An Eyewitness to History
Roger Ervin shares his experiences on the world stage in the classroom and beyond
If you want to know the arc of Roger Ervin’s career, you don’t need his résumé. You just need to watch some movies.
Ervin (MBA ’09) witnessed the genocidal horrors of Hotel Rwanda in real life. He was in the midst of the events in Somalia that resulted in Black Hawk Down and helped negotiate the end of U.S. involvement there. He designed the U.S. response to the political transition in South Africa and helped provide training for the security forces that protected its new President Nelson Mandela and were prominent characters in Invictus. In West Africa he dealt with warlords and mercenaries similar to the characters in Blood Diamond.
His work now plays out more on a smaller screen, with TV reports of refugee crises throughout the world. Ervin is CEO and president of Blumont, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides international development and humanitarian assistance in 40 countries. The position, which Ervin began in 2015, is the culmination of an extensive career working in the public and private sectors in areas ranging from diplomacy to finance.
“I’ve seen it all, the good and the bad,” Ervin says. “I’ve seen the ugly side of humans as well as the wonderful side.”
It’s a perspective that he shares in myriad ways at the Wisconsin School of Business, including serving on the Dean’s Advisory Board. He earned his degree in the executive MBA program, and has been a lecturer in the program for nine years, teaching managerial communications.
“Students can connect with Roger because this is someone who is on the front lines; he is living a case study every day,” says Leslie Petty, WSB’s assistant dean of the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA Programs. “It’s a case study based on ethics, leadership, team-building, how to step in and turn an organization around, what it’s like to work with an organization that works internationally. He can bring all of that to the table.”
Working around the globe
On any given day, Ervin might be in Madison, where Blumont moved its headquarters in 2016, or the nonprofit’s other locations in Washington, D.C., and Amman, Jordan. There’s also a good chance he might be on site in any number of the countries with Blumont projects (he traveled to 15 of them in 2017).
The organization works around the globe, including the Middle East, South America, Asia, and Africa. Blumont manages projects for governmental entities such as the U.S., Britain, the World Bank, and the United Nations in the most challenging countries and desperate communities in the world.
“It’s everything from delivering goods into war zones to rebuilding war-torn communities while conflicts continue to rage,” says Ervin, who lives just outside Madison in Middleton, Wisconsin. “We are the largest refugee camp manager for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, and at the same time we use our engineering capabilities to provide support in more stable communities like the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Jordan.”
A key area for Blumont is Syria, which has been in the midst of a civil war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced another 11 million since 2011.
It’s all a far cry from the career he originally planned when he was a biology major at Tulane University. He was offered a job at Procter & Gamble after graduation and saw his career path take a turn when a friend’s mother, who was an advisor to then-Gov. Bill Clinton, thought Ervin’s college political activism might make him suited for a different kind of work.
“She said, ‘I know a couple members of Congress, you should think about talking to them,’” he said. “So I did.”
A career in diplomacy
Ervin took a job working for Sen. Joe Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee and went on to work in the House of Representatives, where he served on the Banking and Foreign Affairs committees. From there he began a career in diplomacy, working in the State Department as senior advisor in the Africa bureau during a tumultuous time for the continent. His time there coincided with civil wars in Angola, Somalia, and Rwanda, and Mandela’s presidential election in South Africa. He helped craft part of three State of the Union addresses for President Clinton.
“I was there the day the genocide started in Rwanda and we pulled all the Americans out,” he says of events in 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people died in 100 days of ethnic cleansing. “I went back the day we opened the embassy and there were still bodies everywhere. For a 31-, 32-year-old that was all very challenging. Imagine looking into the eyes of the worst people in history like Mobutu in Zaire, Gaddafi in Libya or the genocidal killers in Rwanda. It gives one a unique perspective.”
— Roger Ervin (MBA ’09)
It was good preparation for what was to come. Upon returning to the U.S., Ervin founded an international consulting firm that was acquired by Foley & Lardner LLP, a move that brought him to Wisconsin. He became secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and found himself in the midst of a maelstrom: a data breach that resulted in taxpayers’ Social Security numbers being printed on mailing labels for their tax forms. It was a public relations disaster but a chance to implement changes that transformed and modernized the department.
“You don’t waste a crisis,” he says. “You try to make something of it.”
While serving as revenue secretary, Ervin made something else happen—a long-desired MBA. Family and career obligations had made it a challenge in the past, but now he was in a city with a strong public university and he chose to dive into WSB’s executive MBA program.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know or didn’t think about,” he says about pursuing an MBA. “The good thing about the executive program is it brings together your experiences and focuses on where you have gaps and where you have strengths.”
A worldview for MBA students
Since 2009, he has shared what he has gleaned through his professional experiences and in the classroom with the Evening and Executive Programs as a lecturer.
“I’m sure the way he teaches is very similar to the way he leads,” Petty says. “I can see him being very poised, very steady. He shares so many stories and so much information. He leaves students craving more.”
Ervin has scaled back his teaching because of his worldwide commitments since taking over at Blumont in 2015. He came on board when it was International Relief and Development, the U.S. government’s largest contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to Ervin’s arrival, IRD had been investigated and suspended by the U.S. Agency for International Development for alleged financial misconduct. Under Ervin’s leadership, the organization eventually took the U.S. government to court over the matter and won a landmark case that voided the suspension and put the organization back in good standing with the U.S. and all of its clients.
From there, Ervin’s task was to rebrand and restructure the organization. Blumont has instituted more accountability standards and implemented new project management systems that use mobile technology to create transparency, efficiency, and language solutions for a worldwide workforce. He moved Blumont’s headquarters to Madison, where he believed the organization could take advantage of partnerships with the university as well as tap into its research.
— Leslie Petty
Assistant dean of the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA Programs
“We take a private sector approach to this business, which makes us different than others working in this space,” he says. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but instead look to private sector innovations and adapt appropriate methodologies or products for us to work with in developing countries.”
With a life of airports, refugee camps, and crisis management throughout the globe, Ervin doesn’t have to seek adventure, it just comes to him. That makes being home with his family that much sweeter, and his connection to Wisconsin and the university so meaningful.
“These things are hard to take, they’re hard to see,” he says of his work. “People are living under dire circumstances. It’s motivating to be involved in an organization that is making an impact.”