking lot.” Through that, they began to develop a relationship. We talk a lot about relationships.
In the midst of that, they began to have either coffee or lunch on a weekly basis. They began to identify through trust and relationship-building that they both had a need. The business owner had individual trucks sitting in his business parking lot that he couldn’t keep drivers in, so he was losing money. The pastor said, “I have able-bodied men in my church. How about we put those people to work?” They got some other people in their communities. The businessman got other business leaders in his community, and they started helping people get jobs.
What they found was it was rather simple to match-make jobs. The challenge was if people didn’t have the skillsets, I call them “essential skills,” understanding their gifts and talents, bringing that dignity and integrity to the workplace, their ability to sustain a career long-term was challenging. Jobs for Life was founded on the premise that we need to help people get work, but also keep work long-term through an accumulation of skills.
Hugh: That is a great story. You and I have been together a number of times. Somebody introduced us. I was coming down to do an event for CEO Space, and you were an attendee. You came in with a printout about what I did, and you knew about me. You invited me to come down and work with a planning team. That was an energized session. Then we did a live event for Triangle Entrepreneurial Leadership. I can remember some things still. That was an energetic session. You put me on stage with a lot of speakers. I had this keynote ready to go, but then I listened to all of the other speakers, so I totally rewrote a new presentation.
Ryan: I remember that.
Hugh: Fortunately, there was this huge white wall. I just wrote out those five pillars and did it. I was so energized by all the other presenters there that I couldn’t do a canned presentation.
What I’m headed to is you talked about relationships in this narrative. We recognize relationship is the key to leadership, the key to communications, the key to any financial results we will get. You have taken this message so seriously that you referred to, the law of attraction. You have attracted people to you because of who you are. You helped SynerVision build and launch and successfully produce one of our 28 live symposiums we did around the country. The room was full. The energy was palpable. It was a powerful packed session. You and I have a precious relationship, and we see eye to eye on so many things. There is never a worry with you about who gets credit because you give credit to everybody even though it was your idea. You have attracted such high-level players.
Go back and talk about who you’ve become and how you attract. You are also a major influencer in Jobs for Life. Talk about how you’ve become an influencer and how and why people respond to you and how that impacts the work of Jobs for Life. Sorry, that’s a long question.
Ryan: I appreciate that, Hugh. We have run in some circles and been in some impactful rooms together. It’s interesting, man. You begin this journey, and the folks that you wonder how you are going to be in the room with, you just end up in the room with them.
For me, it goes back to, as that kid who had to hit the restart button at 27 years old, it was simple. We don’t know what we don’t know. At that point in my life, I was at a pretty low place. It took a mentor to tell me, “Ryan, you are where you are because of who you are, your programming, your thinking, what you don’t know, the information you’ve yet to acquire. If you want to raise your level of value in the marketplace, you’ve got to increase your knowledge base. You’ve got to hang out with different people. You have to position yourself around people who have been where you’re trying to go. Those are your teachers. Those are your mentors. If there is a shortcut, that is it. It is aligning with people who are where you’re trying to go.”
To try to package your question, this law of attraction and being a person of influence, it really began to change for me when I took my focus off of Ryan. Hugh, you played a huge role with this, with the CEO Space family. Helping me understand this idea of collaboration, of service to others. You don’t send an email or text without asking how you can support me. I have learned that through being in community. It’s not natural. That’s what most people go around asking. I have embraced that as a life philosophy, as a way of living. Man, it is so fulfilling and compelling. Those are the types of people that people want to be around.
How do you become a person of influence? It’s having a focus and a heart for other people. It’s identifying the needs of other people and having the mindset of how you can be a part of the solution to the problem that this person is experiencing. When you can start solving problems that other people are having, which is what makes the work that we do for Jobs for Life so relevant, is that we have a major problem in our society today: So many people are without work today, or aren’t experiencing the dignity of work, the way God designed it. Right from the very beginning, He put us in a garden and said, “This is for you.” He gave us the gifts and talents to do that. When we aren’t, we’re suffering. To help people not just get to that but understand that. When we understand it and start to look at work through a different lens, our approach changes as well.
