Ryan Blair, ViSalus: My First Million

How Gang Life Prepared Him To Be A CEO

Ryan Blair's path to self-made millionaire was an unlikely one. He grew up in a family environment fraught with domestic abuse, drug use, alcoholism, imprisonment, abandonment and poverty. His father was an engineer who provided a middle-class upbringing for his family until he became addicted to drugs and turned violent. "He would beat my mom with his fist in front of us to prove a point, he would hold guns to her head, spit on her in front of us," Blair said. His dad left when Blair was 13, and with a brother and sister in prison, another sister who fled and a mom who was an alcoholic, he became a ward of the court of California, living in poverty.

Life outside his Torrance, Calif., home was even worse. At 13, Blair joined a gang in which crime and murder were just part of the daily agenda. By the time he was 17, he didn't care whether he lived or died.

But the kid who had always been in the wrong place at the wrong time finally got a lucky break. His mother started dating a wealthy man who moved Blair out of his gang-infested neighborhood. He told Blair he believed in him before Blair believed in himself. With newfound confidence, Blair turned his street smarts into business savvy and at 21, started his first of 10 businesses. In 2005, Blair started his current business, Detroit-based ViSalus, a weight loss and fitness program now valued at $600 million. Today, at 34, he explains his dramatic life change and how making -- and losing -- his first million helped him put his money and his rollercoaster life in perspective.

"The neighborhood I lived in was highly Latin, and gang culture was iconicized, so a 13-year-old boy with no home, no mother, no father, no role model, who is competitive, ambitious and pissed off at the world, is going to find a male role model somewhere. And mine were the older males in a gang.

"The first thing that happens when you're a white kid in a Latin environment is you get picked on by all these other gang members. Right when I moved into the neighborhood, I was playing basketball across the street at the park, and a man, probably 25 years old -- that's a grown man when you're 13 years old -- walked over, threw me to the ground, got on top of me and started beating me. He broke out my bottom two teeth, demolished my face. He said if I wasn't part of his gang, that would happen again. A few months later, I saw his homies at a party, and 10 of them were beating me in front of everyone. This time he told me I was part of the gang.

"I was bad tempered and put to work right away, doing crimes of all sorts. That's just part of the organizational structure of the gang environment. New recruits are asked to do the most despicable things on the gang's agenda and I was deployed as such. They call it dirt -- you have to do your dirt. My grandmother was very spiritual, and she would always tell me about the 10 Commandments and 'thou shalt not kill.' I always believed that if I killed someone, I would go to Hell. They asked me to kill people, but I never did. I would always find an excuse or a way to avoid breaching this very important spiritual belief. But murder was all around. A number of people got shot, a number of people got killed, a number of cars got blown up. There were financial-related crimes, drug dealing, all kinds of burglary. Fortunately, I never killed anyone and don't have to live with that, but unfortunately, I did participate in a gang, and crime was pervasive.

"I would work out when I was a kid, so that when eventually I would go to prison, I wouldn't be punked or taken advantage of. I would literally train for the eventual day that I went to prison like the other guys in my neighborhood and my family. I'd done a couple stints in juvenile hall and been arrested a bunch of times. So my entire vision was to be tough for prison. I had no ambition beyond that.

"My mom started dating a very rich guy, and he was worried my mom or I were going to get killed. He approached me about moving in with him to get us out of the environment. At first, I didn't want to leave my neighborhood, but I ultimately said yes, because I wanted my mom to have a new life. I didn't want her to get killed, although I didn't care about my own survival. Next thing you know, I'm living in the good neighborhood, which was very uncomfortable for me. I had to cover my tattoos, hide my identity and worry the gang members were going to come after me.

"That's when I started to see the other side life. We lived on a lake in a mansion -- Will Smith and Wayne Gretzy lived up the street. This guy had everything I'd ever dreamed of, watching 'Cribs' or 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' I was in awe of the marble, the exotic bird collection. I'd take my mother's boyfriend's car to get it washed, and I'd see how differently the person treated me driving a nice car versus my 1978 Toyota Corolla station wagon. I saw the bigotry of how society treats you when you when you have wealth as opposed to when you're in poverty. I also saw that these people weren't better than me or smarter than me -- it's just that they were rich and I was poor. I made the choice then to become rich, too.

"My stepfather never gave me any money. He was a real stickler about that. But imagine taking this kid with zero confidence, zero self-esteem and putting a guy in front of him who says 'I believe in you.' No teacher ever believed in me, no social worker ever believed in me, no judge believed in me. And suddenly this guy, who was more qualified to give his opinion than anyone I had ever met, said 'I believe in you.'

"I got a job at a recycling place, collecting cans to turn them in for redemption value, then eventually got a job working for my mom's boyfriend doing evictions. It just so happened that when I was 18, the first dot-com wave happened. In 1995, these young guys were making hundreds of millions, billions of dollars, and I decided to go to trade school and learn computers so I could participate. My stepdad was fully supportive. I got my high school GED, enrolled in community college and fell in love with computer science. My first company was a computer repair company called 24/7 Tech, a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week computer repair service I started out of my home. Back then, computers had a lot of crashes and flaws, plus it was right before Y2K, so there was high demand. I would take the calls myself -- I'd have my phone on the nightstand and drive to people's houses and fix their computers for them at 3 a.m., on Sundays, whenever -- before I started hiring people to help cover shifts. That grew into about a $1 million business. I learned a lot about computer sciences, PR, hiring, scaling a business. But in the dot-com bubble, my company busted. My clients no longer paid their bills, so I had to shut the business down.

"After that, I immediately started SkyPipeline, a broadband service provider. I was on the front end of the dot-com era with 24/7 Tech and on the front end of the WiFi era with SkyPipeline. We later sold SkyPipeline for just under $10 million, and I made about $1 million. I was 25 years old and I blew it, spending my money frivolously, buying expensive cars and trying to impress people. I was a dumb poor kid who got rich all of a sudden and then was suddenly poor again. I had no income, no job. I had a $100,000 car and I couldn't afford to put more than $10 of gas in it. I'll never forget those days of having to call banks and negotiate and going through the legal processes of not paying my debts. I was in the worst financial place in my life after having made my first million. I know how terrible it is to unplug your phone because you're sick of bill collectors calling you, and wondering if you're going to get evicted. It was humiliating, particularly after everyone thinks of you as a big success. The day I started ViSalus, I was negative $200,000.

"For me, it was losing my first million and being dead broke that made me worth a lot more than that today. Now I have a company making hundreds of millions annually, but I live in a modest apartment, buy used cars, wear the same old Converses that I did when I was in the gang. To me, now it's more about doing the most I possibly can. I won't stop until I have a billion-dollar company and beyond -- it could happen by 40, it could happen earlier than that.

"When my stepdad died unexpectedly in October 2010, I realized he was my own father all along. I had never accepted him as such and I had 10 days where I held his hand, fed him his last meal, got to reflect on everything. Unfortunately, my mom relapsed into alcoholism and fell down a flight of stairs about 100 days after he died. She is presently on life support, on her death bed. I still go and care for her and tell her how much I love her. It's really hard. I walk out of the room heartbroken, and I could say 'I can't go to work now.' But when the heartbreak and grief kick over me, I choose to see it as something that will make me stronger, a better leader, and an example for my son to follow when one day he loses me. I want other people to turn their shame or grief or poor decision making into their power. I've changed my perspective on my losses in life. If I fail, screw up, make bad decisions, find myself broke, whatever I've done in my life, it's become my source of power. If I can do it, anybody can."

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