Name: Hassan May Riggs
One Word That Describes You: Gritty
BE Modern Man is an integrative program that honors the essence, image and accomplishments of today’s man of color. With features of today’s leaders, executives, creatives, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, professionals and agents of change—these men share the common thread of creating a new normal while setting the bar in tech, art, philanthropy, business and beyond. The BE Modern Man is making a positive impact, his way, and has a story to tell.
Along with exclusive content and news touching on the triumphs, challenges and successes specific to men of color, we’re presenting: BE Modern Man 100, showcasing 100 diverse men of color (African American, Afro Latino, African, Caribbean, Native American, Asian, etc.) who have done or are doing exceptional work within their communities, within their respective industries and/or globally.
What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?
Historically, positive portrayals of black men in American media have been few and far in between. Today’s media landscape, however, has given us channels to share our stories of strong, positive values and achievements. BE Modern Man is part of this new media vanguard. It provides us the opportunity to showcase the diversity of personalities, philosophies, styles, and professions among American men of color. The admirable men represented in these pages are truly inspirational. For that reason, I am grateful and honored to be included among the BEMM 100.
What are you doing as an Ambassador to help support black male achievement, now or in the future?
Literacy is a foundational skill. A child who masters the printed word can learn anything. All the world’s knowledge will be at his fingertips. Through books, he can learn from the great and revered figures of the past and his contemporaries who are on the intellectual cutting edge. It will also open a wide variety of opportunities. We live in a knowledge and networked economy, so a young man who is able to communicate well in writing has better odds of succeeding professionally. And reading widely and with an open mind builds good character. It teaches the art of listening to and valuing different perspectives while also stocking the mind with various facts and philosophies for future use. This is why great readers make great leaders.
I have found several ways to channel my passion for literacy. Early in my career, I mentored inner-city students in Miami as a part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. Because of my work with Big Brothers, I was selected to be a Leadership Miami Fellow for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. In that role, I co-led a partnership with Educate Tomorrow to provide academic support, skill-based workshops, and enrichment activities to young adults in the foster care system.
More recently, I have been working to close the education gap for at-risk youth in the DC metropolitan area through mentorship and tutoring. I work with local civic leaders to improve the educational outcomes of these young people. Sadly, educational resources are not equitably distributed among schools and it is often the most vulnerable students who lack a strong support system who bear the brunt of underfunding. Without the proper resources, students are more often managed than educated. They are passed on to the next grade regardless of whether they are ready for its challenges. The fate of those who are kept behind until they are ready to move on academically is no better. Without a strong support system, they often react to being kept behind by feeling discouraged and abandoned. This leads them to seek acceptance wherever they can find it, usually from more predatory sources. Ensuring that these students are given adequate and well-funded schooling is our best chance at giving them something higher to aspire to and the means to achieve it.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
I either win or learn. But that is not a lesson that came to me easily. I had a big setback at one point. In my mid-20s, I sunk more than $50,000 in a business venture that took a downturn. Losing such a huge investment left me at a crossroads and I had two choices: either let that defeat me or find some way to rise above it.
Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group, said, “You can initiate change right now. There are endless starting points.” And it is that kind of thinking that allowed me to rise above my huge loss. The unfortunate outcome of my calculated investment was the end of that business venture, but not the end of my career. It was up to me to stop focusing on the pain and humiliation of that blow and to turn it into a new beginning.
Because I didn’t throw in the towel even at my lowest point, I managed to make that money back many times over. It took hard work, strong relationships, and good fortune to get to that point, but it all started by facing the struggle head-on instead of walking away. Many struggles are just the difficulties that come with any fresh start. It’s sort of like squeezing juice out of a fruit: sometimes it takes pressure to get all the good stuff.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
One quality I look for in my relationships—whether personal or professional—is humility. Humility teaches us to understand and live by principles, because they ultimately govern our actions. It’s not easy to get along with a person who has an inflated sense of entitlement. The best business relationships I have are with those who remain grounded no matter how high they soar, like my friend Robert Reffkin, the CEO of Compass, whose conversations always leave me energized and with a focused plan to execute.
I want to keep moving forward in my work and I could not do that if I didn’t remain grounded. I don’t manage up and down. I choose, instead, to establish connections in all directions. I invest just as much time and energy in those whose value might not always be appreciated, like volunteers and interns, as I do in executives and customers. Otherwise, I would miss valuable learning opportunities, because arrogance isn’t fertile ground for growth.
