What It Takes to Be a H.E.R.O.

This Georgia B-school grad used his entrepreneurial and business skills to start a nonprofit that helps children affected by HIV/AIDS

How does a fluent speaker of four languages with banking experience in Spain and consulting experience in Sicily start a nonprofit organization for children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS? After three years, I still get that question almost weekly.

The answer is, I was traveling through Brazil perfecting my Portuguese when I visited an AIDS orphanage. After teaching 20 Brazilian AIDS orphans how to blow bubbles, I realized that AIDS can take everything away from these children and that few services exist to give them the childhood they deserve.

Ryan Gembala

Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director

H.E.R.O. for Children

BBA Class of 2003, University of Georgia Terry College of Business

I am co-founder and co-executive director of H.E.R.O. for Children (Hearts Everywhere Reaching Out), the only nonprofit organization in Georgia solely dedicated to improving quality of life for children infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. We create a bridge for the community to connect with these children year-round through enriching experiences and programs, including the only one-on-one mentoring program for children affected by HIV/AIDS.

But don't be fooled by the word "nonprofit" (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/11/06, "Going the Distance for AIDS Services"). H.E.R.O. for Children operates like an assiduous for-profit business, the difference being our clients are children ages 6 to 16, and our investors are Atlanta citizens and corporations.

Our board of directors includes the former president of Sherwin-Williams (SHW), a nonprofit accounting expert with Ernst & Young, a former NBC The Apprentice contestant, and three distinguished sports icons—University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt, Georgia Tech head basketball coach Paul Hewitt, and NCAA Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley. Several celebrities have also helped us raise awareness, including actor Chris Tucker and NBA Hall of Fame star Dominique Wilkins.

Working with so many people, including more than 1,000 volunteers and 200 children, makes my day-to-day a 180-mph roller coaster ride:

8:00 a.m.—After working at the office until 10 p.m. the night before, I wake up, go for a run, throw a tennis ball to my golden retriever, and get cleaned up.

8:45 a.m.—I pull out my notepad and prioritize my day.

9:10 a.m.—I hop into my 1989 Buick Regal Gran Sport (the car I've had since before college) and drive 20 minutes through the Atlanta suburbs to our office.

9:30 a.m.—Arriving at Blake & Pendleton, an industrial air compressor and pump distributor and our founding sponsor, I unlock the building and stroll down to my office, one of three cubicle-type spaces the company has provided at no charge to help keep the money we raise going to our children. I set up my laptop and check my e-mail.

9:45 a.m.—Our new program coordinator, Tanya Medrano (H.E.R.O.'s first full-time employee), has questions for me about our mentoring program. She is executing a program assessment, one of her three primary objectives over the next 90 days.

10:00 a.m.—I buzz my co-founder, Garrett Gravesen, to see if he has anything to add to our daily calendar and get a brief update on any major recent successes or challenges on his projects.

10:30 a.m.—My phone call to one of our biggest donors gets returned, and we plan to meet for lunch at an Atlanta restaurant.

I will present him with a personalized, autographed, and framed picture of our three famous coaches as a gift for contributing more than $35,000 to our 2006 Golden HERO Awards Gala (our biggest annual fundraiser).

11:00 a.m.—I make five phone calls and leave four voice mails to more of our generous Gala sponsors. I'm trying to arrange a time to deliver their sponsor gifts so I can thank them in person and update them personally on the impact their donations are having on our children.

11:45 a.m.—I now have 10 e-mails to check and reply to.

12:30 p.m.—The student director of the H.E.R.O. chapter at the University of Georgia calls wanting to plan out the details of their large "New Semester Kick Off" with guest speaker Coach Mark Richt. They are expecting nearly 500 students.

1:00 p.m.—While on my cell phone with our accountant about the new format of our financial reports, I hop in my car and drive five minutes to a new Chinese buffet for lunch. I hang up, spend 15 minutes eating, pay, and resume the conversation.

1:45 p.m.—The new Dell (DELL) computer for our program coordinator to use is delivered. She is so excited!

2:00 p.m.—I sift through e-mails, including an invitation to a party with Atlanta Braves All-Star Andruw Jones.

3:00 p.m.—I put in a phone call to a senior IT consultant and arrange a strategic meeting to assess our IT needs and devise a strategy to help us effectively develop our organization.

3:30 p.m.—I take a few calls and talk to Tanya about mentoring program developments.

5:00 p.m.—"Hi Ryan, watcha doin'?" is what I hear when I pick up my cell phone. It's a special little 12-year-old child in our program. Energetically, the child says: "When is our next big event, Ryan? My new SuperHERO Big Sister is so cool! We went to the movies, and then we baked cookies. I miss you Ryan. Bye." I love it when our kids call me, as their sincerity and energy reminds me why I do what I do (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/25/06, "Giving Back Before Going Forward").

5:45 p.m.—Ten more e-mails to respond to!

6:30 p.m.—I get a call from our publicist (a PR firm has taken us on pro-bono) saying that an Atlanta magazine wants to run a story on our organization.

7:00 p.m.—I finally get to sketch out the agenda for our summer board of directors meeting.

7:30 p.m.—I grab a Power Bar from my desk because my stomach is grumbling like crazy and do some work for the board meeting.

8:30 p.m.—I get a return phone call from Jamie Deen, son of Food Network superstar Paula Deen, who has arranged a reservation for two at their famous restaurant in Savannah. Their support has helped raise close to $20,000 for our children in the past year.

9:00 p.m.—I check our bank account to analyze the current cash position. I file deposits and expenses from the day.

9:45 p.m.—I write out my plan for tomorrow.

10:15 p.m.—I turn off all the lights, set the alarm for the building, and bid farewell to H.E.R.O. headquarters until the next morning.

When you are a social entrepreneur, you are forced to utilize and continuously develop a multitude of varying skill sets that in many cases are impossible to acquire from textbooks. Majoring in business at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business taught me more than just core skills. It taught me how to think strategically, an asset that has helped me tremendously.

If I could go back and take more courses, they would be in sales, organizational development, and finance. However, in all honesty, there aren't really any courses that can totally prepare you for your career. Gathering experience in your field of interest and a network of contacts in that field are in my opinion more valuable than any course you could take (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/6/06, "The 'Do-Nots' of Networking").

When I was an undergrad at UGA, I was totally immersed in international business and languages, never pausing at all to think about starting a nonprofit. You never know what life has in store for you, but if you are well-rounded, seek out opportunities, and aren't afraid to take risks you might just find the most rewarding career you never thought you were looking for.

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