Kind of a long answer to a long question.
Hugh: The culture is a reflection of the leader. As a conductor, what the orchestra sees is what you get. Too often, leaders want to blame other people for things we represent. We are people of faith and talk about God’s design for our lives and work. We do have listeners of multiple faiths. They are Abrahamic faiths. We do share a lot of things. Certainly some values in common, too.
What about this work thing? There is a lot of myths in the culture today about many things. My colleague Dr. David Gruder, organizational developmental psychologist, says we are in the post-truth culture. There is a lot of myths circulating about how people don’t want to work. What do you say to that myth?
Ryan: I don’t have the exact report in front of me. I want to remember it so bad. There was a report that came out a few years ago that said, “What does everyone want?” After interviewing people from all across the world, the question was, “What does everyone want?” What would you think everyone would want, Hugh?
Ryan: Great answer. The #1 response was a good job.
Hugh: Yay! That’s part of it.
Ryan: But that brings that, right? A good job brings some security. I say that because that’s not accidental. It’s innate to us. We were created, we were built to work. Work is how we worship our creator, serve our families, meet our needs. Work is innate to us as human beings. Before God gave man woman, He gave him work. He put him in the garden and said, “Be fruitful. Multiply. Have dominion. Take these gifts and talents.” He could’ve created the tables and the chairs, but He hid them in the trees. He could have created the shovels and tools that Man makes, but He hid them in the mountains and ore. “Man, you get to co-create, take the gifts and talents I have given you. Use this incredible resource I have created for you, and go out and create value in the marketplace.” It’s innate to us. It is part of who we are.
I have to rebut that people don’t want to work. I don’t think we understand work. There are some systems in place that have strategically positioned people to not have to work. By nature, what will we do if we can? We take the easy road out. But we also know that’s very unfulfilling. I have to rebut that people don’t want to work.
Hugh: I agree wholeheartedly. There is a satisfaction in giving. You’ll hear from Bob Hopkins, who has educated me about philanthropy. Philanthropy is the love of humankind. It’s where we share time, talent, and money. It’s not all about the money. You are a true philanthropist in how you reach out and engage others in thinking differently and behaving differently. It begins with thinking differently. You alluded to that in having a mentor who helped you rethink your purpose and calling. What is this ultimate goal of this nonprofit you are at the helm of?
Ryan: Great question. Vision statements are these great, big ideas. You’re the king of them. Ours is that all people are flourishing in their work and relationships. Let me unpack that a little bit. One of our great friends Brian Fikkert, his book When Helping Hurts, we always recommend to understand the heart of Jobs for Life. He talks about how poverty is rooted in broken relationships. When we think about people who are struggling with work, their barriers to employment, being chronically unemployed, whatever those challenges may be- To simplify it, the single mom who has a baby and then just gets a job, but the baby gets sick. She doesn’t have Auntie to call on, “Can you keep baby girl for me because I got to go to work?” Because she doesn’t have that relationship, that community, that support system around her, now her job is in jeopardy. That can become chronic.
Ultimately, for Jobs for Life, it is to do a couple of things. It is to teach God’s design for work, helping people to first understand, to have the knowledge of what work really is and how work was created for us. Work wasn’t done to us. Work was created for us. Then to help communities understand that people really have barriers to unemployment.
I’m not talking about the obvious things like a criminal record. But I think the numbers are saying now that one in four or one in three, because we now have a very untraditional hiring pool out there, have some type of blemish on their criminal record. If that continues to be a barrier, we just continue to shrink that employment pool. How can we begin to create a society and communities where we are helping people to develop the skills, overcome the barriers, develop the character and dignity? We have all made mistakes.
There are people whose barrier to employment may be fear, anxiety, abuse. That mentor is so important because that person is now grabbing an individual by the hand and saying, “Let me walk alongside you to help you get your momentum and traction along your employment journey.” Our ultimate goal is to heal our nation through work. One city, one community, one job at a time.
