Game Changer

Glen Taylor saw a little bit of himself in the shy kid fumbling to ask questions during a high school business class in Sioux Rapids, Iowa.

The student, Harley Ries, had no particular interest in business or really much else beyond finishing high school that year.

Yet this otherwise unremarkable classroom visit changed the world for Ries. Thanks to Taylor, he is now enjoying his third year
as a Minnesota State University, Mankato business major.

What happened is one of those powerful stories of generosity, thoughtfulness and perseverance. It’s also a fine testimony to raising your hand and asking questions.

Growing up, Ries had encountered several struggles after his parents divorced when he was young. He moved between homes frequently and didn’t have a strong role model at home. Then, as a senior in high school, he found himself on his own.

Not wanting to switch schools and towns again, Ries started living with friends and their families in Sioux Rapids, which has a population of almost 800. And while he was generally interested in attending college, as a part-time Taco John’s employee he had no realistic way to pay for it.

That would soon change.

Students in Donna Sennert’s class had been told that an important business leader named Glen Taylor would be visiting the class in a few days. Taylor, they were told, was a rags-to- riches billionaire businessman and owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx. That he also owned an egg production operation in nearby Spirit Lake, Iowa, prompted Sennert to extend Taylor an invitation to speak to her class.

Taylor visited the class and told his story, which involved growing up in the tiny Minnesota town of Comfrey, which today boasts a population of 379.

“I started asking questions about the Timberwolves, about the business, about his life,” Ries recalls. “And he kind of looked at me a little bit differently when I asked him questions. I remember asking him if the Timberwolves were more of a hobby or a business to him. He said it’s definitely not a hobby, but he loves going to the games. He loves basketball, he loves the players and cares about them so much.”

The questions continued after class in a small-group talk with Taylor, whose demeanor helped ease Ries’ extraordinarily shy nature.

“He was really nice,” Ries says. “I wasn’t afraid of him, I was just really shy and I didn’t know how to talk to him. It was crazy. I was happy I was able to speak one sentence.”

In a thank-you message to Taylor, Sennert mentioned Ries as a promising student who had little support financially or otherwise. If Taylor knew of any way to help, the teacher added, it would be appreciated. Taylor responded quickly, saying he would be interested in providing a scholarship.

The following day, Ries learned that his life would change.

“My teacher pulled me out of the class and into the teachers’ lounge,” he says. “I thought ‘What did I do now?’”

In the teachers’ lounge, she showed him the message from Taylor, which essentially said he would help Ries through college. “Once my teacher and I were done talking, I just sat there and looked straight ahead and didn’t really know what to do. I was like, what’s my life going to be like? What’s going to happen? Where’s Mankato?”

Here’s what happened: A once-shy student arrived as one of more than 15,000 students at Minnesota State Mankato and immersed himself in business classes, including the Integrated Business Experience, in which
he served as the volunteer director of the company. Taking Taylor’s advice, he volunteered for organizations such as ECHO Food Shelf, Students Today, Leaders Forever and the YMCA Big Brother/Big Sister program. He studied abroad in London, serves as a Community Advisor in the residence halls and has established solid relationships— including an ongoing mentorship with Taylor himself. The two meet regularly as part of the deal.

“I saw a little bit of myself in him,” Taylor says. “He had potential but no financial means to get there. That was my position at that age.”

Taylor adds that Ries’ self-confidence has soared over his three years at Minnesota State Mankato. “He was so bashful and intimidated,” Taylor remembers. “Today he’s so much more confident and outgoing. I saw (the potential) in him, but he didn’t see it in himself.”

Ries is determined to be a business leader along the lines of his mentor.

“It’s not that I look at the future hoping I’m going to be rich,” he says. “I just want to make a change in people’s lives. Because Glen was there for me when I needed it the most and completely changed my life. And that motivates me to help people too.”  —Joe Tougas