Bob Knowling grew up in Kokomo with 12 brothers and sisters and a mother who did her best to make ends meet. Despite her efforts, food wasn’t a promise, and having an adult there to help with school work was a treat.
At the time, Knowling didn’t know any different. After all, poor was all he knew. However, when Knowling made a pledge to become something and help his mother, he did just that. Knowling is now known as one of Forbes Maga $100 Million CEO’s and author of You Can Get There from Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success.
Last week, Knowling returned home to speak at the YMCA—the place he gives credit for his success—and it wasn’t easy for him.
He has addressed audiences of over 20,000 and has spoken to some of the biggest names in business, and yet has never experienced any anxiety until stepping into the YMCA and being flooded with the memories of his childhood, he explained.
“I am so humbled to be in your presence, and more than anything else, I would just like to say thank you. Thank you for your investment in this YMCA. Thank you for your investment in the kids of the community of Kokomo,” he said.
Looking around the gym where he was speaking, Knowling was brought back to the days of being a 6-year-old boy just discovering the YMCA. It was the place he first learned values, where he first learned about Christianity, and where he first learned the skills he’d later use to succeed.
He was introduced to the Y after his mother told him of a place he could go that wouldn’t cost the family a dime.
“’(A family friend) called me about a place you and your brothers and sisters can go and enjoy activities with other kids,’” Knowling remembered his mother telling him. “’You can learn to swim. You can learn to read and write better. You can play baseball.’”
Excited, Knowling immediately went to his brothers and sisters to tell them about this place that sounded too good to be true. But their excitement didn’t match his. So, the next day, Knowling ran there by himself.
“I bounded up the stairs (of the YMCA). The front desk is not where it is today, but there was a lady at the front desk. Imagine a lady when a 6-year-old kid comes running in and says, ‘Hey, I’m here,’” he said.
Knowing remembers telling her he didn’t have any money, and she told him it was OK. She took him under his wing, and from that day forward, he was hooked. That day was only the beginning of a childhood Knowling would experience inside those walls.
“This is where I got my first Bible. This is where they made me show them my homework before they let me run in this gym on this floor. I learned to swim in this pool,” he reflected.
Knowling went on to be the first in his family to attend college, graduating from Wabash College. He got his first job at Indiana Bell, where he quickly began to climb the ranks. He went on to revolutionize management practices and become co-founder the Indiana Bell Black Managers Association.
He has been named one of Business Week’s top managers in 2000 and named one of the “New Digital Entrepreneurs” by Forbes. He was profiled in Fast Company twice for advice on change and success, created and was the first CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy for New York City School principals, and was enlisted by President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative to help bridge the digital divide.
Today, Knowling said it’s time to return home and give back to the community what it gave to him.
“I pledge to become a member of this community and to give back to those who so graciously gave to me,” he said.