HomeSocial Impact HeroesHow Bob Ravener and Goodwill are helping hundreds of thousands of vulnerable...

How Bob Ravener and Goodwill are helping hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people to find employment

Get involved in the “cultural” nuances to get plugged in. All organizations have a culture and network. The quicker you get plugged into that, the smoother your immersion into the culture will be.

As part of my series about companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Ravener. Bob joined the board of directors of Goodwill Industries International in June 2019, after retiring from Dollar General as the Chief People Officer, a role in which he served for nearly 11 years. He previously held human resources executive roles with the Starbucks Corporation and The Home Depot Inc. Bob also served in executive roles in both human resources and operations at Footstar, Inc. and held roles of increasing leadership at PepsiCo, Inc. Bob is passionately dedicated to the military and veterans community as a member of the President’s National Hire Veterans Committee and the Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee for Veterans Employment, Training and Employer Outreach. Bob served in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds an MBA from New York University. Bob has served as board chairman of the Tennessee Workforce Development Board and the Human Resources Leaders Council for Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). He has also served on the boards of directors for the Human Capital Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He has been recognized for his leadership and service by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee National Guard and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).

Thank you so much for doing this with us Bob! Can you tell us a story about how you ended up on this career path?

I grew up with very little. My father was an alcoholic who could never hang onto a job, and my mother was barely able to make ends meet trying to support a family with five kids. So many people helped me along the way — from teachers and coaches to my grandfather and godfather. Since I was given a chance to make something of my life, I knew I wanted to do the same — to help and serve others.

As a kid, my dream was to play for the New York Yankees. That dream kept me working hard to become a better baseball player, but I focused on academics in case that didn’t work out. That effort led to the U.S. Naval Academy and to service in the U.S. Navy, where I became a submarine officer.

I finished my active duty service back at the Naval Academy working in the athletic department. My official title was Academic Liaison Officer, working between the athletic and academic departments to keep track of athletes’ NCAA eligibility. Beyond that, I was a boxing instructor, baseball coach and recruiter for the Naval Academy.

Those latter roles are what led me to a career in the corporate world with a specialty in human resources. A recruiter for Pepsi-Cola, Fred Koury, looked at my resume and said, “Oh, you’re a coach, instructor and recruiter. That’s sounds a lot like what we do in HR.”

That’s how it all started. I may not have realized my dream of playing for the Yankees, but that dream kept me going and opened doors for me that led to a very fulfilling career. So, in essence, I chased my dream as far as it would take me, and it led me to other rewarding opportunities.

Because I wanted to give back to my community, I came to Goodwill®. The goals of the organization are aligned with mine, and my experiences fit well with what Goodwill focuses on in its own mission — to empower people to change the trajectory of their own lives and build a sustainably better future. I have expertise in workforce development, having worked with large organizations that also have retail stores. I also have a strong interest in supporting those who need an opportunity to take a step forward in life. These interests are a perfect fit for helping to advance the Goodwill mission as a member of the board.

Can you share something interesting you’ve learned since you began serving on the board of Goodwill Industries International?

Most people know Goodwill for its stores and donation centers. They know they can shop for affordable clothing and goods, or they can clean out their closets and drop off their boxes so their stuff doesn’t end up in a landfill.

What people don’t realize is that Goodwill uses the revenue from the sale of donated goods to create job placement and training programs. Collectively, more than 87 cents of every dollar spent in a Goodwill store goes back into the same community to help people find jobs and advance their careers.

Many people also don’t realize that Goodwill is a network of 158 independent, nonprofit organizations, so each organization invests in whatever job training programs make the most sense for employers and job seekers in their own local community.

On a recent visit to the career center operated by Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee in Nashville, I spent time at a hands-on training site and spoke with a group of aspiring construction professionals. They were learning the basic skills of building a house — from framing to electrical to plumbing and everything in between.

It’s a six-week program that has trained men and women of all ages and backgrounds. While attending class full time, they receive a small stipend and help with transportation. At the end, they receive a national certification, and more than 90 percent of the students find jobs immediately after completing the course.

That’s just one example in one city. There are so many other Goodwill programs across the country that help job seekers acquire the skills relevant to their local job markets — whether it’s construction, technology, nursing, manufacturing, food service, truck driving or other skills.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out in your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can tell you about something that happened early in my career that’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Coming from meager roots and then serving in the military where rank rules, I was somewhat intimidated as a young inexperienced professional. I remember the first time I met the new head of HR at PepsiCo. Within that first 10-second greeting and handshake, he pegged me as “a little nervous” — not the kind of first impression one wants to make for a successful run.

That stuck with me throughout my career and, since then, I have worked hard to be at ease around others, regardless of their perceived or real “status.” Through preparation and practice, I realized that people are people, and we have more in common than we do differences. I try to understand what we might have in common and break the ice that way. I have always found that approach to be successful to start a conversation.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Goodwill serves anyone with challenges to finding employment, including people with disabilities and disadvantages, veterans and military families, youth, older workers and people with criminal backgrounds. If you need help finding a job, you can walk into a career center, get an assessment, and meet with a job coach who can work with you on resume preparation, mock interviews, searching for jobs and career counseling.

