The Kid from Youngstown, Ohio: He’s Done Checking the Boxes
The universe will show you your path in life. But it’s not like a Hollywood movie where an angelic figure appears. Often it’s punctuated by a simple action. At an early age, Ronnell Richards received the message and was destined for success when his father, Al Richards, turned around one morning and saw little Ronnell was dressed for kindergarten in a suit—so the story goes, according to Al, over the telephone in June 2022.
Ronnell didn’t need prompting; he just did it. By choosing to wear a suit, Ronnell was signaling that he understood what was expected of him. He was ready.
The Midwest is where hard work and hard times forge the character of its residents. Ronnell’s life began in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1976. Akron (where NBA star Lebron James grew up) is 50 miles West of Youngstown, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is 67 miles to the southeast.
With coal and iron ore plentiful nearby, Youngstown’s steel mills attracted people whose bodies were ready to work themselves to the bone, often in dangerous conditions for a better life. In the 1930s, Youngstown reached its peak population of over 170,000 people. But throughout the city’s history, there have been hard times, whether it was union organizing, labor strikes, or the Great Depression.
Hard times have fallen on the city and the Rust Belt, where industries have left, like kids moving out of their parent’s homes but never to return. Today, the population is barely 60,000 and no longer the mecca of industry or opportunity. These decaying communities are as far from the mythical middle-class dream as the moon is to the Earth—visible but out of reach.
Hard times have fallen on the city and the Rust Belt, where industries have left, like kids moving out of their parent’s homes but never to return.
A Better Life
Al Richards and his cousin (who was his best friend) came to the house to see Sherry’s brother. Sherry Clinkscale was 16 then, and Al immediately fell for her. Sherry acknowledges they were “younguns.” Ronnell arrived a year later. His sister, Tasha (Richards-Mobasher), followed in 1980 and his younger brother, Jahmel, in 1983 (Jahmel was raised apart from his siblings).
Sherry, the second of six children, was born in 1958 to Lillie Taylor and Edward Clinkscale, Sr., a steelworker and preacher’s son. Al, born in 1956, is 11th of eighteen children. His father James’ first wife bore eight children before she died. James remarried, and the couple had ten more. The families were part of the Great Migration, from the south to the north.
Sherry and Al (I picture two giddy teenagers, crammed into the front seat of a car, side by side, holding hands) who have been married for 41 years, provide the details of their lives together. When one pauses, the other completes the sentence. It’s a partnership that endures.
Three of Al’s older brothers worked in steel mills, but those mills began closing in the 1970s and 1980s. Bad times would have an unexpected silver lining when Al visited his cousin in Utah, who was in the Air Force (Al was in the Air Force reserves at the time). Hill Air Force Base is eight miles south of Ogden. By happenstance, Al met a Westinghouse representative, who informed him they needed workers to build a plant in the desert to produce material for nuclear reactors.
Al returned to Youngstown and was offered a job by the foreman over the phone just as he got home. The man asked, “How soon can you come back?” In about a week and a half, Al was in Utah working for Westinghouse. He left Sherry behind, but not for good; she soon boarded a bus to Utah with young Ronnell to interview with the IRS. She got the job and arrived about three months after Al. On a desolate tract of sand, Al would help build two buildings and a future for his family.
We wanted better. So we moved to Utah—that was better.
Sherry says, “We wanted better. So we moved to Utah—that was better. We knew our kids would be in a better environment, even though it was white. But we still felt they could benefit, and they could be more focused.”
One of a Few
Ronnell was three and a half at the time of the move. The family settled in Ogden, Utah, 36 miles north of Salt Lake City. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Richards family was one of only a few black families in the area. It was an endurance race to navigate this white space, but as Sherry states, Youngstown had problems, too, including racism.
I meet Ronnell on a Zoom video conference call in June 2022. He’s sitting in a burgundy chair, wearing a black Under Armour short-sleeved shirt with the distinctive green logo. He has an iPhone in his left hand and an Apple watch on the same wrist. His mustache and beard are trimmed low, with eyeglasses front and center—reminiscent of Malcolm X (based on Ronnell’s social media videos, the brother is fit, standing at 6’-1”).
Ronnell is a connector of divergent people, cultures and ideas. His office is a welcoming cocoon, featuring an NBA Jam video game in the corner, over his right shoulder. Framed eclectic album covers showcase Wu-Tang, The Ramones, Mobb Deep, Blondie, Outkast/A Tribe Called Quest and others. Ronnell’s musical choices are a bridge, connecting people.
Ronnell says, “My parents were very intentional about how they raised us to be proud of who we are. Always have your head up; always be upfront.” His parents didn’t only teach him to be good; they taught him he had to be better than everyone else.
To support their philosophy, Al and Sherry exposed their kids to images of Black culture. Ronnell remembers seeing pictures of African kings and queens. They celebrated Juneteenth (before it became a federal holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day, signed into law by President Biden in 2021), Black History month and other important dates, and there were trips to Ohio and Atlanta, to stay connected to their family roots.