Hugh: You’ve created a whole system for people to discover things they didn’t really know about applying for a job or maybe applying for the right job. Confucius said, “If you do what you love, you never work again.” It’s not really work. Work is not a four-letter bad word.
Ryan: It is not. It is such a gift.
Hugh: I live in Lynchburg, Virginia. We have the highest percentage of poverty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Down the road from me is a center that has lots of nonprofits. The city has programs to teach people how to apply for jobs. One day, they needed people to take them home because they didn’t have cars, so I took them home. One lady said, “I applied for a job. In my first interview, I got it because I knew how to interview. I never knew that before.” Most companies don’t know how to interview either. I’ve had interviews where I had to guide the process. What are some of the gaps that you help people with? Why is this a nonprofit? It sounds like a business. Is it a nonprofit with a business model, which is what we teach?
Ryan: It is a nonprofit. I was in a think tank before our time together today with some business owners to think about revamping the Jobs for Life business model. There wasn’t much of a business model prior. Jobs for Life was founded by a pastor and business owner who found a need and came together to solve that need. It began to scale in churches all across the country. The stated mission for the first 20+ years of the organization was to equip the church to prepare people for meaningful work. Without getting into that, Jobs for Life’s model was to train churches to help people in community to find work, which was the essence of it. COVID has totally, as with most organizations, shook that board all the way up. Now we are looking at what a business model could look like.
Some of the gaps, this may be one of the easiest ways to simplify it. Harvard Business Review recently released a report that so many of our community colleges and university systems aren’t preparing our youth to go out and get work. They are preparing them with a philosophy or theory or degree and some knowledge. As I mentioned, those essential skills, to be able to go out and interview, to do the things that aren’t necessarily teachable, is what we hear all the time from employers. “If you can bring us someone who has those essential skills, we can teach them the job.”
One of those gaps is just that. We aren’t preparing this generation and previous generations to understand how to navigate the work and employment space, and then even once landing a job, having the skills to now expand that career and begin doing really what they love. They are bringing their purpose to work instead of dreading what they’re doing. That begins to shape the culture of your organization or workplace.
Hugh: That’s brilliant. We can make a difference. We influence people all around us, 360. Just because we are in this place within an organization doesn’t mean we can’t influence up and down and sideways just by who we are. We impact other people.
I’m looking at your website, JobsForLife.org. It says here nearly three billion people living in poverty deserve a community to love and support them. Over 200 million people are still unemployed and can’t support their families. The one that hits you in the face: Less than 2% of churches focus on work to alleviate poverty. It’s not about giving somebody a fish that’s hungry; it’s the old adage of teaching them how to fish. Jesus did feed people first before He tried to persuade them of anything else. You have to address where the pain is before doing anything else.
What is the geographic reach of your work?
Ryan: Over the course of the years, Jobs for Life has been in 43 of the 50 states. At the height of the program, around 2016/2017, up to nine different countries. There are three or four other countries, Costa Rica being one, that have continued to be involved and have been using our curriculums. The reach has been pretty substantial. Anywhere from 300-400 locations around the country use Jobs for Life in their community.
Hugh: I did a brainstorming project with a local government work force, which represented 30 different entities. They are active in helping people connect. This is government, not a nonprofit. They did represent education and nonprofits around the table as well. It would occur to me that it’s a job seekers’ world right now. Everyone is hiring. Isn’t that a real healthy place for people to go out and look for jobs? It would seem that it would give you lots of options if you knew how to exercise those options.
Ryan: It would, but it also starts with the desire to want to. I’m not sure about the great state of Virginia, but I know here that the government has intervened in an effort to support financially. There is also a reason not to pursue this thing called work to the degree we did pre-pandemic. As you said before, there is a time where we give man a fish, where we give man a hand up, where we support people, but not forever. We have to teach those skills and empower people to go out and experience the dignity of work. There is something dignifying about being able to go out and give a good day’s work, give eight hours to something, creating something. So yes, you are right, Hugh. Employers all around the country are looking for good workers, but those good workers have to be looking for the good jobs.
