Benson Riseman, Jeanette Schneider and Steve Miller epitomize the old adage, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” Their stories of transcending impoverished childhoods and achieving great success through hard work, perseverance and good mentorship are right out of a Horatio Alger novel. The common thread they share is a desire to help others facing hardship like they once did.
BENSON RISEMAN — Entrepreneur/Founder of The Riseman Family Foundation
Benson Riseman was only six years old when his father died, and life became even harder for him and his mom, who lived outside Boston in the blue-collar town of Chelsea.
Yet Riseman says he had a happy childhood. “I didn’t know any different. My mom had so little, yet she gave me so much love. And I had guys from Big Brothers who spent time with me.”
As Riseman got older, he realized that there was a big world outside Chelsea. The way to escape was to go to college, which was a big deal since his mom couldn’t read or write. Riseman went to the University of Tampa on a baseball scholarship, and as a resident dorm advisor he got free room and board.
Years after becoming a successful entrepreneur, Riseman came to understand the value of philanthropy. “Helping struggling inner city kids is my sweet spot,” he said. “I want to help other young Bensons.”
Through the Riseman Family Foundation that he started eight years ago, he and his family support various charities. His family includes his wife, Lee, who is also on the board of Nevada Ballet Theatre; daughter, Chelsea, who is passionate about animals; son, Benjamin; and five-year-old grandson, Baxter.
Riseman hasn’t forgotten his roots. “Five years ago I heard a professional acting troupe wanted to open a youth theater in Chelsea so low-income and single-parent families, who often don’t speak English, could enjoy the performing arts for free,” he said. “The Riseman Family Theatre has become a point of hope for the community and perhaps a stimulus that changes it for the better.”
Riseman sits on the board of the University of Tampa, and he gives scholarships to students at the university’s Lowth Entrepreneurship Center. In addition to writing checks, he visits his alma mater several times a year and mentors kids who are where he once was.
The foundation also supports Venice Arts, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that expands and transforms the lives of low-income youth through photography and film education and amplifies the voices of underrepresented communities.
“I believe in karma,” Riseman said. “What you give comes back. The key is not expecting anything. It’s about being grateful for your blessings.”
JEANETTE SCHNEIDER — Financial Advisor, Author and Public Speaker
“My dad worked hard to provide for us, but we lived in a poor, violent neighborhood full of drug traffickers and domestic abuse,” Jeanette Schneider said. “I realized my mom was an alcoholic when I was five. She was always drunk, passed out or angry, and I never received any nurturing or loving support from her.”
Schneider says her father was the catalyst for her becoming an author and public speaker.
“He gave me my first journal and encouraged me to write,” said Schneider, whose book, Lore: Harnessing Your Past to Create Your Future, just came out.
Her dad was a Jehovah’s Witness, and as part of their practice, Schneider would speak in front of thousands of people starting when she was six.
“It’s important we know what our gifts are,” Schneider said. “Mine is being able to stand on a stage, share my story and connect with an audience.”
“As a teenager I had no expectation that I could do more than get a job that paid the bills. When I earned a scholarship, I didn’t know what to do with it, nor did my parents. The fact that I’ve had 23 amazing years in the financial sector, and am a senior vice president, institutional and private client advisor, at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, managing billions of dollars, is an anomaly.”
Schneider is leaving that position at the end of the year to devote her time to writing and her role as the founder of Lore Advocacy, a network of professional women whose goal is to inspire women to change the world through a gender lens of equality, self-actualization and the shattering of glass ceilings.
“After having my daughter, Olivia, I realized I don’t want her to have to fight as much as I did working in a male-dominated industry. Most of what we believe about ourselves and the world comes from generational, social and cultural messaging. It’s hard work poking holes in our belief systems and differentiating between truth and story so we can learn to love ourselves — scars and all — and create a new conversation. But it’s so worth it.”
STEVE MILLER — Chief Executive Officer of The Andre Agassi Foundation for Education and Agassi Graf Holdings LLC
Steve Miller grew up on the poor side of Chicago where five family members shared a one-bedroom apartment.
“My parents slept in the front room on a bed that pulled out of the wall, while my brother, uncle and I took turns sleeping in the bedroom on a twin bed or on the floor,” Miller said.
His father was a Navy mechanic who served in World War II until Miller was three years old. His mom, who worked in a factory, struggled to read and write.
“Education or career goals were never discussed in my family,” said Miller, who characterized himself as a clueless kid with no guidance who often cut school. At 13 he rode his bike up Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, listening to doormen talk to the wealthy residents, dreaming that would be him one day.
During his freshman year in 1956, a fearful Miller, who seldom spoke, joined a street gang because there was safety in numbers. In his sophomore year, he said he began feeling bad when they beat someone up or when he saw a disabled person being bullied.
At 16, Miller spent a year in reform school, where he was subjected to accelerated violence. Social workers told him he could do better, but he had no heroes to emulate. As the neighborhood became more ethnically diverse, Miller started reading travel books and the world grew beyond the six blocks in which he lived.
Playing basketball and track was his saving grace. That led to college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and physical education and a master’s degree in contemporary English literature and bio-mechanical analysis.
Miller played professional football for a short time until an injury left him wearing a polio brace for 20 years. When he was 40, he had an experimental surgery that transferred a nerve from his back to his foot and he learned to walk again.
“You adjust to trauma because it’s not the sum total of your life,” Miller said. “I transferred the anger from my fist to my heart and mind, and education became a mania of mine because it provides choices, insight and a wealth of knowledge.”
Miller became a teacher and coached cross country and track and field. He was named NCAA “National Coach of the Year” five times. He spent three months in Africa coaching long-distance runners and bringing them to the U.S. He was in Nigeria during a coup; in Greece when King Constantine was deposed; in Berlin when the wall came down; in Russia when it became the Russian Federation; and the only white person in the stadium when China broke record for the high jump.
At Eunice Shriver’s urging, Miller headed Pennsylvania’s Special Olympics for two years, where they talked about the measure of a man being what he was willing to give to the least among us. He spent nine years at Nike as the head of global sports marketing; he gave more than 500 speeches at places such as the Wharton School and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. And when Andre Agassi, whom Miller has known since he was 16, asked him to be chief executive officer of the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education and Agassi Graf Holdings, Miller moved to Las Vegas.
It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish, and these three people are far from finished.