Richard Lewis incarnates the body, soul and spirit of Black history. Adversity and challenge weren’t strangers in his past endeavors, and they endure today, but persistence lifted Lewis to his present position as the president and CEO of RTL Networks, a local enterprise with a global footprint. According to a Denver Business Journal profile on Lewis, he claims a couple of setbacks – being laid off two times in as many years at the turn of the century – as the impetus for his current success and inspiration for Lewis to launch RTL Networks in 2002.
The company markets itself as “Your Solutions Provider,” providing, among other services, IT cyber security and maintenance that have reaped, according to his bio, nearly $200 million. In two decades, the company’s setbacks, successes and accolades have prompted Lewis to consider how he can apply his own experiences in support of the Black community.
As an extension of both his experiences and acknowledgement of Black history, Lewis established the RTL Foundation, a 501(C)3 nonprofit in 2021 with a mission to Provide and support educational opportunities in the areas of history, technology and entrepreneurship and advocating for unity of all people while promoting economic opportunity for the historically disenfranchised and underprivileged. As a part of this mission, the RTL Foundation is “standing up” the BIPOC Nonprofit Development Center (BNDC) to assist BIPOC lead and serving nonprofits. As RTL Foundation states on its website, www.RTL-foundation.org, the nonprofit intends to support rather than compete with similar organizations. “There are an abundance of minority led and serving nonprofits in the Denver Metro doing fantastic work,” the RTL Foundation website explains. “As opposed to starting a new organization with a new or overlapping mission, the RTL Foundation endeavors to be more of a convener and to provide support infrastructure.”
The foundation will have a new home soon. Scheduled for opening this spring, it will reside at 2900 Welton Street, Denver’s historical nexus of Black culture and commerce. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color, the historically marginalized communities not only outside society’s epicenter, but often under its radar. The BNDC will serve sort of as a non-profit incubator/accelerator, offering nonprofits opportunities to network, communicate and collaborate. The member organizations also have access to office and event space, conference rooms, media production equipment, seminars, training , fundraising support and an art gallery. The BNDC provides these nonprofits a place and a platform to maximize performance for the minority communities they service – all at what Lewis describes as “deeply discounted rates,” allowing nonprofits with minimal resources a chance at maximum returns.
The foundation recognizes famous TV and radio personality Casey Kasem’s adage – “success doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” allowing fledgling nonprofits opportunities to network and partner. As Lewis writes in an email exchange with Denver Urban Spectrum, “In addition to connecting community serving organizations to the communities they serve, the BNDC will also connect community serving organizations to each other.”
He further explains, “The RTL Foundation desires to see a Denver Metro community where more of the historically underserved communities are able to receive the necessary support they need to improve their quality of life; and we are convinced that one of the most effective routes to this outcome is to provide this necessary assistance to our BIPOC led and serving nonprofits, to enable them to effectively scale up their operations and increase their capacity to serve.”
Offering trainings, seminars and workshops on topics ranging from sustainability to scalability to grant writing, the ambitious endeavor reflects a lifetime of his personal and professional experiences on what frustrates and drives success.
Lewis is both the face and soul of RTL Networks and the RTL Foundation. While his colleagues, customers and community all contribute to the company’s and organization’s successes, it was he who first envisioned and subsequently created what ultimately emerged. His company bio reads like the ideation of the All-American Success Story. Senior class president and heavily recruited athlete. A graduate of the US Air Force Academy, he later earned an MBA and MS in Computer Science. He served 10 years in the Air Force, earning the rank of Captain. His professional resume lists stints in senior management at Cisco Systems, Qwest and Avaya and highlights honors including Inc 500 recognition, E&Y’s 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year for the Mountain Desert Region, Cisco System’s “Business Partner of the Year in the Public Sector,” and the Department of Defense’s “Small Business of the Year in the Pike’s Peak Region.” But Lewis remembers the sometimes tenuous and turbulent journey that led to his current place and position.
When asked what inspired him on his success path, considering the apparent success at all his endeavors, he emailed a revealing response. “Well… first let me say that while I am flattered by your stellar opinion of my track record, I have not been successful in all my endeavors. Not even close. My failures in love, business, and family have been epic! But we live, we learn, and we never give up.”
His words aren’t mere modesty. Lewis offers an example of an early challenge – one he might not have conquered had it not been for the boost and encouragement of a supportive shoulder and helping hand.
During his grade school days, teachers categorized Lewis as a “slow learner,” recommending a special academic program that fit what they believed was his limited potential. They advised his mother not to set high academic expectations for her son. But she refused their program and prediction, enrolled him in a different school, and challenged him to “not just ‘go along’ with the school’s recommendation.” The teachers’ early profile of Lewis could’ve sabotaged his later life, but an early influence – his mother – changed course.
As he notes, others aren’t so fortunate. “I was young, but I remember believing what the teachers said about me, because after all… they were the experts and school was hard for me,” Lewis recounts. “Fortunately, my mom’s influence prevailed and I ended up doing quite well academically by the time I got to high school, but I’ve always wondered how many others were not so fortunate. How much greatness was snuffed out before it even had a chance?”
It’s this thought that guides his designs for the RTL Foundation and its home, the BNDC. Lack of opportunity, encouragement, guidance and resources limits not only people, but it also limits the organizations and their associated good intentions to assist. Underserved communities at society’s periphery face additional obstacles. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a hot and hip component of modern commerce, everywhere from Fortune 500 companies to startups. But Lewis’s dedication to the ideal predates the concept’s current vogue. It comes from experiences in a childhood classroom where his mother, not the teachers, educated him in the school of encouragement, commitment, collaboration and confidence.