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
While I can’t go into detail, I can share why the projects I’m working on matter to me. Many people don’t realize that business-to-business (B2B) purchases are often more personal than business-to-client (B2C) purchases, partly because these entail a far greater degree of risk. These purchases are huge decisions (e.g. compare the personal risk of buying a toaster to that of an appliances company buying an enterprise-wide software system) and those who are responsible for them could waste valuable time and effort, tarnish their reputation, or lose their jobs if these deals turn sour. That’s why B2B marketers are so important: it is our job to make sure potential purchasers have confidence doing business with the companies we represent. I guess you could say that my immediate project is to keep my finger on the pulse of the market and provide B2B customers with the information they need to mitigate risks and do what is best for all the players involved, including themselves.
What is the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to always remember that life is a team sport. Behind every great person, every great venture, and every great accomplishment there is a supportive, creative, and determined network of people who have contributed. To form and strengthen that kind of network, it is crucial to rid yourself of the ego that keeps you from realizing that you are part of a connected system. Be aware of and grateful to those who help you. Be deliberate about helping others solve their problems to reach their goals. And strive to earn a reputation as a success-maker: someone others come to because they know you will make them successful.
In life, being a team player isn’t just about helping others and accepting their help; it’s also about knowing how to build a team that can champion success. As Jessica Hagy, the writer best known for her award-winning blog, Indexed, says, “With the right team, you can form a web of connections to make the seemingly impossible practically inevitable.” Interestingly, your team will include people who don’t always look like they’re helping. A successful team, for example, will include a doubter, someone who is critical of your projects and strategies. It can be easy to dismiss the doubter as someone whose negativity gets in the way of progress on achieving your goals, but, in fact, they perform the crucial role of identifying the gaps in your thinking and the faults in your plans before you execute them. It’s important to value different kinds of people and have them on your side. What I’ve come to understand is that having masterful knowledge of how connected systems work is essential for building a team that will bring about future successes. Take time to invest in the latent power of those around you. You have to ask and answer one question in any situation: What connections are at play here?
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
Everyone is going to chart his own unique course in life, but there are a few core principles that are important for becoming a leader and achieving victory.
Look forward and be unique
Being a modern man is, above all, about looking forward. And that is why modern men are in a unique position to bring about great changes and make a real difference in the world. Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ignore history and have to be proud of our heritage, but modern blackness is about carving out our own paths. In the last 20 years we have embraced the idea that there is no single way to be black and that has allowed us to make impressive developments in culture, industry, education, and politics. To make a difference, you have to seize the opportunity for self-creation, the opportunity to use all of your talents and fresh thinking to make your life a successful one. Remember, when you are custom-built, you don’t have to fit in.
Be aware of injustice, unfairness, and struggle. We all have obstacles to wrestle with and overcome, and we will only succeed in life if we support each other. You may have talent, brains, and the right attitude, but you didn’t get to where you are without good fortune. When you are compassionate you’re compelled to fight for those who have been burdened by unfair and unjust social structures, whether it be the immigrant facing employment discrimination, the refugee who has been forced to leave his or her home, or the transgender person who is subject to prejudice.
Listen first to those with whom you disagree
Fighting for social justice, however, won’t work unless you’re willing to listen to others and reach compromises with them. Our democratic process enables us to settle disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence. Be prepared to compromise. It’s often the only way to make progress and consolidate gains. Identifying the best way to move forward is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you have strength and self-control. In fact, it’s lack of progress that weakens us all.
