Joe Ricketts Talks Family, Religion and How He Plans to Change the World Through Opportunity Education

Joe Ricketts

By his values or by his stats, Joe Ricketts is a remarkable man, driven by faith, family, entrepreneurism, earnestness, hard work, love of country, and generosity. You could call him the quintessential American success story — and his tale is perhaps most compelling when told by the numbers.

When Ricketts commits to one — one person, one idea, one opportunity — he develops it into something extraordinary.

Let’s start with his personal stats: One wife of 54 years (they married in college) — Marlene Ricketts. Four children remarkable for their differences and their unwavering public support of each other. Fourteen grandchildren under the age of 22.

Now on to the rest: One small firm that he founded in 1975 — First Omaha Securities — which blossomed into the publicly traded online brokerage behemoth TD Ameritrade. It now facilitates more than 450,000 trades daily for more than 7 million clients.

One professional sports team — the Chicago Cubs — renowned as lovable losers when the Ricketts family purchased them, but World Series Champions only five years later. Even better, the family built this success while also donating record amounts to underserved communities through Cubs Charities, and renovating Wrigley Field (while preserving the ballpark’s historic charm) and the surrounding environs without taxpayer assistance.

Ricketts family
Ricketts family

One ranch in Little Jackson, Wyoming, lead Ricketts to found High Plains Bison, a championship Persheron draft horse breeding program, and multiple conservation programs.

One lifelong commitment to the Catholic church, leading to his building a St. Ignatius retreat near Omaha, which will serve those who seek quiet contemplation and prayer from anywhere in the world.

One education nonprofit — Opportunity Education (OE) — founded to help one school in Tanzania. OE already has grown into eight African and three Asian countries and the United States, transforming education, opportunities and the lives of more than 500,000 youth in more than 1,000 schools. Ricketts has very ambitious plans to grow this further too.

There are more initiatives — including The American Film Company, DNAinfo, and several foundations. But, you get the point already. When he commits to something, Ricketts focuses prodigious talent, resources and time to develop it. Growth — often spectacular growth — follows.

On Oct. 14, Ricketts will receive the inaugural Kohl Children’s Museum’s Power of Play Award at their An Evening to Imagine Gala. Although he rarely grants interviews, Ricketts agreed to this Q&A by phone in support of the museum and particularly to highlight Opportunity Education.

In response to every question, Ricketts is earnest and forthcoming. His resonant, deep voice sounds authoritative and trustworthy — like Walter Cronkite or a veteran radio announcer.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the number of times Ricketts refers to his grandchildren. They inspire new ideas in him. He forms businesses and foundations in which he welcomes their participation. There is no doubt that family comes first for this man.

From almost anyone else, some of Ricketts’ statements during the interview would sound like hubris — including his intention to help every child in the world who needs a better education through OE. But, given his accomplishments, one might accept them simply as declarations of fact and intention from a hard-working, straight talking, innovative Midwesterner turned Wyoming rancher.

With his big ideas and ever-evolving ambitions, Ricketts is just continuing his life journey, staying true to the values that earned him impressive numbers in the first place.

Make It Better: How do you describe yourself?

Joe Ricketts: Husband, father, grandfather, Christian — in particular a Catholic. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. I interface with other people particularly in my entrepreneurial and philanthropic endeavors.

My ancestors on the Ricketts side came from England in the 1700s. My mother’s side came from Germany a couple of generations before my mother.

I was brought up in a Christian society and as an American. Americans are the most generous people in the world. In my experience, Americans are unique this way.

I love using ideas out of my head and my own money to launch something.

Excess money is an interesting concept for someone who allegedly had none for many years. 

It was very difficult to start and make a successful company. I had great ambitions — but as I was growing the business, I put all the money I made back into it.

Marlene was encouraging and always supportive. We had children, but we didn’t take vacations, go out to dinner, drive fancy cars. And Marlene never complained about any of this.

And your children? [Pete, Tom, Todd and Laura. Pete is Governor of Nebraska (R). The others live on Chicago’s North Shore. Laura is a Democratic National Committeewoman and the first LGBTQ owner of a professional sports team.]

