Owen Ryan, who joined Project Angel Heart in mid-August 2019, comes to the organization with an extensive background in nonprofit management and leadership. We spoke to him about his experience in public health, passion for food as medicine, and where he sees Project Angel Heart going next.
Congrats on your new role as CEO. How do you feel?
Thank you. I feel great! This is an amazing opportunity. To think that I get to be a part of an organization that has been having such an impact here for almost 30 years — that’s a dream job. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was also a little intimidated. Project Angel Heart’s history is full of strong leaders. So, while I’m excited, I know I have big shoes to fill.
The impact Project Angel Heart is having in Colorado is incredibly unique. When my friend became a client, I got to see that impact first-hand. It’s hard to overstate how important the love and caring shown by the staff and volunteers were to his well-being and state of mind.
Much of my career has been focused on international development. I think that work is tremendously important, but for me, it was time to “make good” at home. It’s rare to have a chance to lead an organization that has also had an impact on my own life. It’s even rarer to do that at a place that has been having this kind of impact for almost 30 years. I’m honored to take on this job.
Speaking of your previous work, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am very fortunate that in most of my jobs, I’ve been part of a great team. Anyone who has been a CEO of a non-profit knows you are only as strong as the people around you. Where we’ve accomplished things, it’s to the credit of that team.
My most recent role was Executive Director of the International AIDS Society, and, since I’m a numbers guy, I’m proud that we were able to significantly grow our organization — both in terms of donor giving and number of programs — while also cutting costs without losing staff. Growing is a tough process for any organization. It comes with a lot of anxiety and some risk. I’m proud that, as a team, we were able to maintain our work culture while also expanding the impact we were having on our members.
You’ve had a number of roles working on health programs. How has nutrition been a part of that work?
Nutrition underlines everything in public health. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in the early 2000’s. At the time, thousands of Malawians were dying every week from AIDS. I expected a big part of my work would be focused on that incredible tragedy, and it was, but not how I thought. In the community where I lived, people had really limited access to nutritious food and almost no safe drinking water. I learned almost immediately that you can’t talk to people about infectious disease if their basic needs aren’t being met. You can’t get healthy on medicine alone. That lesson has carried through to all of my other work.
What brought you to work in public health?
Well, health and medicine are a big part of my family. My parents met in nursing school. Most of my brothers are emergency medical technicians, including my twin brother. That said, I’m probably not the best guy if you need a tourniquet. There’s no way you could grow up in my house and not pick up the importance of health. Same goes for volunteering. My parents instilled in my brothers and me the importance of giving back to our community. And they led by example. My father has been an active member of our town’s volunteer first aid squad for sixty years. If at some point in my career I can have half the impact he has had on our home town, I’ll think it’s a job well done.
I know you’re still learning about Project Angel Heart, but as you start to think about what’s next for our organization, what comes to mind?
With our thirtieth anniversary coming up, it’s a good time to reflect on what’s made this organization so special. How can we make sure the 30 years ahead of us are just as strong? There is a tremendous need for these programs. Most of us can point to people in our lives who would benefit greatly from Project Angel Heart’s work. I plan to use the next few months of learning to scope out how we can make sure everyone who needs this care and support has access to it across Colorado.
Here’s a question not about work. What do you enjoy doing with your free time?
I love to read so I’ve always got something that’s open and something that’s on deck. Unsolicited recommendation – if you haven’t read “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, go get it. It’s amazing. Next on deck for me is “There There” by Tommy Orange.
My husband and I have been spending a lot of time hiking and running since moving to Denver earlier this year. I can feel a fourteener coming on at some point, hopefully before this season is over. But all trail recommendations are welcome!