World-class speed skater crosses over to digital pathways

Ryan Leveille (BBA ’13, MBA ’18)

Ray Glier | Nov. 08, 2019

Ryan Leveille wants the ambitious business student to look at their résumé upside down. Leveille insists the right-side-up, conformist résumé obliterates what should be illuminated.

Failures.

The job hunter leaves out those things that reflect daring and resiliency, hallmarks of Leveille’s business style. It can occasionally lead to missteps, but can also produce grand accomplishments.

“I don’t know that I would get hired if I put all my failures on my résumé,” Leveille said. “You look at a typical résumé and it is so misleading. I’ve had so many failures, maybe not big failures, but failures.”

Leveille has all manner of introspection for the Terry College business student.

Here’s one:

“There is a lot of inherent good that comes along with not being afraid to fail so many times,” says Leveille (pronounced lev-ee-ay), “if you don’t look at them as failures, but as learning opportunities.”

Here’s another:

“What I have is a mindset, a way of thinking. It’s an inner drive, and it’s less about talent; it’s more about dedication, hard work, perseverance. It’s the soft skills that I think that I possess, that evolved and enhanced over time. I don’t give up.”        

It’s more like, Leveille, 36, does not let up. He has five degrees (three from the Terry College). He was a world-class speed skater and U.S. Olympian. Leveille led an award-winning innovation lab with General Electric where he worked for six years, first in energy, then transportation. In May, he was hired by The Coca-Cola Company to find inventive digital pathways into the colossus that is e-commerce.

Leveille’s public résumé is full of hosannas. His incognito résumé — the one with blemishes — means just as much to him. He’s not reckless, the guy out on a limb sawing the branch behind him, but Leveille is the type of business thinker who wonders, “Is there something to learn from the guy who is about to crash to the ground after he saws through the limb?”

“I put myself out there,” says Leveille, “my personal relationships, my jobs, service to the community.”

He has a forthright personality and asks questions of people around him all day. Leveille is also a hybrid thinker, that is, he considers what is real and what is imagined and marries the two. In other words, dreaming while awake.

And here is another nugget for business school students:

“You get knocked down, and I’ve had so many failures. We all struggle, but we need to be resilient. It’s a key differentiator of people. We live in an increasingly digital world, where we idolize perfectly curated versions of one another’s lives and consume highlight reels of achievements. I believe this does disservice to the health of our society, especially to young dreamers looking to their peers and leaders for paths in life that resonate with their own ambition.”

There was a sentinel moment for Leveille, the instant he was unafraid to fail and suddenly became an unblushing strategist who went for it. He was 13 years old and an inline skater of modest ability in competitive races. But in an invitational in Pensacola, Fla., Leveille, who habitually finished in eighth or ninth place, changed his mindset. Instead of trying to win the race with three laps to go, he decided to win it with seven laps to go. He roared to the front of the pack, stayed there, and won the race.

It defined him. Forever.

“Something just clicked,” he says. “It wasn’t physical. It was mental. It was a belief that I can put myself out there and no matter what happened, it wasn’t about the outcome. What mattered was my approach. And I’ve taken that perspective ever since.”

Leveille started to dominate the sport nationally after the race in Pensacola. He turned professional inline skater when he was 15. By the time he was 17, he was unbeatable. When he was 18 and graduated from North Forsyth High School, Leveille moved to Los Angeles following the path of other successful inline skaters who became Olympic contenders in speed skating on ice.

Along the way, he changed his name. He had been Ryan Cox, son of Jimmy Wayne Cox, but when he was 15 his father went on a drunken rampage and Ryan got in between his dad’s fists and his mom. Ryan was hospitalized and didn’t talk to his father for 10 years. Ryan changed his name to honor his mother, Cindy. The two of them would clean mobile homes to make ends meet when Ryan was 16 years old.

Leveille was on the verge of traveling with the U.S. speed skating team to the World Championships in 2004 when he had another sentinel moment, but this was one was horrific. On a rink in Los Angeles, his skates went out from under him on an uneven patch of ice and he hit a concrete wall at 30 miles per hour with his lower back.

The force of the impact was enough to compress vertebrae and take 1½ inches off his height. Leveille’s back was broken in five places. He should have been paralyzed.

Leveille was in a fiberglass body cast for four months. Skaters who have gone through that kind of calamity do not return to the sport. Leveille was back in 18 months. He returned invigorated and made the 2006 U.S. Olympic Skating team during a golden era for the sport in the U.S. where there were world-class skaters galore in competition with each other.

That Leveille forthright personality made him an antagonist to the Olympic gold medal skater Apolo Ohno, a teammate, who did not like to lose, not even in trials. Leveille does not like to lose, either, and refused to bow to Ohno.

Leveille did not medal in the 2006 Games, but trained hard for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. He wants always to be distinctive so he set his sights on being the first skater ever to qualify in short track and long track for the Olympics. It was realistic. In 2008 competing as part of the U.S. World Championship team, he won gold, silver and bronze medals while competing in the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter relays.

But as Leveille was on his way to the U.S. Short Track Olympic Trials, his mother called him. His father, homeless, was found splayed out on a street in downtown Atlanta. Leveille competed with less than a full heart at the trials and became a team alternate, only a year after winning at the world championships. Leveille then rushed home to be with the man who had once put him in the hospital.

He was quickly called back by the national team to sub for injured teammates, a move his father supported. But he missed the Long Track Olympic Trials, choosing to be with his father after doctors said he only had days or weeks to live. For Leveille it would be a bittersweet and unplanned retirement.

Life — and his father — taught him empathy, a soft skill that is essential to business, he says. Leveille’s father died two months later of congestive heart failure.

“The lesson of forgiveness with my father was more valuable than any Olympics, any medal,” he says. His athletic career was over.

So at 27 years old, with no skills other than skating, Leveille enrolled at Georgia as a freshman. He earned undergraduate degrees in management information systems and international business. After graduation, GE hired him for an energy project and while working in San Francisco he earned a master’s degree in technology from Indiana University.

He moved back to Atlanta to be closer to family and friends, and while building an award-winning innovation lab for GE, took home a Terry MBA in strategy and, at the same time, a master’s in design from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Leveille is just the person to take Coke out on the digital roadway with his rhythmic style of backcasting. The company spent 100 years building a global supply chain, but its platform is no longer just pallets, but bytes.

Ryan Leveille, the guy who puts himself out on a limb, is just the dreamer/doer Coke was looking for.


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