Despite the prospect of something the size and scope of the BNDC, along with the assorted hurdles already cleared and those still in the headlights and around the bend, Lewis isn’t cowed by myriad obstacles. When asked if any particular moments or events stood out as life changing along his personal and professional progression, his response isn’t any one example. “There are too many individual moments to recall, but the one common thread for all my endeavors that proved life changing and progressive is the level of difficulty. The more difficult the challenge, the more impactful the outcome,” he responds. With that reasoning and attitude, if the foundation and the center present difficult challenges, their vision and mission will be realized with even greater impact.
That’s not to infer that he anticipates the foundation’s future completely cast in a rosy glow. Pollyannish naivety isn’t among the attributes that propelled him to leader of a company with global reach and multimillion dollar revenues. Beside his professional experiences, he also claims a wealth of personal encounters with the underserved communities the foundation intends to support – and the accompanying constraints that discourage their success. Many of these constraints he sees as indigenous to communities of color are reflected in the personal regard he reserves for Black History Month.
“For me personally, Black history is a 365-days-a-year event,” he writes in describing what the observance means to him. “However, the month of February is a time to celebrate and reflect on how far we have come as a ‘people’ and to soberly assess how far we still have to go. I ask if I’ve done all I can to advance as an individual… what have I learned and accomplished over the past year, what books have I read, what have I done to increase my own potential to grow? Did I do my part over the past year to help others, just as so many before me have done their part to make sure I had the opportunities I have had in life? What will I learn this coming year and how will I help others?”
That’s a substantial laundry list of reflections; one that would intimidate many people in the hurried and harried Information Age with its countless distractions. It appears that the RTL Foundation and its home, the BNDC, is a consequence of the questions posed within that ponderance. Lewis penned a post for the Black Resilience in Colorado blog that expanded on his personal perspective of Black History Month’s significance. It’s a testament to not only his experiences, but examples of obstacles threaded through not only Black history, but throughout communities of color. Near the post opening, he asserts, “Many contend that the race-based barriers of the past are ‘ancient history’ and that all communities are now on a level playing field. But these claims don’t match the facts.”
He notes that the Black community has succeeded since emancipation, but the few success stories in the spotlight overshadow the many shortcomings in the shadows. “There has always been just enough success in the Black community to provide the illusion that equality has arrived,” he writes. “But the truth is, the percentage of wealth owned by Black Americans today is not much different than it was 100 years ago. In fact, the Black community has lost ground.”
He backs up that dismal observation with statistics. “In 1968, the median Black household had just 9.4% of the wealth of the median white household, according to federal data. In 2016, that ratio fell to just 8.7%. The wealth divide widened over nearly a half century of what’s commonly regarded as a period of notable progress for Blacks.” He adds, that is “the sobering assessment of how far we have to go.”
His words are a reminder of something that the late civil rights activist Dick Gregory said in a Denver Urban Spectrum interview over two decades ago. Gregory stated something along the lines that things may have actually regressed in the three-plus decades between the ‘60s civil rights struggles and the new millennium since injustices, inequalities and disparities commanded more attention (likely due to greater media coverage brought on with the Civil Rights Movement) during what is often referred to as the Age of Aquarius. The late civil rights icon John Lewis also asserted that true equality hadn’t been reached when interviewed for another Urban Spectrum feature.
Richard Lewis (no relation to John) views the statistics about inequity that he quotes as a treatable challenge. As he states, “The more difficult the challenge, the more impactful the outcome.” But he’s also a realist, recognizing that problems aren’t treated, let alone cured, without action. Wishful thinking alone is nothing more than a placebo, a simple panacea elusive if not fantastical. But he touts philanthropy as a proven remedy. “I think deeper philanthropic engagement within the Black community is needed,” he writes in his blog post.
He later expounds with a lesson in Black history, “The truth is, philanthropy has always shown up in the Black community. We’ve always self-cared, and have given back, supported, and uplifted each other – from preparing food for sick and mourning neighbors, to raising the children of siblings or neighbors, and creating formal organizations to address systemic issues.”
He further advises, “Those of us who have achieved at any level should do what we can to answer this call, understanding that countless others came before us – Black Americans who failed, sacrificed, marched, toiled and died fighting against the barriers this country constructed to block Blacks from opportunities.”
From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Obama (the election of the first Black president of the United States), equality for Black communities (and communities of color) seemed within reach if not a done deal; both media and politicians celebrated a colorblind society. Others declared discrimination both an anachronism and a card played for personal gain. But the last decade has revealed serious fissures in the façade of racial and ethnic harmony.
Lewis didn’t need the relatively recent reports about worsening inequity to enlighten him to the persistent problem. His personal and professional experiences swept aside that illusion. Those portraying discrimination as an historical artifact are as wrong as the teachers who advised his mother to surrender high hopes for her son’s academic success.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement relied on philanthropy to survive and thrive; nonprofit Black churches energized the fabled ‘60s struggles. With Lewis committing to a year-round observance of Black History Month, the work of both the RTL Foundation and its home, the upcoming BNDC nexus in Five Points, will extend his past victories into the present and beyond. Those triumphs – both big and small – will play out on a daily basis throughout the year courtesy of its nonprofit members and their philanthropy within marginalized communities of color.