Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, joined the charity in 2013 after 18 years as president and CEO of Wells College in Aurora, New York.
In an interview with Washington Business Journal, Lisa Marsh Ryerson reveals how her love of work began early. Her parents instilled in their six children the idea that hard work was important, rewarding and fun. And from babysitting to McDonald’s to teaching to serving as president of Wells College — a private liberal arts college in upstate New York — and now as president of the AARP Foundation, Ryerson has carried those lessons with her, maintaining a constant energy for the job at hand.
Career goals as a kid: When I was growing up and really thinking about it, I was absolutely focused on thinking I would be an attorney. I had a vision that I might be a litigator on the floor of a courtroom. I was always interested in putting facts together. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be some of my favorites.
Early work: I was raised in a family where hard work was always valued. We went to work as soon as possible. I kept my job at McDonald’s in college. I actually learned a lot of life lessons there. It was one of many jobs. I always had a couple of jobs going at once.
Time at Wells: I went to Wells as a work-study student, and started working in the dining hall. I can say that I went from the dish room to the presidency. I didn’t know that I’d stay in Aurora, New York for so long. I thought I was headed to other places, but I ended up taking a job in admissions. Wells was a women’s college and supporting women is a real passion of mine. When I was about ready to leave, I moved into student affairs. I left to become a classroom teacher, but then I returned to higher education. I was dean of students, which was challenging and wonderful. I became executive vice president, then acting president and then president. I stayed 18 years and left in 2013.
On leaving higher ed: Part of leadership is knowing when it’s time to leave. You have to know when an organization needs to have a new leader and when you need to have a new challenge.
The decision to move to D.C.: It was a big decision for us. Two of our children were grown, but my youngest daughter, Julie, was just entering her senior year in high school. We decided that my girls were raised in a family with a focused, working mother. I had always worked and was involved in the community. Our youngest was able to live day to day with another sister to stay in the area for the rest of her school. If Julie had the chance to talk to you she’d say they were raised to be independent, and this encouraged her to be even more so.
Focus for the foundation: What remains a focus in 2017 is that we have all the positives about 10,000 people turning 65 every day. But that growing adult population, with all that wisdom and experience and talent, it also means that many of the growing adult population are low income and vulnerable. A key challenge is making sure we keep the dialogue going to let people know that millions of adults 50 and older live in poverty. Our challenge is to make sure we magnify knowledge and information about the lives of older adults.
The foundation’s work: We work across four broad and connected areas to ensure that older adults have access to nutritious and affordable food, housing that is safe and affordable, access to work and to income-generating opportunities, and to help the growing number of older adults that are lonely or socially isolated.
Battling isolation: There are lonely and socially isolated people across the lifespan, but for a variety of reasons the likelihood increases as you age because you left your community, you have mobility impairment or you’ve lost your friends. We’re working on an engagement program called “Connect2Affect.” It’s an online portal that offers practical tips and advice and a space for individuals to share their stories with us.
The job so far: In a few words, an incredible experience and opportunity. It’s a total honor for me every day to be able to be the champion of our important mission. I am aware every day of the responsibility I have to my team. I get to travel quite a bit and I learn so much from everyone that I meet and the conversations that I have. We are working hard to make sure the fundamental conversation about senior poverty is lifted up from the shadows.
Volunteer work: I’ve supported theater, music and the arts throughout my life. I try to support not just through volunteering and as a donor but as a leader as well. I have the opportunity to serve on boards that are important to me, including the Congressional Hunger Center and L.A. Kitchen.
Best advice from a mentor: One that has been consistent from a couple key mentors in my life is to stay focused and stay the course. It’s so easy to be thrown of course for any of us. I give that advice to individuals now. It all circles right back to my first job at McDonald’s — hard work matters. Customer satisfaction and service is really important. I’m so pleased that I had to work when I was young and it was encouraged as something that was important. You found out that you could work and have fun doing that.
Favorite hobbies: I love the museums. I’m lucky that my work is so close to the Portrait Gallery. I’m just staring my fourth year in the District, so my husband and I are working our way back through all the Smithsonian museums.