9NEWS Leader of the Year Ryan Ross: ‘People Believed in Me Before I Believed in Myself’
Reprinted with permission from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce Spring 2016 Business Altitude magazine
By Maggie McEntee, digital communications and brand manager for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce
In 1993, the year of Denver’s “summer of violence,” there were 74 homicides in the city. It created a panic around the state about the impact of gang activity. As a young man growing up in an East Denver housing project, Dr. Ryan Ross was right in the middle of it and he wanted to get out. With relatives in conflicting gangs, fear of association put Ross, at the time an eighth grader, in a troubled position.
“It took me a while to figure out, but protecting my family didn’t mean getting in trouble with them. It meant trying to figure out how to show it (protecting) in a different way, to role model something different,” Ross said.
Through his own unrelenting persistence and the help of mentors, Ross has spent his career trying to carry the mantle of those who helped him receive an education and ensure no matter where children grow up, they have the same educational opportunities to succeed. It was for this work that the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation and 9NEWS named Ross the 9NEWS Leader of the Year in March.
Not afraid to find mentors
Approaching the end of middle school, Ross knew that he had to take make a change: “I always wanted to get out of that environment and I figured out that getting an education and going to college was a way to do that.”
Ross noticed a neighbor being mentored by a couple who showed her the ropes and praised her for good grades. He knew this was how he would find a way toward a better education, so he started inserting himself in conversations as an opportunity to meet the mentors. Patty and Pres Askew soon took Ross under their wing.
“It created opportunities for me to make extra money in the summer doing odd jobs for them and I learned how to type in their basement,” Ross said.
As the summer approached, Ross got serious about going to Mullen High School, a private Catholic school.
“I knew if I stayed in my neighborhood and went to Manual (High School) that it probably wasn’t going to be good … I was scared.”
Ross didn’t have the money or support from his family, so he had to find another way to attend Mullen. Forging his mother’s signature on the school application, he was invited to take the test that would get him into the school. He failed.
“A few weeks later, I got some mail that said I was provisionally accepted but there were some things I had to do,” Ross said. “I didn’t really understand that process … I missed some deadlines and it looked like Mullen wasn’t going to happen.”
Disheartened, Ross decided to show up at the school and plead with the principal for a spot at Mullen. Ross took the bus over 15 miles a day for two weeks to petition for a seat. “I really don’t know to this day what made me do it, but I just did it,” Ross remembers.
Finally, he was invited in by a man named Larry Bryne. Unknown to Ross, Bryne had just started a program to give intercity kids scholarships to receive a Catholic education. Now a mentoring organization known as Denver Urban Scholars, Ross was the first student to receive a scholarship from the nonprofit. Byrne had one catch: Ross had to agree to be paired with a mentor.
“The mentor that I got ended up being his son, Patrick Byrne,” Ross said.
The two forged a close relationship, from Byrne driving Ross to Nebraska to see the college he ultimately went on to attend, to now having Ross as a mentor and as a past board member at Denver Urban Scholars.
“He demonstrates compassion, integrity and service,” Byrne said. “He has a commitment to young people from similar circumstances. He’s just a remarkable guy.”
Paying it forward
While a student at Nebraska Wesleyan University, Ross volunteered with a program that helped guide kids like him through the college process while mentoring them along the way. With a passion for mentorship, Ross and his fraternity brother James Coleman, executive director of One Chance Colorado, began working with young men grades six to 12, helping them prepare for college through Kappa Alpha Psi.
“We give (the kids) perspective and get them on track,” Ross said. “We have brought 150 kids through the program from sixth grade through high school graduation.”
It was something he in part learned thanks to his godmother, Deborah Spivey, who has been there for Ross since he was 8. She was in the crowd for his high school senior football games, sent care packages to college and even attended the Celebrating Civic Leadership Luncheon where Ross was named the 9NEWS Leader of the Year. Bringing this mentorship full circle, Ross has worked with her and her husband’s nonprofit, Bannered Host Ministries, speaking to kids about college, careers and his passion for education.
New roots in Denver
Since returning to Denver in 2002, Ross has seen more access to higher education than when he was young, and believes that conversations are being had to push people to think about access and equity for all kids. It was something he worked at for 14 years, five of those as dean of Student Development and Retention with the Community College of Denver.
“I decided that it would be really cool to go back to my neighborhood and help people go to college,” Ross said. After setting down new roots back in Denver, he continued with his passion; helping to increase awareness of the barriers facing low-income students; and garnering public and private support for college access programs.
“I think if Ryan could plan the future and what it would look like is that every young person can access a college education,” Coleman said.
Today, Ross is juggling a start- up enterprise of motivational speaking, education, publishing and writing; giving back to the community as the president and CEO of the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado; and connecting bridges between STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies and jobs that are coming down the pipeline to build homegrown talent through the American Petroleum Institute.
He’s committed to sharing his story, and you’ll often find him around Five Points and other Denver neighborhoods doing just that. He says his favorite place to be is at home with his wife, Simone, and their two children.
Knowing what he knows now, Ross would tell his younger self, “Never miss the opportunity to make a relationship. You never know who you’re going to meet, who they are, what they can offer you and what you may be able to share with them.”
“Having mentors for me was everything,” Ross said. “People believed in me before I believed in myself. Being able to be a mentor now is so rewarding and creates a positive cycle that encourages the spreading of leadership.”