After breaking his neck in a biking accident, Ross Mason heroically channeled his energies into strengthening social sector leaders and building new organizations to address society’s unmet needs. Mason’s approach to dealing with personal adversity—honed over the past 15 years—has informed his enlightened and effective approach to building capacity in the social sector.
While training for the 2007 New Zealand IronMan, Ross Mason was biking on Atlanta’s Silver Comet Trail when he suddenly crashed, hit the ground with his feet still clipped into the pedals, and struck his head against a tree. The devastating accident broke Mason’s neck and left him paralyzed from the collar bones down at age 38.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting brokenness changed Mason’s focus, perspective and life—astonishingly, however, he says these changes were for the better. As he explained to me:
“Spinal cord injury did not change my personality or priorities, but it did change my platform, meaning how I am received, who I can reach and how I can serve. Mother Teresa said, ‘I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.’ Prayer changed my perspective by making me more aware of my selfishness and more focused on the suffering of others. As a result, I began to engage with all those who came across my path and into my life without an agenda by asking the simple but incredibly powerful question, ‘How can I help you?’”
Mason had long nurtured an interest in the social sector. After becoming paralyzed, his enthusiasm and commitment intensified, propelling him to focus his energies on HINRI, or the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators, a nonprofit organization he had founded in 2004 before the accident. HINRI serves as an accelerator for social entrepreneurs and leaders with big ideas, helping them to build organizations that can scale effectively and reduce risk for investors and donors.
Mason had previously spent several years in Silicon Valley, where he cofounded and sold a healthcare software startup; he had also volunteered in an AIDS hospital in Zambia. HINRI was created with the aspiration to transform the social sector by bringing together the innovation of Silicon Valley’s angel investment ecosystem and the compassion Mason had experienced while at the AIDS hospital. In Mason’s home state of Georgia, and across the world, HINRI provides social entrepreneurs with capital, strategic advice, and valuable introductions to like-minded individuals and organizations from which partnerships and collaborations typically emerge. The scope of initiatives is broad in nature, but unified by HINRI’s unrelenting focus on building capacity in the social sector in ways that magnify impact.
In the United States, for example, HINRI has partnered with leading healthcare innovators to serve the indigent and uninsured; created job training programs for wounded warriors and their families; addressed food insecurity; created educational programs for autistic children; changed the standard of care for spinal cord injuries; and combatted human trafficking. Outside the U.S., HINRI has worked on human rights, clean water, food for malnourished children, pharmaceuticals distribution and the creation of schools, housing and health clinics in communities with extreme poverty, in partnership with organizations like the Center for Global Health Innovation in Atlanta.
Another recent HINRI portfolio project is the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Initiative, which strives to harness the power of digital media to reintroduce the timeless and proven principles of Dr. King into America’s social and cultural bloodstream in an era of rising division and violence.
Mason explained his simple, but profound approach:
“My circumstances and path forward affirmed to me that a life centered on others is the best way to recover from personal challenges and pain. It is also the best way to help organizations thrive because it takes me out of the mindset of what I think a leader or organization needs and it helps me to focus on the right priorities. By intentionally trying to start every conversation with a social sector leader with the simple question, ‘How can I help you?’ I am more likely to identify and prioritize the greatest needs and pain points, so that I can create the right solutions that will have the greatest impact.”
Mason’s practice of striving to think of others first is rooted in a brief, but highly formative, childhood conversation. When he was just seven, Mason had the good fortune to encounter Corrie ten Boom, a remarkable Dutch woman whose family hid persecuted Jews in their Haarlem home during World War II—until, tragically, they were caught and themselves sent to a German concentration camp, where ten Boom’s father and sister both perished. (Fortunately, the six people hidden in their house remained undiscovered and were subsequently rescued.) After her release from the camp, ten Boom returned to the Netherlands and established a rehabilitation center for concentration camp survivors and jobless Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis. Ten Boom also personally forgave two concentration camp guards, including one who had been especially cruel to her sister. That brief meeting with ten Boom forever impacted Mason, who told me:
“That was one of the most important conversations of my life because Corrie taught me the importance of forgiveness and demonstrated how God can use the most difficult circumstances imaginable in our lives to be a blessing to others. The Holocaust actually started with the extermination of Germans with mental and physical disabilities. After WWII, the German government gave Corrie a [former] concentration camp which she renovated to help serve Germans who were mentally and physically disabled as a result of the war.”
Orienting Around the Problems of Others
Focusing on the challenges that others face became fundamental to Mason’s worldview. “If you focus on yourself, you have a tendency to say, ‘Why isn’t it like this?’ instead of being grateful for what you do have…” Indeed, through his work with HINRI, Mason has met many broken and injured people, including veterans, who motivate him personally and professionally. “These people are truly inspiring. My injury is a hangnail compared to what a lot of those men and women have been through,” he told me. “And, I never would have met them if I hadn’t been injured myself.”
One such person is Ignacio Montoya, who in 2012 had just qualified to be a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot—after supporting himself from the age of 14, working three jobs to get through college, and graduating first in his ROTC Air Force class at Georgia Tech. Montoya was driving home after giving his valedictory address to the ROTC cadets when his motorcycle was struck by a minivan, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. At the time Mason was introduced to him, Montoya was in terrible shape. “He would have died in two or three months,” Mason recalled. “So I said, move in with me, I’ll take care of everything you need.”