Marlene and I wanted a large and strong family.

Our four kids were very different indeed — and when they were young, they would fight! But, my wife insisted, “You can fight at home as much as you like, but, when you go out that door, you are united as one family!”

Even now, when they are behind closed doors, our children have spirited disagreements because they are all smart, strong-willed individuals, but they know how to compromise to achieve things, which makes me proud. I imagine it happens in the Cubs’ boardroom all the time. But, outside that boardroom door, they are united.

We are very proud of our kids and grandkids!

Please tell us more about family and business.

The opportunity to work in the company [that became TD Ameritrade] was offered when our children were in high school and college. But, we didn’t anticipate that it would go public, which tends to eliminate the opportunity of having a family business.

Pete did get to work with the firm for 10 years, but ultimately he felt the desire to give back by serving in politics.

What about your grandchildren? 

Like their parents, my grandkids are smart and independent with diverse interests. It will be fun to see how they choose to tackle life, but it’s already enjoyable for Marlene and me to see their different interests and passions.

And philanthropy? 

My parents supported their local communities and church. So I grew up seeing this example.

The people who started McDonald’s gave back to charities. Andrew Carnegie established libraries all over America. [Carnegie is the founder of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a particularly innovative philanthropic foundation established in 1911, which has since supported everything from the discovery of insulin and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, to the creation of Pell Grants and Sesame Street.] So I saw philanthropy not only in my home, but also outside where people who were successful gave generously. And generosity in this context wasn’t limited to money. It could be the gift of time, energy and effort.

What do you support with your philanthropy?

I’ve established five private foundations to support my philanthropic priorities. They are the Ricketts Conservation Foundation that supports environmental conservation; the Ricketts Art Foundation that promotes the arts; Ending Spending that supports smaller, smarter government; Opportunity Education that supports education; and The Cloisters on the Platte Foundation that supports spiritualism.

Ultimately, the arts foundation is for my grandchildren to express themselves in whatever arts they choose. I used it to help the world learn more about the painter Alfred Jacob Miller. We put all of his Western paintings in one place online, where we also tell his story, in order to develop more support for his work.

But my grandchildren will be able to support whatever they want — be it opera, ballet, poetry — whatever.

Please tell us about your religious foundation and the spiritual retreat you are building.

The Cloisters on the Platte is a Saint Ignatius-style religious retreat in the Omaha area.

I think most people want a good healthy spiritual life and for me, that’s part of living a complete life.

My favorite form of prayer is the Ignatian Retreat-style. We didn’t have one near Omaha, so I decided to build one to provide people with the opportunity for a spiritual outlet in this busy world.

Who will use this retreat?

There are 27 Ignatius retreats in our country. In fact, there is one close to Chicago.

For anyone who thinks this form of retreat might be good for them, they should go to one. People from all over the world already have asked if they can come to The Cloisters on the Platte.

It will host 80 people per weekend, 47 weekends per year. The general attitude of the retreat is contemplation and meditation, not conversation. There are several formal lectures on the Ignatian spiritual exercises and the opportunity for retreatants then to contemplate in silence.

[With a large chapel and multiple other buildings on 931 acres, Ricketts has compared the project to building a small city.]

You agreed to this interview in order to particularly highlight Opportunity Education and its Next Generation Learning System. Please tell us about this.

Opportunity Education grew out of an experience I had on a family safari in Tanzania. I asked our guide what he did with his free time and I learned about a school that he was building and operating. I wanted to help.

We bought TVs and sent educational DVDs. When I checked back with him later, I was struck by the impact these small resources had. So we were requested to help other schools too. When I saw how hard children work for an education in Africa, I knew I had to do more.

While the original vision of Opportunity Education touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids with TVs and physical media, when I saw the tablet, I knew there was a chance to do more so we started really studying how children learn and how technology can be used to enhance the innate desire for learning.

The dominant approach to education both in the United States and around the world is for teachers to lecture and then for students simply to memorize this information for a short period of time. It was an approach developed in the industrial age and it just doesn’t work well for our world now.

