Q&A with Our New CEO, R.T. Rybak

The Minneapolis Foundation is thrilled to welcome former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak as our seventh President and CEO. R.T.’s first day on the job is July 1. We sat down with him recently to talk about his vision for Minneapolis, the issues he hopes to tackle at the Foundation, and why he won’t kick off the Foundation’s next chapter with a 90-day plan.

R.T. Rybak

R.T. Rybak

Foundation: After serving as mayor, you could have pursued any number of opportunities. Why did you want to lead The Minneapolis Foundation?

R.T.: When I was leaving the mayor’s office, I knew I was absolutely going to stay in Minneapolis. I felt that the number one issue in the city was equity, and the biggest piece of that was education, so that’s why I went to Generation Next. I’m happy that The Minneapolis Foundation will allow me to stay focused on equity and education, but also that it will allow me to deal with a broader range of issues: job creation, health care, the arts, and all the other issues that donors may want my help or partnership on.

The Minneapolis Foundation is a one-of-a-kind institution that has done a whole bunch of nice things for the city I love for a whole century. You can’t say much better about an organization than that! I also feel that it’s a really critical moment in philanthropy, when an exceptionally generous city has seen great outcomes, but also has some gnawing challenges remaining. We don’t lack compassion, but we do lack alignment and impact, so I hope to help make progress on some of the issues that still keep us from being everything we can be.

Fun facts about R.T.
Minneapolis summer activities he loves:
• Hitting outdoor concerts like Rock the Garden
• Going to breweries
• Parking his car on a Friday and not using it again until Monday

R.T. and his wife, Megan O’Hara, have two kids, ages 26 and 24. Charlie works in digital media, and Grace is a teacher.
A great book he’s reading now:
The Song Poet by Kao Kalia Yang
Most people don’t know…
he swims in city lakes about four times a week.
R.T. stands for…
Raymond Thomas. Named after his father, he’s always been R.T. As a kid, he used to have to overcome his shyness and stand up every year on the first day of school to tell the other students, “Please don’t call me Raymond. Call me R.T.” To this day, he credits the experience with giving him an early start as a public speaker!

Foundation: When you look ahead 10 years, what’s your vision for Minneapolis?

R.T.: Ten years from now, I want people to say a lot of the great things they say about Minneapolis now, except I want those great things to be true for everyone. Minneapolis is on the top list of almost everything, and I want that to continue, but I no longer want us at the top of the list of cities with gaps in income and education.

I believe that Minneapolis, more than any other city in the country, has the potential to define how an American city creates a global community. We have a remarkable breadth of immigrants, and they have the potential to be our secret weapon in becoming more of a global powerhouse. That can happen if we are more respectful of the languages and the cultures that are brought here, and if we are more mindful about breaking down the barriers that keep people from succeeding.

Foundation: What excites you most about the issues you hope to tackle at the Foundation?

R.T.: I want to turn the issues of equity on their head and recognize that we all come to the table with some gaps. There are obvious gaps along race and income, and on outcomes in school, such as test scores in math or science. There are also gaps for people like me, who are part of a majority culture, who weren’t raised in situations where we were crossing cultures as much as our children will have to cross them.

The Minneapolis Foundation has been attacking what I consider the core issues of equity, but I’m also incredibly excited by the breadth of where resources go from the Foundation. For example, one of the organizations that benefits most from our donors is the Walker Art Center, which has played an absolutely pivotal role for me since I wandered into it almost by mistake in high school, saw a sculpture by Noguchi, and suddenly realized that art could talk to me in a way that words couldn’t.

Foundation: What will you do in your first 90 days on the job?

R.T.: I learned, with a well-intentioned 90-day plan when I came in as mayor, that it’s a big mistake to have a 90-day plan! When the news was announced that I’d be the next CEO, the first thing I told the Foundation’s staff was, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” I’m here to add value, not to pull things apart. It’s also important to note that the Foundation already has a strategic plan, and we’re going to continue executing it. Especially in the early months, I want to focus on listening to the donor community to learn more about where we can provide the most value.

Foundation: Tell me about an experience you’ve had that has influenced your view of The Minneapolis Foundation and the role it plays in the community.

R.T.: One of the most complicated situations I had to navigate as mayor was when a tornado hit the part of our city that has the greatest disparities. If the tornado had hit another neighborhood, people obviously would have been devastated, but they would have spent a lot of time, say, with the insurance company about their home ownership policy. Things were much more difficult in North Minneapolis. Many people couldn’t just file a claim and wait six months to get paid back from insurance, because they didn’t have the money to get by. For them, having the refrigerator off for a week didn’t just mean throwing out that food; it meant not being able to afford the groceries to restock. I had never dealt with that level of poverty and crisis in combination.

During that crisis, The Minneapolis Foundation was a godsend not only in terms of organizing and mustering resources, but in helping to create a table of community players who could build capacity and provide leadership. I could do a lot from City Hall, and I could do a lot even out on the street, but it was really necessary to build power within the community itself, and the Foundation needed no convincing of that.

Foundation: What’s one thing you miss about being mayor, and one thing you’re looking forward to doing as CEO of The Minneapolis Foundation?

R.T.: One thing I miss about being mayor is being a blatant pitchman for my hometown. I also miss doing the budget, which I know is odd, but it was fun to figure out how to spend $1.4 billion dollars in a way that actually made things happen. What I’m most excited about now is getting to know better this amazing community of people who make up The Minneapolis Foundation. The staff is part of it, but there are also the scores of people who—usually calling very little attention to themselves—are just going around doing great things in the community.