Author: Krista Reese


Ryan Gembala (BBA '03) and Garrett Gravesen (BBA '03) were BMOCs in college and they could have written their own ticket in the international business world. Instead, they came home from distant ports of call to create a non-profit that improves the quali

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Wikipedia has a particularly apt entry regarding Joseph Campbell's hero theory, which has inspired the likes of filmmaker George Lucas, who paid Campbell a debt of gratitude for helping inspire "Star Wars." The entry reads in part:

"Campbell's insight was that important myths from around the world... share a fundamental structure... which includes:

  1. A call to adventure.
  2. A road of trials.
  3. Achieving the goal or 'boon.'
  4. A return to the ordinary world.
  5. Application of the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world."

1) A Call to Adventure

This is not where you'd expect to find Ryan Gembala (BBA '03). Oh, the international business major and summa cum laude grad still looks the part of the Terry College B-school star: Tan and handsome, with artfully mussed hair and significant watch, he's given to faded jeans and driving mocs (no socks) on weekends, and a casually professional weekday look that could pass muster on the pages of GQ. Gembala speaks four languages, has worked in banking and management consulting in Spain and Italy, founded an international internship program — while still a student — and won UGA's campus-wide Vision Award.

What is he doing driving a faded red 1989 Buick Regal Gran Sport — with no heat?

This is similarly not where you'd expect to find Garrett Gravesen (BBA '03). Like Gembala, he's smartly turned out, his spiky blond hair in the modified fauxhawk his generation has taken to wearing into corporate suites. Tall and thin, he often sweeps his arms excitedly and breaks into a blinding smile that rivals only his neon-blue eyes for intensity. Along the way to earning an economics degree, UGA's student body elected Gravesen its president — as a sophomore, the youngest student ever to win that post. (So white he's nearly ectoplasmic, Gravesen cinched the election, friends say, with his hilarious performance of a self-penned rap song.) Gravesen nabbed the gold ring of B-school internships, pulling down serious Benjamins at Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, eventually visiting more than 24 countries. His UGA Graduation Day speech is, usually, the No. 1 hit for anyone who Googles "student commencement speech," topping even Hillary Clinton's — four years after he gave it. And he recently learned he's been named one of the U.S. Jaycees' 10 Outstanding Young Americans. Previous winners include presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

Why is he working for low wages in a windowless cubicle at a Norcross air compressor distributor's office?

For that matter, why have both of these young turks moved back in with their parents?

Gembala and Gravesen are aware that their current status — or apparent lack thereof — would earn them an immediate L-shaped thumb and index finger, applied directly to the forehead, from many former colleagues. But they see it differently.

How did these two popular, high-achieving Terry friends and classmates, who lived and breathed UGA football and fraternity parties, end up founding a nonprofit institution called H.E.R.O. (Hearts Everywhere Reaching Out) for Children that is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Georgia children affected by HIV/AIDS?

They take turns explaining: Gravesen, enthusiastically, with arm swoops and occasional whoops of laughter to illustrate their oddly parallel adventures; Gembala, wryly and reservedly, delivering the bottom line in a husky monologue.

It all started when they took their first steps toward what they and everyone who knew them assumed would be brilliant and highly lucrative international business careers, by flying off to Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

2) A Road of Trials

For Gravesen, the journey to H.E.R.O. began when he left Hong Kong for Nairobi, Kenya, to work for an IT firm. A Kenyan friend whose uncle lived in the notorious Kibera slums offered to take Gravesen along for a visit.

A voracious reader who has written a manuscript about his experiences based on the Paul Coelho parable The Alchemist, Gravesen for the first time encountered a problem no book could solve. He witnessed inexpressible poverty, filth and hardships, with rivers of raw sewage and families of seven and eight living in mud-glued, paper-and-debris "houses" smaller than most Americans' bathrooms.

That night, he emailed friends at home:

"Seeing how the people live truly shattered my naive concept of humanity where everyone can succeed if they really try right before my very eyes. I sat and talked to the uncle, his wife, and their five children, and he said that regardless of how hard he ever worked or what dreams he ever had for his children they were just not a reality and he understood that. He simply asked me to do one thing: Never forget what you saw here today!"

Gembala, meanwhile, was polishing his Portuguese while polishing off a few caipirinhas with some colleagues in Brazil. When the conversation turned to Brazil's AIDS epidemic, with more than 620,000 infected people, his friends asked him if he'd ever seen a person with AIDS.

"No," Gembala said. "I'd grown up in white, middle-class suburbia, and I'd never seen anything like that."

Would you like to? they asked.

Gembala agreed, and they arranged for him to visit a nearby AIDS orphanage.

3) Achieving the goal, or "boon"

Two of the Kenyan IT firm's secretaries were HIV positive, as are 13 percent of that country's adults. The number of Kenyan children orphaned by AIDS is estimated at 1.2 million, many of them infected themselves. Already deeply affected by the fact that so many people's destinies seem determined by the time and place of their birth, Gravesen began volunteering at a nearby AIDS orphanage. He was used to crunching numbers that fit neatly into spreadsheet boxes; now he struggled to comprehend the overwhelming sadness of the little graveyard behind the orphanage, and the small coffins buried there. After the funeral of James, a 10-year-old whose infected mother had given birth to him when she was 14, Gravesen wrote another e-mail home, this one titled: "What if it happened to you?"

"Why were we so lucky to be born into the families we were blessed with? We had no control over the matter and neither did James, but the fact is we all have the opportunity to succeed as far as we want in life depending how hard we try, but can someone like James ever truly say the same thing? Why is it that the life-troubling issue that my friends ponder over is the fastest ways to a six-figure salary and an Ivy League education?"

Despite the constant grief and sickness, Gravesen found that giving joy to the children who called him "GG" had an unexpected side effect:

It gave him joy, too.

On another continent, in another hemisphere, Gembala was preparing for the visit arranged by his Brazilian friends. "I knew better than to show up at an orphanage empty-handed, so I took chocolate, balloons, and bubbles," he says. "All these little kids came running out, and the littlest were most excited — they could see the plastic bag hanging from my arm. I took out the chocolate, and there were smiles, giggles, and cheers. I took out the balloons — smiles, giggles, cheers. Then I took out the bubbles — blank, confused stares. I thought, "Everyone has seen bubbles before." Even after I took out the wand — nothing. And then I started to blow bubbles... and their little eyes lit up like Christmas tree lights."

The kids were enchanted with their newfound discovery. So was Gembala.

"That," he says, "was my 'a-ha!' moment."

"The good Lord puts you in certain places for a reason," says Gravesen.

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