DTH: So what was it like, growing up in Chapel Hill as a kid in the area?
JR: Chapel Hill was a great place to grow up. In some ways it’s the best of all worlds, because you had all the benefits of the university and the faculty and the intellectual life, but it was still a small town, so it was a really nice combination. And Chapel Hill when I was small was a much smaller town, more distinct from Durham and Raleigh and far less wealthy actually. But it was a great place to grow up.
DTH: What was your time like when you were at UNC?
JR: It was, I think like so many college experiences, it was a wonderful time. I was very comfortable on campus. I came in, of course, knowing quite a few professors, and my philosophy was just take all the best professors and take whatever they were teaching, and then I figured out what that would ultimately add up to. But I felt I received a wonderful education, and then, you know just as much, all the activities from sports to student government and friendships are such a big part of the memories,as well as the studies.
DTH: And so you said your plan was to take the best professors and see what that added up to, and you ended up majoring in political science. Did you have any idea that that’s generally the type of thing you were looking for?
JR: I was, you know, I think I was leaning, when I came to UNC my big idea was probably to go to law school and then go into politics, which was my original plan. And then, I actually realized my senior year, I had no particular interest in being a lawyer; I just thought that’s what you did do for a political career. So that caused me to do some quick readjusting, and start looking for other opportunities. But I thought “I’ve always been interested in politics” so political science was a fairly natural home.
DTH: At your time at UNC, you managed to overlap with Michael Jordan when he was on campus. I just wanted to know what was that like watching him in college?
JR: You know, that was a great privilege. My sophomore year, my freshman and sophomore year, I lived in the dorm with the basketball team. Back then they lived in the dorms. And so we had arguably the best basketball dorm team in history with (James) Worthy, Jordan, and (Sam) Perkins, I think it was. So we won the national championship my sophomore year with the famous shot against Georgetown, and that was of course amazing. It was Dean Smith’s first national championship… just the experience. Everybody bombarding Franklin Street and just the excitement of it. But certainly to see him play was just amazing.
DTH: Pivoting back to you, you graduate from college and end up having a couple different business jobs. You worked for Goldman Sachs and Disney and numerous other things, and you end up going to business school. So how do you end up going from doing those things to Habitat for Humanity?
JR: You know, I think I had grown up with a family that was very focused on social justice issues and fairness issues and that’s originally why I wanted to go into politics. I was very much accidentally at Goldman.
There were really two big inflection points for me. The first one came after I’d worked for a couple years on Wall Street right after Carolina and wanted to regain perspective. And I was lucky enough to win a grant from the Henry Luce foundation that let me spend a year working in Asia, and I ended up working for the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee for the ‘88 games, and through a longer story I won’t tell, helped coach the Korean rowing team.
But in the pre-internet age, it pulled me away from everything I knew, and that was a really important year for my personal faith, for just regaining perspective and having a lot of time to think about what kind of life I wanted to lead. So I went back to business school with the idea that I would learn in the private sector and eventually port that over to a mission I could be excited about.
And then the next big inflection point was when the last company I worked for, Musicland, was acquired by Best Buy. I stayed to help with the acquisition, and then I thought maybe now’s the time to make the jump. And I went off to India on a short-term service trip and was serving with some of the most poorly treated people in the world, the Bhangi, who back then were only allowed to hand-clean latrines and clean up dead animals in rural areas in India. They weren’t allowed to live in the community or in the villages. And it just reawoke all those latent social justice issues, and I came back after that focused on doing something about international poverty alleviation. And then that was much harder than I expected to actually do, so I ended up unemployed for quite a while.
One of the things I had done as a volunteer was help churches grow, and I was doing a lot of volunteer work with my local church, and to my surprise, they asked if I would come and be the administrative pastor and help lead the church, which had exploded in size. And everyone I trusted for career advice said “don’t do this, it’s a bad career move” but we really felt a sense of calling. So I ended up going to serve the church, and two years later when I wasn’t looking, Habitat for Humanity came calling … so now this will be year 14 this summer that I’ve completed, and I’m just incredibly lucky to have found as what I view as my true vocation.
DTH: So you said your family was heavily involved in social justice. Was there anything specific, was your father involved in anything on the UNC campus? Any specific examples that really inspired you later in life?
JR: I would say two particular ones, and actually I’ll talk about one of them on Sunday. One of my early role models was my grandmother, and her name was Millicent Fenwick. When she was a US Congresswoman from New Jersey, and had been a ferocious fighter for civil and human rights, and had worked in the civil rights movement. Her signature legislature in Congress was the first enforcement of the Helsinki Accords, which was the first international human rights accords. [Walter Cronkite] called her the conscious of congress. And so she certainly was a major figure in my life.
And then my mom, actually, my parents moved to Chapel Hill shortly before I was born. My mother got very involved in the Civil Rights movement, as well as prison reform for the women’s prisons in North Carolina. And she, she was like many people, but she was arrested for picketing segregated restaurants. One of the distinctive things is she would train the protestors on how to behave when they were arrested so that in court they wouldn’t give, or while they were being arrested, they wouldn’t give any excuse to law enforcement or others to either mistreat them or invalidate their social protest. But she had a very strong moral backbone.
DTH: Looking back, it’s been 14 years now for you with Habitat for Humanity. Are there any signature events or specific things you can point to in your career and say that’s what you’re most proud of?
JR: I think the piece, the macro which really encapsulates all the things that all the people at Habitat have been able to accomplish together is that when I joined we were helping about 125,000 people a year with our new or improved housing, and last year we helped 8.7 million. So we’ve been able to dramatically increase the number of individuals who get better housing, and in some ways that’s our most critical metric of success, which is do we actually physically change the housing conditions in which too many people live?
When I think about different moments, it’s hard to think about Habitat, as most people do, without thinking about President Carter. It’s been such an integral part of Habitat’s impact and most people think he both started and runs Habitat, neither of which are true, but he and Mrs. Carter really put Habitat on the map, and he is certainly our most famous volunteer.
DTH: Do you have any idea of what sort of general themes your speech is going to focus on?
JR: I’m going to be asking the students three questions that I hope will be helpful as they begin thinking about, not just what jobs they’re going to get next or their career, but more thinking about their vocation and how do they overtime discover their calling.
DTH: Is that based on you taking a roundabout way to your ultimate career path?
JR: Yeah I think it is, I see so many young people under so much pressure to get the perfect first job or to drive, and my hope is to pull back and take some of that pressure off. Some of the best advice I got, I don’t know if I’ll share this on Sunday, but when I was in graduate school, in business school, I had a leadership seminar with John Gardner, who was an extraordinary public servant.
He said something counter-intuitive to me that I thought was great, which was 'it doesn’t actually matter what you do in your 20’s, just think of all of your 20’s as continuing education.' Try as many things as you can, learn as much as you can, and you’ll eventually figure out what you’re really supposed to do. He had gotten a PhD in psychology and thought he was going to have a career in psychology, and then did a total pivot towards public service and ended up starting Common Cause and counseling multiple presidents. And so, in some ways, I’ll encourage the students to think about, not so much jobs, but purpose.
DTH: Do you have any last advice for people at UNC?
JR: The short-term advice I would say is just make the most of the time. Certainly don’t miss, absolutely achieve, but don’t miss the opportunities to go deep intellectually. And one of the saddest things I think at big universities, and having grown up on campus and having a father who’s a professor it came very naturally to me, but many students go to UNC and don’t build real relationships with professors. I think that’s one of the biggest misses, and so I would encourage students to really get to know their professors and build relationships and that will deepen their campus experience dramatically.