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John Ridgeway (Photo credit: Easely Blessed Photography)

John Ridgeway, the former chairman of The Groove Fund board of directors, currently serves as the corporate manager of Toyota Financial Services in Owings Mills, Maryland. Ridgeway diligently oversees over 350 associates, who provide exceptional services to both customers of Toyota and Lexus dealers. Ridgeway’s 30 years as an executive have afforded him an opportunity to leave a legacy of improving enterprise development, and more important, playing a pivotal role in charitable giving that Toyota offers to underprivileged residents of the Black community through strategic partnerships with prominent organizations like the National Urban League and other various empowerment initiatives. Rolling out recently spoke to Ridgeway to find out more about Toyota’s corporate sponsorship programs, job opportunities and the focus for their charity moving forward.

Can you share the importance of Toyota’s partnership with the Urban League?

Toyota believes in the Urban League’s efforts to create jobs, improve communities and educate youth. It fits right into our philanthropic model. It’s really the right thing to do.

The theme of this year’s national conference is “Empowering Communities and Changing Lives.” In your opinion, how is sustainable change created in struggling urban communities?

It starts with a clear, simple and measurable objective and a goal with success along the way. And then you have to build a foundation that is built to last and what I mean by that is you really start out with an infrastructure within the community then you get the support of companies like Toyota to partner with companies like the Urban League. The builds are based upon education, reinvestment and really what I call transformation from mentorship to sponsorship. It requires more than writing a check. It also requires us to give personal advice to youth and bring youth into our site and education components. It starts from the youth level all the way up to the college level.

There are many areas that need to be addressed when discussing community empowerment. What has been Toyota’s primary community focus?

Our primary community focus has been with the youth starting at elementary on through college. We’ve done it in several ways and right now we work with the Boys & Girls Clubs. We have “Diplomas to Degrees” in which we will take some of our actual associates to spend time with the youth in the inner cities sharing with them the importance of getting an education and the importance of going to college and completing their education. We also support other organizations in addition to the Urban League like “Junior Achievement” that really has a financial literacy component to educate youth on how you have to properly utilize your money and spend it. We also work with some of the HBCUs and currently we support their efforts through some of the unrestricted scholarship funds. It’s all about retention because one of the problems that we have today with our colleges is that students are unable to finish because they just don’t have the funds to do simple things like afford books. We also help out other crisis centers for non-student’s parents where resources are needed. We help the re-entry program. We even visit the juvenile justice system to mentor kids back into the re-entry program.

Lack of access to money and resources has been a consistent complaint of urban residents trying to get ahead. Does Toyota offer job opportunities and/or training programs to individuals who are interested in potential career possibilities?

Most definitely, my primary responsibility is on the financial services side where we have an operation located in Owings Mills, Maryland just on the outside of Baltimore where we employ right around 450-475 associates. I’ve been in that operation for 10 years and we’ve had an ongoing process to hire since then. We’ve had yet to have a layoff there. We’ve built a very good system in place and we have a program where anyone can enhance their career called GPS (Grow Perform Succeed) and it’s based on education, experience, and exposure. We also work with a lot of local colleges to get discounts for students or employees who want to continue their education. We focus on ownership so we really prefer that our associates work very hard to build a career because once they integrate that, their career will be rewarding and fulfilling.

Oftentimes, the children most in need of resources are the most difficult to reach. How do you penetrate communities to ensure that those most in need of life changing empowerment understand the opportunities that are available to them?

There are several ways. You definitely have to find a common interest and you definitely have to show and build trust with the children in the community. You can work with several agencies to do that. I referenced earlier that we do things with the Boys & Girls Clubs. They actually have an avenue to reach the youth that builds a nice connection. We’ve actually brought youth out to our site. They see the business and they get a chance to see what success looks like. It’s about building trust. Youth want to know that you care and they want to know that their lives matter to you and it’s just not a one and done scenario. We have some of our associates that actually spend a whole year with the youth by nurturing, mentoring ad talking about their grades and hobbies. Then we did some things that really did inspire the youth. One year in school we worked extensively in tutoring through mentoring with on-site visits to our center. We even had a youth symposium where we had a football player come out and he talked about the fatherless athlete. All those little things built out to bigger things to hopefully have what we call the successful youth. Financial literacy is very important to let youth understand that there is more than just going out and buying a car. We talk about how to invest and save your money. What does it mean to give back to your community? What is really important is that after we educate the youth it’s important that they give back and build upon that.

Terrance Pratt

Brand Strategist and arts evangelist. Catch me on IG @tpratt111