Beyond that, Goodwill provides critical support services for job seekers, including transportation, child care, financial education, tax preparation, mentoring, English language training and help with access to housing or food.

In 2018, more than 242,000 people used Goodwill services to connect with employment in in-demand careers in fields like technology, health care, hospitality and manufacturing. That equates to one out of every 275 hires in the United States who used Goodwill services to earn jobs. Additionally, more than 1.5 million people engaged in face-to-face services with local Goodwill organizations to advance their careers, and nearly 34 million people received support through mobile and online services.

Through a partnership with, Goodwill created a program to equip more than one million people with digital skills over five years. The Goodwill Digital Career Accelerator® is funded by a $10.3 million grant and supported by 1,000 Google volunteers. In 2018, the program helped place more than 27,000 people in jobs.

And let’s not forget Goodwill’s role in promoting recycling. Last year, Goodwill organizations diverted nearly 4 billion pounds of usable goods from landfills.

In summary, Goodwill organizations are part of the community — partnering with businesses, federal, state and local government agencies, and other nonprofits to provide services that help people earn good jobs and care for their families.

Now that’s an organization making an impact!

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

There are so many individuals from all backgrounds who are being impacted by engaging with Goodwill services, and I’ll share one that exemplifies our mission.

Robert Frank is the 2019 Goodwill Industries International Achiever of the Year — an annual award for someone who has benefited from a Goodwill program and is currently employed at a Goodwill.

Five years ago, Robert was hired as a donation attendant and utility worker at his local Goodwill store in Downers Gove, IL. He has excelled in his duties, and, with the help of Goodwill staff, he learned to read at the age of 65.

Throughout his childhood, Robert suffered severe physical and emotional abuse, including blows to the head that left him with a cognitive disability. He tried to hide the fact that he couldn’t read and write, and he struggled to find a job that made him feel useful and accepted. Before coming to Goodwill, he worked as a coat check attendant, dishwasher and cook. He said his goal in life was to be somebody well-respected.

At Goodwill, Robert met Lauren James, a Goodwill Way Guide, whose job is to support the Goodwill staff in any way possible. Usually, that means working with employees on issues like child care and transportation.

Lauren wanted to find a way to help Robert with some of his tasks, like writing price tags. She found some worksheets online, printed them out, and sat with him in the break room to practice his reading and handwriting. With her support and his persistence, Robert was able to read a book for the first time last year.

Robert has demonstrated a level of spirit and perseverance that we can all aspire to, and the support he has received is indicative of what happens every day throughout Goodwill.

What are a few things that the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

To me, there is no substitute for a good education and training, so continuing to provide access to quality schools and resources are paramount. In my corporate experience and state-level workforce development involvement, companies are already doing a lot, while some states are leading the charge to help bring the workforce up to date in a rapidly changing environment.

Technology is becoming more and more pivotal in everyday life, so I believe all who have the ability — from the government, to the educational system, to the private sector, should continue to do all they can to advance this effort. This includes incentives to train and hire those with challenges, using innovative tools and equipment, to make it easier for them to better compete and sustain a productive career and life.

How do you define “leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, there are certain non-negotiable attributes that anyone who hopes to be a leader needs to exhibit. It all starts with honesty and integrity. If people can’t trust you, there is no hope to be any kind of respected leader. Beyond that, the essence of leadership for me is defined by a quote often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, though others claim it as well:

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

In other words, I have found the best leaders to be the ones who are trying their utmost to help others achieve their goals and dreams, while not worrying about themselves. They provide advice and coaching, training others to do what they were trained to do, and then they turn them loose to succeed — or, yes, to fail — and to learn from those experiences.

Once people know you are there to help them win, and not in it yourself, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. In my experience, I have found the best examples of leadership to be defined by how many people a leader has promoted or helped to excel within an organization. That shows a selflessness, not hoarding talent for one’s own uses, while helping others to grow to the next level of their careers and face new challenges.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

  1. Be interested, not interesting. I have always coached other people throughout my career, and one of the messages I convey when discussing the ability to influence and impact others is a simple credo that many others have used: “Be interested, not interesting.” In other words, listen more than talk, and you will find out how interesting other people really are. Start all roles by doing more listening than talking — there is usually a reason something is being done a certain way, and the decision was right at the time. You’ll endear yourself to others by not starting out with what doesn’t seem to be a good course of action before knowing more of the history.
  2. Focus first on building relationships, then worry about the work. Most unproductive relationships I have come across are driven by a lack of communication, which derives from not having a trusting relationship. Let’s face it, if the first comment to come out of your mouth is what’s wrong with something, if you don’t have an established relationship, it’s taken as negative criticism and not helpful or productive.
  3. Help others wherever you can. Everyone loves help when it’s needed, so volunteer when asked. Yet be careful in the long run not to overdo that and become a dumping ground
  4. Get involved in the “cultural” nuances to get plugged in. All organizations have a culture and network. The quicker you get plugged into that, the smoother your immersion into the culture will be.
  5. Find quick wins. Winning builds confidence and self-esteem. Find ways to build that up early in your tenure. It will make you more relaxed and your authentic self in future engagements.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was so inspirational.