I watched my grandchildren spend hours playing games on their iPhones and tablets and thought this was a wonderful way to educate young people if we used technology in the right way and rethought how curriculum worked.

One thing I know is you can’t simply throw technology at the problem. Smart and effective technology is essential, but it’s not the answer. The key is to use technology and smarter curriculum in a way that harnesses how kids really learn. That’s what Opportunity Education’s Next Generation Learning is all about.

How does Next Generation work? 

Opportunity Education’s Next Generation Learning is a skills-based approach to learning that draws from both learning science and innovative technology. At the center of the approach are “Quests,” which are like small games that allow students to learn in a smarter way that tracks more closely to how learning occurs naturally. Kids can work and learn socially but advance at an individualized pace.

Quests are similar to chapters, but different because each Quest includes multiple subjects — like math, English, biology. The system covers all the different subjects that students have to master.

We don’t make students work alone either. They learn better in social groups, so we put them in small groups, guided by a “mentor.”

Are “mentors” the same as teachers? 

A mentor doesn’t have to be a certified teacher. But, it turns out that many of the people who have applied for mentor positions are certified teachers. Generally, they are the people who want to help children unlock their potential.

Did you work with any university education schools on research or as you developed this system? 

No. Generally I go my own way. [Sounds like a true innovator, right?]

We spent a couple of years studying how people learn; I mean everything. Anything good we copy. But mostly we use our own innovations.

To develop Opportunity Education’s Next Generation Learning, I worked for several years assembling a team of technologists who understood the limits of technology and educators interested in completely rethinking education. That team included the founder of Stanford’s online high school.

What does this program cost and who pays for it?

To this point, I’ve personally funded the entire effort; I’ve spent millions of my own money.

In addition to Africa and Asia, we now have two Next Generation schools in the United States — in Santa Rosa, California, and in Omaha, Nebraska. We’ve priced tuition at $14,500 per year per student. We picked that price because the next most expensive school in California is $15,000 per year. So ours is among the least expensive private schools in California.

We give scholarships to qualified kids who need financial aid; scholarship students only pay $100.

I have not yet solicited money from other people for Opportunity Education’s Next Generation Learning. We’ve proven that it works in Africa and Asia, and we’re working now to prove that in the United States. I believe it has the potential to change the world.

Are you familiar with Chicago’s prodigious education reform movement — with diverse charter schools and a great number of other programs trying to help?

I am not familiar. But, I would hazard a guess that there are not enough charter schools in Chicago to fill the need — to fill the demand. The schools I’m launching are not charter schools, they are private schools supported by myself and, in the future, maybe others. We want to fill that demand and be able to take any student who wants a better education.

What is your goal for OE and Next Gen? How big can this be scaled?

My dream — the focus — is to be able to offer every student in the world a good education through the opportunity of Next Generation Learning system. We can do this with a unique mix of technology and a fresh way of thinking about education. 

Any student in the world? Now that would be real impact!

Yes — I believe it will change the world.

Besides attending Cubs games and visiting with family, what do you enjoy doing in Chicago?

I have a business in Chicago — — that provides news and information about the city’s neighborhoods. It’s at 233 N. Michigan Ave., on the Chicago River.

We have a wonderful office of editors and reporters. It is a lot of fun to be with them!

What advice do you have for youth going forward — all youth and specifically your grandchildren?

There are a few enduring principles that inform everything I do and that I hope to share with young people. First, you need balance in your life among work, family and spirituality. If you can keep those things in sync over the long haul, you are in a great place. Second, happiness comes from hard work and overcoming challenges. Results, even good ones, are not nearly as fulfilling as is the effort it takes trying to realize them. Finally, education is the essential catalyst to break the cycle of poverty and permit young people to participate in the free enterprise system that drives opportunity.


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Susan B. Noyes is the founder of Make It Better. She practiced labor law at Sidley & Austin before deciding to lay down the law full-time for her six children instead. Her favorite time of the day is family dinner, despite her children’s constant misbehavior. Susan loves to network, build community, write and organize lots of moving pieces. Her motto: “A clean home is a wasted life.”