Written by Andi Agnew

“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

That is the question Chris Ray of the Ramey Agency put to his entire team after facing one of his greatest challenges: an overnight sailing trip from Key West to Havana.

Having conquered this challenge, Ray was inspired to create the Reach Higher Program, a grant program for employees of the ad agency that encourages them to face their own fears, do something they never thought they would accomplish, and expand their horizons.

It’s not as if Ramey wasn’t already a choice place to work. Advertising Age has named the agency one of the “Best Places to Work” in the U.S. for the last two years. But Ray says that there’s no such thing as “over-investment” in the workforce.

“We’ve tried to invest time, effort and money into making Ramey’s corporate culture very special — when you have 40 people who are engaged, more loyal, and more ‘fired up,’ it’s better for the whole organization,” says Ray.

Interested applicants wrote an essay describing what they feared most but would like the chance to overcome. Grants were awarded to the top two applicants, providing at least 50 percent of the funds needed to complete their “mission.”

Media buyer Julie Staires had supported her two daughters on numerous mission trips overseas, yet she never went herself. “I stood behind financial reasons as a front, but I realized it was more about fear — of traveling, going to another country, roughing it…”

Staires decided she was going on a mission trip, whether she won the grant or not. “There was one spot left in a group of seven to go work at a malnutrition center in Haiti, so I went ahead and put down the deposit, and I thought to myself, ‘If I get the grant, I’ll have to go.’”

The fact that she had already put down a deposit impressed the review committee. “She signed up, anyway,” Ray says. Staires was awarded a grant, and in the summer of 2017, she spent a week painting, building a memory garden and playing with the first few children to be treated at the new malnutrition center. Her confidence soared, and she plans to return to Haiti next year. “It was a big thing to be totally unplugged for a week… with no air conditioning, using outdoor showers… you realize how much you can live without.”

Graphic designer Tania Romano and her husband, Shelby, had been supporting a little boy in Tanzania through the World Vision program for many years. They dreamed of going to meet the boy and his family someday. Like Staires, Romano didn’t wait for the grant funding to be awarded before planning the trip.

“We went to Tanzania in August just in time for my husband and our sponsor kid’s birthday – they share the same birthday. It was an amazing experience! My husband and I got to meet Sikitiko and his family. His

parents couldn’t believe we had come from so far away,” Romano says.

This visit gave Romano and her husband the opportunity to see their support at work: “With the money that we donated, his family was able to build a small house and a kitchen. I learned how blessed we are,” she says.

A positive side effect of the program is that it has encouraged teambuilding in a completely unique way. “You had to bare your soul in the essays,” Staires says. As Ramey team members thought about what they would do if money and fear weren’t an issue, they talked amongst themselves and found support from fellow employees to pursue their dreams.

“People say things like, ‘Send us updates while you’re gone’ or ‘We’re thinking about you!’ to the winners who are going on their adventures,” Ray says. “People have really gotten into it; they’re learning things about each other that they might never have known otherwise, and seeing each other in a different light.”