Hugh: Amen. I would say that the work of nonprofits is really underestimated. This is a sector where nonprofits are doing good work. You’re doing good work. It’s such needed work. It’s essential work. It’s probably more important today than it’s ever been in history. You mentioned it started with a preacher and churches. This statistic, less than 2% of churches are focusing on this kind of empowerment. It would seem to me that this is an important ministry for those kinds of institutions. What do you think the problem is?
Ryan: Just to unpack that more, the national congregations, a study by Duke University, did a poll for us. It was to determine how the American church fights poverty. I’m sure you can guess at the top of that list was probably, what?
Ryan: No. Jobs was at the bottom. At the very top, roughly 62% of churches, to fight poverty, use food, the food banks. 55% focus on housing. 22% focus on clothing. 8%, although it’s worthwhile, focus on homelessness. 4% focus on health. 3% focus on substance abuse. Only 2% of churches focus on work. One of our missions is to flip that list. What would it look like if we had 62% of churches focusing on work to alleviate poverty?
One of the things I said early in my journey with Jobs for Life—it has been just over three years now—if we can figure this thing out, not that we would want to, we could put a lot of nonprofits out of business. A lot of them are focusing on food, housing, clothing, homelessness, and health. But if we could get our society focused on work, delivering value, developing those skillsets, we would love to see some of those nonprofits fade because our people are flourishing in communities again.
Hugh: When we started, you talked about your own mindset and having a mentor help you reframe that mindset. From where I sit, being broke is a temporary condition. Being poor is a mindset. What part of this is helping people get a new perspective on what value not only brings to other people? I love the motto of Rotary, service above self. It’s a really good model for churches. How do we serve? I did serve many churches that were focused that way. What is the shift that needs to happen here?
Ryan: What I love about what we do at Jobs for Life is first and foremost that mentor component. I use the example a lot of you go to the gym or show up at the track by yourself and maybe do one set or one lap. Nobody’s looking. That was a good workout, so I’m going home. You bring that accountability partner to the gym or the track. Right away, something on the inside is ignited, that you can do more. Somewhere, hope and inspiration can come from knowing someone else is in the trenches with you. That is one of the first things. Relationships are so important. So many people don’t have that coach.
You know what we need in the world? We need more cheerleaders. We need more people rooting people on, saying, “Go, go, go. You can do it.” So many people are just in hopeless situations, and they lack that inspiration to do what more they can do. That is the champion piece.
The other piece is the curriculum, the knowledge. It’s knowing I was created to work. I was put here before I even knew with a purpose, with a calling, with something that was carved out for me. There was something over here that God said I am supposed to do with my time in the earth. When we don’t know that, it goes back to probably one of my favorite quotes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” When we can help people know where they’re going, it opens up a whole new shift for them. When you can align that cheerleader with the right information or thinking, wonderful things happen. I still believe in the power of the human will. I still believe we can do phenomenal things when we put our minds to it. People have a lot of things that are burying their hope. They need help coming out from under those barriers and those challenges.
Hugh: Many people are in a culture with naysayers. The old adage of if you go to work, and three people in a row tell you that you look bad, you will go home sick. That external influence that you have created is so powerful. I am going to reframe something you said earlier. If you’re successful, that puts a lot of other nonprofits out of business. Maybe it helps other nonprofits retool for the meaningful work that goes on past, “We have a full tummy, now what?” There is a chance for retooling. Instead of enabling people to persist in this minimalist scarcity mindset, we have empowered them to rethink in stronger terms.
