Clifton and Alisa Ross

A CEO’s unusual journey to success

In 1992, Clifton Ross had two “almost miraculous” experiences.

The first was that a kid from the South Side of Chicago, who grew up seeing his hard-working single mom usually just a few hours a day, graduated from high school. The second was that he was accepted into college. And even though he didn’t graduate from college, Ross sees his time at North Central University (then North Central Bible College) as a turning point for the rest of his life.

Ross explained how North Central became part of his miracle: “I barely graduated high school, so it was really almost miraculous. After high school, a friend of mine got shot—and he was going off to college. He had a full-ride scholarship and everything, and then he got shot.” Ross didn’t have college, or anything planned at that point, but knew he had to get out of Chicago.

“I wrote to colleges—I had graduated in June and this was July and August—and was getting laughed at, with a 1.3 GPA and school starting in about weeks.”

Ross received the basic response, “We don’t think college is for you.” But then North Central let him in.

“I think that’s really remarkable.” Ross reflected, “that someone in admissions … looked at this kid from the South Side of Chicago, inner-city kid, 1.3 GPA, obviously not college material and [must have thought] ‘He’s trying to get out.’ And they admitted me. That person really changed my life and put my life on the course that it’s on today. So I really owe them a debt of gratitude. God really used that person, who didn’t even know what they were doing and the significance of it, but they were changing my life and the life of my kids and multiple generations.”

Not your typical student

Today, Clifton Ross is President and CEO of Guardian Resources, a financial planning company that focuses primarily on retirement. He shared that while North Central was pivotal in changing his life trajectory, it was not through the typical four-year process most go through.

Upon arrival just a couple of weeks after being accepted, Ross made a big discovery, explaining with a smile, “Apparently they still want you to study and do homework and all the same stuff I did in high school. My grades were nothing to be impressed about.”

But Ross did experience a sense of calling toward business. He was learning that he had the heart of an entrepreneur and believed he was going to build businesses. However, at that time, North Central Bible College did not have the robust programs in business and technology that it does today.

Clifton Ross with friends at North Central in the early 1990s.Despite the fact that Ross loved everything about North Central from the spiritual and social aspects—he was even elected Freshman Class President—he left after one year.

Once back in Chicago, he realized it wasn’t feasible for him to live at home, so he returned to Minneapolis. Some of his friends said he could stay in their apartment for a while. He was living near North Central and still hanging out with his friends who were students, but when his roommates asked him to pay rent and he confessed he couldn’t afford to, they asked him to leave.

Five words that saved his life

It was November 1994, and Ross knew he needed to find a place to stay quickly. “I called my grandma, the secret weapon! Without fail, your grandmother will never let you fall, I thought. So I called her and said, ‘Grandma, it’s not working out; they’re not letting me stay here.” Ross was sure she would invite him to come home and stay with her.

Instead, his grandmother said five words that Clifton Ross believes saved his life: “Have you called any shelters?”

“Those five words saved my life,” Ross said, “because I realized, this is it. There is no home. There is no going back. There’s just me and now, period.

A plea and a prayer

Faced with that and no more exit routes, I did the only thing I knew to do. I hit my knees and I said, ‘God, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I’m doing, but you created me. And if you created me, you must’ve had a purpose. Whatever you created me for, obviously I don’t know it. So I’m just going to give my life to you and you do it.”

After his prayer, Ross walked outside and started asking people if they needed a roommate. Amazingly, he found a guy who did but didn’t have a place yet. Then he saw a “For Rent” sign in a window of a nearby apartment and called the number. The woman who owned it said, “I’ve talked to 12 other people, but for some reason, I feel like I’m supposed to give it to you.”
This was progress. Ross had a roommate and an apartment, but he didn’t have enough money to pay rent. He was working one part-time job but needed more than that provided.

Then things continued to fall into place. He applied for full-time work and got a full-time job as a supervisor. He was going to quit his part-time job, but they asked him to stay on as a trainer in the evenings—a schedule that would fit with his new hotel job and even included a pay raise.

“Within 12 days of me hitting my knees,” Ross recalled, “I went from being homeless to having an apartment and a roommate and was a supervisor at two jobs at 19 years old.” It was a turning point in his faith and his life. “I said, ‘God, you did more in my life in 12 days than I have done in 19 years; you can keep it. I’m good.’ And so that’s what really set my trajectory up for business and discipline.”

“Looking back,” Ross reflected, “North Central got me here and it gave me an environment that I could be comfortable and be confident in. My grandma telling me to call shelters woke me up and caused me to hit my knees, and then God put me on a path of leadership and business.”

Ross’s formal education may have ended early, but he has continued to learn all along the way. “I had to create my own curriculum,” Ross said. He has read at least a book a month and has for years. “I’m sure I have some degrees in something,” he quipped; “it’s just not a conventional curriculum.”

A different kind of education

As an African American, Clifton Ross has had a heavy heart about the events of the past year and has had opportunities for a different kind of education. He regularly finds himself in conversations where he is both a learner and a teacher. When he is invited to share his experiences as a Black man in America, both formally and informally, he takes the educational process very seriously.

“As a Black American, as a father, a person, a CEO,” Ross said, “in a word, it’s been quite a painful year. But there’s always some pain in the African American experience because there will always be people who have just made it up in their mind that [because of the color of my skin], I am ‘less than,’ and I always will be—and there’s nothing that I can do about that mindset.

“That’s just the way it is. And I have to live among that, and I have to raise my kids among that and build my business among that. There’s a weight there that I can only give to the Lord.”

“I think my ancestors are remarkable,” Ross reflected. “Why didn’t they just summarily just say, ‘Let’s just [give up] and spare the future generations?’ But they just lived, even though they would never realize freedom. And because of that choice, I’m here today. So somehow, they learned to live with this incredible injustice.

“It’s not to that same extent, but there is some resigning [I have] to do because of the racial history of this country. I just have to contend with that climate.”

This is the education that Ross hopes to share with those who don’t share in the Black experience. He said we can’t just press a button to change that climate any more than a person can make Minnesota 75 and sunny in February.

Ross said the challenge is to help people understand how living in a climate with racism—both subtle and direct—impacts Black people in ways they don’t see. Just as people are affected by the sun, or heat, or cold based on their biological make-up, the racial climate affects Black people differently. “That’s where I—we—get hurt, when I talk to well-meaning people who actually do love us but don’t understand that we’re affected by the climate in different ways than they are.”

Clifton Ross is still hopeful. “We have to have an appreciation that we’re all human and we’re still on a journey progressively getting better,” he said. “I hope I’m a different person today than I was 10 years ago. And I’m assuming I’ll be a different person 10 years from now, so I’m not done yet. We need to give people room to grow.”

 

Photo top: Clifton Ross with his wife, Alisa.
Photo center: Clifton with friends from North Central in 1994.

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