Montoya accepted this generous offer and brought to it his scientific mindset, boundless determination, and relentless focus on walking again. Mason raised funds so Montoya could participate in a 2016 Mayo Clinic trial to test a robotic right arm. This helped to restore some movement and Montoya went on to do a Master’s Degree at Georgia Tech in biomedical innovation and development, with the goal of pursuing a career in health care. Mason and Montoya are now working on a clinical trial with Dr. Reggie Edgerton at UCLA that, if successful, will allow U.S. veterans and other spinal cord injury patients to regain function, sensation, and in many cases, walk again.
“Ignacio is a genius, with an insane work ethic,” Mason said. “He’s brought the determination of an aspiring Olympic athlete to this field of health care. He’s a miracle in the making and I’ve had a front-row seat.”
And in turn, Montoya is now working with HINRI to help himself, fellow veterans, Mason, and others with spinal cord injuries walk again. This experience further affirmed Mason’s conviction that, “by thinking of others, you understand and appreciate how to be a blessing to them, which brings so much more meaning and purpose to your own life.”
Matching Needs with Resources
Mason views both himself and HINRI as intermediaries that match needs with resources and help to design high-impact, creative solutions.
To address needs arising in those with spinal cord injuries, Mason recognized that it was critical to partner with the U.S. military. The reason for this, he explained, is that in the United States, insurance companies tend to push spinal cord injury patients onto Medicare/Medicaid (depending on their age) after two years; they have also successfully lobbied congress to designate critical care giving, medical supplies, and handicap access as “medically unnecessary.” This leaves the Veterans Administration as the only U.S. payor that assumes lifetime responsibility for the care of any patients with spinal cord injuries, which is aggressively focused on the restoration of function and sensation for patients. Traditionally, the military has been a key driver in health innovation; indeed, general surgery, blood transfusions, penicillin, and antibiotics were all created or implemented as a result of military necessity. Consequently, Mason realized that innovation in treatments for U.S. spinal cord injury patients would best occur in partnership with the military. As it happened, the Chairman of HINRI’s board, retired General Larry Ellis, was paralyzed from his chest down when he was 68 but defied the odds and walked again. General Ellis arranged for Mason to meet with Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mason asked Admiral Mullen, “What is your most critical need and how can I help you and the United States military address that need?” Admiral Mullen’s answer was to ask Mason to create a statewide model of collaboration between veteran service organizations, corporations, foundations and institutions in Georgia that could be expanded and replicated nationwide.
In response, HINRI created The Warrior Alliance with Scott Johnson who now serves as the organization’s president and CEO. TWA is designed to be a “one-stop” connection point for veterans and their families, enabling them to access holistic care from over 30 veteran service providers in areas that include education, employment, benefits, housing, mental health, legal, recreation, volunteerism and financial wellness support. Prior to the creation of The Warrior Alliance, veterans and their families had to seek services from a variety of providers that were generally disconnected and uncoordinated. But now, Mason explained:
“They can go to one place. Those who work there are veterans themselves, and they typically start with the question, ‘What do you need to help with your transition from military service?’ The headquarters, called The Warrior Alliance Home Base, is located at the Battery Atlanta adjacent to the Atlanta Braves Truist Park. There is a wonderful partnership with the Braves through the Atlanta Braves Foundation that provided a grant for the office space in their support of veterans.”
After hosting weekend retreats for military families, events, and programs for almost a decade, The Warrior Alliance leadership decided to make the development of job training programs for veterans an important focus of their work. “Studies indicate that underserved and homeless veterans struggle with suicide ideation due to the post-military challenges that keep them from feeling the sense of purpose that all humans need to have to truly flourish,” Mason explained. “We came to understand that job training programs were one of the best things that could be done for them.” Their signature workforce initiative is the Augusta, Georgia-based Operation Double Eagle which trains veterans in skills such as horticulture, irrigation, turf management, construction, equipment operation, and golf course operations. The program was featured in the 2021 Golf Digest Masters edition and, in November 2021, on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell.
Realizing Boundless Potential
The dreadful accident Mason had many years ago caused him to reorient his life to focus on helping others so they might realize the boundless potential that exists in each of us, no matter how broken we may feel or appear. This is what drew Mason to work on issues of human trafficking. “Who is robbed of potential to a greater extent than a child who is a victim of human trafficking?” he reflected. “I was injured in a biking accident as a 38-year-old man. The issues I have faced as a result of my spinal cord injury are absolutely trivial when compared to what a child who is trafficked confronts each day.”
Mason’s involvement in the campaign to combat human trafficking began in 2011 when an effort was underway to change relevant Georgia laws by establishing much tougher penalties. Mason was ultimately invited to the Obama White House to advise on the issue; this included working with policy specialist Lynn Overmann and participating in the White House Forum to Combat Human Trafficking in April 2013. Since then, HINRI has accelerated and supported more than a dozen nonprofits in the human trafficking space, including The Knoble and Street Grace. Ian Mitchell, the founder of The Knoble, credited Mason for raising his awareness of this horrific crime. He added:
“Regarding The Knoble specifically, Ross was a strong counsel to me during the incubation period as we brought it to life and an original member of the board. Ross was used to plant the seed that now waters so many efforts across the financial services industry to fight against human crimes, which is having a transformational impact for good around the world.”
Mason has also made an impact by serving on numerous social sector boards. For example, from 2013-19, he served on the board of the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, which was founded by Rick Hansen, who famously pushed his wheelchair around the world, raising awareness for disabilities and ultimately influencing the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through his role as a board member, Mason helped Praxis set up one of the world’s largest clinical trials and research networks for spinal cord injuries.
“The great irony of life,” Mason told me when I interviewed him recently in Atlanta, “is that sometimes the greatest challenges and tragedies open the door for the greatest gifts and blessings. Invariably, though, we can’t get through that door until we open our hearts and focus our minds on what we can do for others.”
Originally published in Forbes