In one part of my life, for three years, I taught middle school music. That wasn’t exactly my choice, but it was an opportunity. I learned an awful lot about leadership. One of the things I did was produce Godspell with 6th graders. People would say to me, “That’s a really hard musical. How did you get them to do it?” I said, “I didn’t tell them it’s hard. Then I took the bricks off their heads, so they could rise to a higher level because that is what they saw as possible.” Part of what I see your work doing is encouraging people in possibility thinking rather than restrictive thinking. Speak on that. How do you take this possibility thinking and embed it in what you’re doing?
Ryan: We tend to do what we believe we can do. We tend to believe we can do what we’ve seen be done. I think it’s through the stories of others. I think it is through being in relationship.
I’ll tell this quick story. Coming through high school and going into college, I was telling myself this story—I had limited my thinking—that I would never be a public speaker. If you told 18-year-old Ryan he’d be doing this today, I would have told you there was no way. I’ll never forget it. It was at a major convention someone had invited me to. There was a man on a stage talking about how successful he was, and the things he was doing. He wasn’t the greatest orator at all. He wasn’t very impressive. Somehow, the thought came to me. I said, “Man, if he can do it, then I can do it.” Sometimes, it’s just being in community and hearing people who may or may not have the same challenges, barriers, limiting beliefs that you may have. But when that seed falls in soil at the right time, it’s amazing what can grow from that.
I think that’s what Jobs for Life has been able to create in communities all across the country and some parts of the world. We have been able to plant those seeds of inspiration, hope, encouragement, aligned with knowledge and mentorship, and God’s timing. We don’t get to determine when the seed blossoms. In God’s timing, we have seen the harvest of those seeds we have been able to plant over these 25 years.
Hugh: Awesome. If there are business leaders listening, if you are not serving on a nonprofit board, it’s time for you to revise that plan and go be active. You’re equipping the work force to think differently, to prepare themselves differently, and to have access to these possibilities that are out there. What change needs to happen on the other side, the employer side?
Ryan: I’m glad you asked that question, Hugh. My board chair, maybe about a year ago now, as the pandemic was unfolding, we were starting to look at things differently, he said something that was really eye-opening. Only about 50% of the challenges with unemployment rest on the side of the unemployed.
Ryan: Who does the other half reside with? The employers. That came to us as we began to think. We kept having employers say, “If you could just send me someone who can show up on time, who can pass a drug test,” that’s tried and true, and I get that. As an employer, if that’s the way you’re thinking about people- We’re challenging employers not to think about people as a cog in the wheel or a commodity or a way to improve your bottom line. How do we think of people as opportunities to take what God has given us? The asset that God has given you, Mr. Business Owner, how can you leverage that and reimagine that so it becomes an investment mechanism into the lives of people? If we can get away from this bottom line profit focus and focus on people instead.
If I sit down with 10 business owners, most of them would tell me, “You know, Ryan, I started out people-focused. Then the engine got going, and I couldn’t look back. Now it’s about how to keep this thing going and growing.” If we could get back to being people-focused, you solve the problem. If we are just looking at it as putting a patch on it to keep it moving, I think business owners are missing a tremendous opportunity.
Hugh: As Americans, we have a habit of wanting to put Band-Aids on the symptom rather than solving what the cause of the problem is.
Ryan Ray, a lot of good sound bites, a lot of good information, a lot of passion. People can find you at JobsForLife.org. They can find out about your work there. This was so helpful. Our audience is mostly nonprofit leaders and clergy. What word of wisdom would you want to leave people with today?
Ryan: At a time where our government is seemingly divided, our churches are struggling, whether they can keep their doors open, schools are uncertain. Institutions have their hands tied a little bit. It’s their ability to serve. So many of the institutions that our great country was founded upon seem to be in a bit of a struggle now. I believe the one thing that unites us all is work, this idea of work. If we can do work right, we can begin to heal some of those other challenges we are facing in our communities. I would challenge your listeners to think about work differently, and what role you can play to see work happening in our communities.
Hugh: As always, Ryan Ray, when I am in conversation with you, you are an inspiration. Thank you for being our guest today on The Nonprofit Exchange.
Ryan: My pleasure, thanks for having me.