Sherry says, “We raised Ronnell and his sister to always be better than what they believed themselves to be, because [that’s] how we were raised—you know, the odds always seem to be against you. We didn’t want Ronnell to come up believing that he could never soar, never go beyond where he was, but that he can, and he has, and he continues to.”
Looking back, Ronnell felt like he was “always on display,” which impacted how he grew up. As if hearing it for the first time, Sherry says, “Yeah, that’s powerful. I can see why he would feel that way—he was always the only African American in the classroom.” From an early age, he had to carefully navigate white spaces.
Life was tough for Ronnell. “He didn’t have role models,” Sherry says. He didn’t have people of color that he could relate to, but we both felt where you are, you belong—just as much as these people who are here.”
I was confused; I was hurt because I was a good kid
He didn’t feel welcomed. Once, Ronnell was walking with Tasha to his cousin’s house in Utah when a police cruiser stopped him, and the police officers searched his backpack for stolen car stereos. He was eleven at the time—his sister was seven years old. “I was confused; I was hurt because I was a good kid,” says Ronnell. That hurt never left him.
Sherry felt that some teachers were intimidated by Ronnell because he would speak what was on his mind. She told Ronnell, “They’re not used to this, but that doesn’t mean for you to reduce yourself to what they want.” She added, “You’re better than what and who you believe yourself to be.” Al adds, “Your kids can’t always be first, but you just don’t want them to be last.”
The children were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses. They were the minority in race, culture and religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as the Mormon Church or LDS Church, dominates life in Utah, influencing everything, including politics. The LDS Church has 17 million members and over 54,000 full-time volunteer missionaries worldwide.
The Seeds of Selling
Al and Sherry gave Ronnell the tools for success. They had a set of encyclopedias at home for learning. He had a computer at age five—according to Ronnell, “nobody had computers [then].” His voice grows louder with excitement when he states, “my dad was always on top of those types of things.”
Most people are afraid of public speaking. Not Ronnell. Coming up in the church, Ronnell became a public speaker at an early age. Ronnell says, “I started public speaking by knocking on doors at eight years old; my mother was always with us.” This was part of being a Jehovah's Witness.
A promising future was nearly derailed when Ronnell was failing eighth-grade algebra. As Al remembers the story, after numerous visits to the school, he brought a camera to the classroom to record the algebra teacher in Ronnell’s class. He discovered it was the first time the teacher (trained to teach English classes) had taught the subject. With Al’s persistence and the video camera evidence, an understanding was reached: Ronnell passed algebra with a “C” grade.
After graduating from high school, Ronnell attended Weber State University in Ogden. The idea of working at a jewelry store in the mall became a priority. The jewelry business shined. Ronnell states, “They looked like they made some money; they looked like they are doing all right.” At that time, Morgan Jewelers were the “kings” of the mall.
In true Ronnell fashion, the church kid was wearing a suit when he walked into Morgan Jewelers at the Ogden City Mall to apply for a job—Al jokes it was the same suit from kindergarten. Ronnell remembers wearing a trench coat and having his resume in his brief case. “I was as professional as an eighteen-year-old kid can be,” says Ronnell. Adding to his aura, he states, “I was born thirty years old.”
Ronnell completed the application process and left feeling good. Later, he would find out from the store owner's daughter that the manager threw his resume in the trash—Ronnell believes this was discrimination.
The owner’s daughter fished Ronnell’s resume out of the trash and faxed it to another store location (to this day, Ronnell uses that manager as motivation). He interviewed at the other store with Jeff Cutler. Ronnell states, “Of course, I got the damn job, and I went on to kick ass in there!”
It was a match made in retail heaven. Ronnell would be the salesman of the month several times. He was so good that he became a manager at the tender age of 21—the youngest in the company's history, according to Ronnell. The other managers were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. He worked there for five years.
Get in Line
In the early 1980s, the Richards owned a beauty hair supply business in Ogden. Al says, “I would put a beautician in the van—we had about twelve beauticians. I put a whole bunch of that Jheri ‘curl juice’ in the back, and we be all set.” They traveled to Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.
Al remembers people lined up at fairs organized by minority churches, waiting to get their hair done. Demand was high because people didn’t have access to the product. Ronnell was seven or eight years old and witnessing it all. When not on the road, he sometimes manned the cash register.
Before starting the beauty products business, Sherry mentioned, she would make puppets and photo albums covered in cloth to sell at flea markets with the help of Ronnell and Tasha. There were lemonade stands for the budding entrepreneurs to hone their skills. Those days would rub off on the kids; even today, Sherry and Tasha operate entrepreneurial ventures.
Ronnell’s calling was selling. After college, he worked for several telecommunications companies, including a few years at AT&T, where he was one of the top-performing sales professionals in the Atlanta market. Leveraging his sales and telecommunications knowledge, Ronnell started RD Direct in 2005 and served as the president until 2017, when the company closed.