Develop a strategy to guide your passion
Finally, understand that passion is insufficient to achieve success—you also need a vision to guide your passion. A lot of us have the drive to succeed but few of us harness that drive in a way that achieves real results. It is important to be deliberate and strategic when we plan out our course in life. Good leaders will be intensely motivated, but they will also have a clear idea of what they want done and a solid plan for how to do it. A black man in America who wants to bring about lasting change must know his community leaders—the sheriff , the district attorney, the school board chair—and throw his vote and support behind the ones who are going to bring about meaningful reforms. Everyone gets worked up about presidential elections, but rates of political participation at the municipal and state levels are dismally low. That is a missed opportunity because this is where some of the most important changes happen, those that affect your community like how your neighborhood is policed or whether the local public library will shut down. Only casting your vote at the federal level and neglecting your civic duties closer to home means you forfeit your power. You must get out there and vote at each level of government; it’s your best opportunity for making a real difference.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
I usually do two things. First, before I present my work, I take a really critical stance toward it—like a healthy paranoia. I look for the fuzzy ideas and cloudy thinking that seemed good when I first came up with them but don’t stand up to scrutiny. I’m only human, so my work will never be flawless, but at least this way I know I’ve given it an honest look before presenting it. Anyone who wants to impress during a meeting should try this method. Be a real skeptic about your work and you’ll be surprised at what you find and how much of it you can improve.
The second thing I do is develop a list of objections they might have and prepare my answers to them ahead of time. Even if those objections never come up, answering them gives me a better handle on my work and an extra boost of confidence before my meeting.
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation?
I work at Hilton Worldwide—a leading global hospitality company—so I’ve learned a thing or two about vacationing. Hilton Team Members are not just cooped up in their offices day after day. This year, Hilton has been named as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For by Fortune Magazine, in part, because of its exceptional workplace culture. Recently, the company championed a new travel program that encourages Team Members to explore the world. Hilton understands that if you’re really going to unwind, it’s important to get out of your routine and go somewhere completely new.
But the big question is not always where you go; it’s what you do once you get there. By far the best way to travel is to eat your way through a new city. I normally start my vacation by going on a food tour. With a food tour, you can be sure that you won’t experience the city like a tourist. Instead, you’ll be taken off the beaten path to small restaurants and cafés where you will meet and eat like the locals. This will give you an immediate sense of connection with the culinary history of the region.
For example, when my wife and I went to Rome we not only sampled some local delicacies but also learned about the ancient slaughterhouse and cattle market that was built in the late 19th century between the Tiber River and Testaccio—the Neighborhood of Broken Pieces. We learned about the working poor who toiled in the slaughterhouse and how they invented a distinct local cuisine by making use of the less marketable products that the slaughterhouse would give them to supplement their pay—the livers, hearts, and feet that would otherwise have simply been cast off. This was a fascinating insight into not only the food we were eating (few people think of liver as an Italian dish but now I will never forget the association) but, more generally, about the way social class can affect the characteristics of a local cuisine. And we never would have found out about it if we decided to go for the kind of experience you’ll see in a brochure.
Besides, the last thing you want to do is find yourself in a country like Italy—renowned the world over for its cuisine—and spend your time eating from American food chains or sampling the Americanized fare offered in many of the tourist hot spots. When you have a chance to taste the difference between the fluffy gelato offered in shops that cater to tourists and the flat gelato the locals enjoy, you won’t regret following my advice and letting your palate lead you through your travel destination.
This is a method I follow each time I travel and it has never let me down.
If you could travel and stay anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
My wife and I like to travel with purpose. We want our voyages around the globe to make the world feel like a smaller place by allowing us to meet strangers, make friends, and expose ourselves to experiences that are entirely outside those we face in daily life. We want to see as much of the diversity that is out there so we keep an open-minded and inclusive worldview toward the vast array of gender expression, ethnicity, race, style, and ways of thinking that the world has to offer. We aim to be global citizens.
For that reason, we’ll be spending the next decade visiting various parts of the globe to see the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Last year we saw the Roman Colosseum and this year we’ll visit the Great Wall of China in Beijing. We’re eager to see the rest, including the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Taj Mahal in India.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I would like to end by sharing a thought by Clara Shih, the CEO and co-founder of Hearsay. She summed up the essence of good leadership succinctly and powerfully: “Lead with your head, heart, and hands.” Leading with your head means using the sound judgment that comes from carefully evaluating facts and data combined with a strong intuition for the right course of action when the data is lacking.
Nowadays, no one wants to support a company simply because it’s headed by good decision-makers. People have a strong sense of their values and they trust the brands that reflect those values. That’s why leaders also have to lead with their heart, so they not only make their teams and companies efficient but also align them with the greater good.
Leading with your hands is also crucial. Today’s leaders are hands-on. It’s hard for me to imagine the leaders in my department at Hilton, cloistered behind an office door. They are down in the trenches, taking an active part in the work. That’s what makes for great leadership: head, heart, and hands.
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