Denis Ring learned a lot about life during his year-long experience with IES Abroad Vienna. Through exposure to art, history, and the Catholic tradition, his experience led him to join the Jesuits where he spent seven years studying to become a priest. In what some would see as a 180 degree turn, he left the Jesuits to pursue a successful career in business, later working with Whole Foods to create their 365 private label brand. Now an entrepreneur, he has built an organic candy brand called OCHO Candy, which is becoming popular in the U.S. and abroad. In our interview, Denis shares how his relationship with two of the three IES Abroad co-founders, Clarence and Alberta Giese, changed his life and how he has drawn upon his study abroad experience throughout his career.
IES Abroad: What was the most impactful thing that happened to you while studying abroad in Vienna?
Denis Ring: When I look back on the IES Abroad experience, the most salient, life changing, and most personally informing experience was my personal relationship with Clarence and Alberta Giese, two of the three co-founders of IES Abroad. Our friendship started because I was on the Student Council. This put me in contact frequently with Clarence, and what developed was a close friendship. It was enhanced by the fact that his birthday is one day away from my birthday, and we joked a lot about it. What struck me about Clarence and Alberta was that I had never seen a husband and wife team who had pioneered such an adventuresome, well-designed program in my life. I had never seen a married couple who had the courage to leave the United States, move to Vienna to try to help rebuild the city. The
mission of bringing American students into Europe to learn about European history and art, with all the cultural advantages of living in a city like Vienna, was brilliant. That sense of mission and their passion was really important to me.
What I respect, and hope to achieve in my own life, is a similar sense of a commitment to a mission and the willingness to follow through on a vision the way Clarence and Alberta have. If I look at role models in my life, certainly Clarence is one of the most influential. I’ve always admired his courage to follow his convictions and to take steps to do something meaningful and honest. I love the way he challenges people. He’ll stay up until three in the morning and challenge everything that you say and everything that you stand for. Then, at the end of the night, he’ll close with an expression of heartfelt love and respect and reverence. That has been remarkably important to me.
IES Abroad: What else about Vienna and Europe influenced your life?
DR: Being exposed to traditional Catholic heritage throughout Europe, from Vienna to Italy and Spain, France, and Belgium, was a deeply moving experience for me. When we went into Budapest and Prague to see the great Catholic cathedrals, it moved me because there was such strong governmental resistance to practicing any form of faith. To go into these cathedrals, sit in a pew and pray, smell the fragrance of the wet stone and candles, and see the light working through the building – it was deeply influential. It was so influential that when I graduated from Santa Clara, I entered the Jesuits and spent the next seven years studying to be a priest. Had I not gone to Europe, I don’t think I would have had the kind of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual awakening that I had for my own Catholic identity. And to this day, when I’m in Europe, I visit all the Cathedrals I can. My IES year gave me a sense of beauty, reverence, and history that I could not have gotten in the United States.
IES Abroad: Did any of your coursework relate to this topic?
DR: I did take a course on the history of opera, and I lived in the first district a few blocks away from the Vienna State Opera. I could walk over and listen to the operas. This is the real beauty of the experience. There is coursework, and then there is the real education that takes place apart from the time in the classroom. For me it was the opportunity to go look at the work of El Greco, or to go down to Florence and see what Michelangelo had done and see the great works of art. You go to Rome, you look at The Pieta, and you think, "How could Michelangelo have created something so expressive and beautiful?" It wasn’t so much the classroom as it was the beauty and the educational benefits of being over there outside of the classroom.
IES Abroad: How did your experience in Vienna translate into your career later in life?
DR: It taught me how to behave in international business settings. One of the business classes I took in Vienna allowed me to research a paper on life insurance. I ended up going down to Trieste, Italy, to interview the CEO of an insurance company. I came in as an American student, and he was generous enough to give me some of his time. What I got was a sense of the gentility, respectfulness and the sense of personal time and tradition from Europeans that is so much different from Americans. In the U.S., business dealings are often curt, short, and straight to the point. I think what I picked up from my time in Europe, both in the classroom and outside, was an appreciation for listening and trying not to be an alpha-American, but rather being a gentleman doing business with other gentlemen – and that includes relationship building. You get some of that here in the United States, but it is different in Europe where, if the door is open and there is enough friendship, you can become very close friends. One of the greatest compliments I ever got in my life came from an Italian colleague. He said to me (with his Italian accent), “Denis, you are not like an American. The way you do business is like an Italian, and we feel really comfortable doing business with you because we know we can trust you.” I was flattered.
IES Abroad: How did you apply these skills to your career?
DR: The sensitivity I developed in Vienna worked for me when I was creating the 365 food line at Whole Foods. I had to go to Europe frequently to source my products. Whatever it was – cookies in Belgium, cheese in Holland, soda, pasta and balsamico in Italy, or jams and jellies in Spain – I brought an appreciation of the European mode of doing business. Most importantly, I spoke clearly and I spoke slowly, and I didn’t use idioms and colloquialisms. I remembered living Vienna, speaking only a little German, and not knowing what the heck was going on around me. In every single exchange that I have with Europeans, I remember what it was like to try to live in a society where the host country’s language was not my first language. Most recently, we were in Copenhagen with the OCHO Candy team to purchase a production line. Even though the Danes speak English beautifully and understand it, I pulled the team aside, and said, "Look, I know they speak really great English, but you have to be respectful of fact that it’s not their native language. So don’t use street lingo, and speak slowly and clearly just to eliminate any confusion." I left Vienna in 1977 and now, almost 40 years later, I’m still practicing those lessons I learned about being [culturally] sensitive.
IES Abroad: Is there anything else that you can point to from study abroad that changed the way you think?
DR: I didn’t take art history classes in Vienna, but I went to every museum that I could from the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum to the Tate in London and everything in between. I went to Venice a lot because you could sleep on the overnight train, get into Venice in the morning, and you’d have a weekend of Italian food. I could go from museum to museum to cathedral to church, and along the way I might stop off at Padua or Bologna. I got to see so much good art, whether it was in Florence, Venice, Rome, Athens, Milan, Paris, Madrid, London, Amsterdam, or Munich. I would go and look at all the masterworks and just absorb it. I talked to Clarence a lot about art and what was going on in this painting and that painting and what was going on with Klimt when he was using his brightly colored gold on the kiss. Why was that included? Why was it so graphic? What was this challenging? Why was this good art? What was happening for me was that I was connecting a lot of dots around color value composition. I gained an understanding of why one painting or artist was challenging the status quo and advancing the next evolution of art as an expression. I got to see many of the great masterpieces. What I didn’t know at the time was that these museum visits were shaping my own sense of what is visually beautiful.
IES Abroad: Did this perspective impact your approach to work?
DR: When I started to do design work for products under the 365 label at Whole Foods, I realized I was tapping into this tremendous experience of visual information regarding balance, color, and composition. Whether packaging was designed in Europe or the United States, whether the product was a cereal box, a box of soymilk, or a tray of frozen enchiladas, it had to have visual appeal. I ended up overseeing those designs because I had a strong sense of what was going to be visually appealing and ultimately successful. In the early days, the 365 logo was much more brightly saturated and appealing to the eye and it was given awards for design. I never did that actual graphic design, but I worked with designers to refine the packaging presentation and to keep a sense of continuity among categories of products. I was really passionate about making sure the label was appealing. Today, I oversee package design for OCHO Candy and it, too, has won awards for design. I’m certainly not an artist or a designer. But the work I’ve collaborated on is the work of a guy who was fortunate enough to spend time admiring great art.