Ronnell is an entrepreneur operating multiple ventures. He owns Business & Bourbon (“the anti-networking, networking event”), a platform to help people share stories about business through live events, YouTube videos, a podcast, and great bourbon; Ronnell Richards, a consulting firm that coaches people for success; and Intelligent Business Advisors, which sells technology solutions, generates leads and channels sales expertise.
Oh, Lord have mercy!”
Time to Move
In 2000, Al and Sherry moved to Atlanta, leaving Ronnell behind. Sherry is an actress who has worked in commercials, industrials, print and on the stage. In 2013, she played Jeanette in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
When asked for the secret to the couple’s nearly 41-year marriage, Sherry says, “Oh, Lord have mercy!” Ends with a big sigh. Al chimes in, “Don’t quit your day job.” And Sherry repeats, “Don’t quit your day job.” And Al finishes, “Keep it rolling; get a second job if you have to.”
Ronnell says, “There’s no room I walk into today where I do not own the room because it [Ogden] prepared me for that. But I learned it was painful to get to that point, and I didn’t want my children to experience what I experienced.” He wanted better.
Ronnell and Melanie (Peguese), originally from the Bay area in California, and their two-month-old son, rented a U-Haul and drove to Atlanta twenty years ago. Ronnell and his family are happy in Atlanta. The couple raised their kids, Langston, 20, who attends the University of Georgia, and Alahna, 18, at Georgia State in Atlanta. The family motto “Be better” is in the kids’ DNA, with each making the Dean’s list.
Ken Lundin, the president of Revheat, a company that helps improve sales, has known Ronnell since 2011. His kids played sports together with Ronnell’s kids. He describes Ronnell as genuine, driven and humble. He adds that Ronnell is not afraid to be himself and “will openly talk about mistakes and issues that he’s gone through in his personal life without much of a filter.”
Authenticity attracts people like a bee to a flower. Referring to Ronnell’s Business & Bourbon, Ken states, “He’s trying to take that relationship and perspective and teach others how to do it by building a community that builds relationships within itself.” He is candid when he notes that the biggest misconception about Ronnell is that people believe he has it all figured out. “They don’t understand it’s an iterative, ongoing process, as we all grow and figure out our path in life.”
Ken meets with Ronnell roughly once a month. He believes Ronnell hasn’t figured out his future because the boxes were easier to define and smaller. “They were more tactical: How do I get through this week, this month, the next quarter, and the next six months?”
From his perspective, Ronnell is going through a “rediscovery” phase of what’s possible. “And I believe it’s allowing him to dream bigger than he ever has, but that’s probably also a little bit scary because the boxes aren’t as easy to check off,” says Ken.
No More Box Checking
Ronnell’s parent’s taught him to be better. The more he achieved, the more accolades, awards, and material success resulted—his life is full of trophies of achievement. He says, “I’ve always been a box checker. Check this ticket; keep it moving. Keep moving, never stop, keep moving.”
“I’m hyper cognizant that I represent my people, so I always had to be on, because I’m a sales guy. And he continues to carry the torch of excellence, but it has come at a heavy personal cost, evocative of Nina Simone’s song, “Young Gifted and Black.” She sings,
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth.
As the conversation winds down, Ronnell gives me a virtual tour of his Atlanta office. Ample bottles of bourbon can be seen over his left shoulder on a small table. And toward the front of his office, his one-man Mount Rushmore wall consists of a framed USA Today clipping with the title “America Makes History, Obama Wins.”
The kids’ high-school diplomas rest high on a wall-mounted shelf. The book, Don’t Be a D*ck is prominently displayed on a table behind him. On his desk is a bobblehead of Dwight Schrute, the character from the television show “The Office.” Ronnell’s domain is comfortable, fun, and a safe place for Ronnell to be himself.
On his desk is a photo of Antoine L. Richards, Ronnell’s cousin on his father’s side of the family, who passed away in 2020—their birthdays are two weeks apart. The weight of the loss of Antoine is still too much for Ronnell to bear. He pauses to regain his composure.
His voice cracks with emotion. They were more than cousins—and are forever linked. This is some of the trauma that holds him down, like 300 pounds of weight on his chest. He is working on healing with professional help.
Ronnell seeks to make “real” connections, foster deep relationships, and grow businesses. He's in it for the long haul—like his marriage of 24 years to Melanie. “I couldn’t ask for a better life partner,” he says. Ronnell, the self-proclaimed hip-hop head, remembers her love of Mobb Deep sealing the deal for him when they were still kids.
He’s uncertain of his next move because he hasn’t figured out life. There’s one thing that Ken knows for sure: “Ronnell Richards will leave a mark on this world in a way that everybody who comes in contact with him will be better for it.”
Nina Simone ends her song with uplifting words:
Oh, but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
"To be young, gifted and black
Is where it's at"
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise adventures for people who are curious about the world.