To Top

Meet Rich Johnson and Ryan Jeffery of Ignite in The Loop

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rich Johnson and Ryan Jeffery.

Rich and Ryan, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
It starts in a place that we’ve come to realize is pretty familiar for a lot of people. Separately, Ryan and I were working too many hours, living out of suitcases and attending pointless happy hours. Our jobs weren’t providing the kind of meaningful connection and sense of purpose that we hoped for… so we started to look for more something bigger than ourselves.

In 2006, that led me on a journey to Africa with a couple of buddies from here in Chicago. We spent time with a community organization focused on supporting families devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We came back and started Spark Ventures – a nonprofit headquartered here in Chicago that now provides funding and strategy to partners in Zambia, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Along the way, Spark began to facilitate immersion trips for the mutual benefit of supporters and partner communities abroad. Meeting the desire that people had for deeper connection and inspiration led to hundreds of people traveling with us and eventually, companies began to send their employees on these journeys as a way to engage and develop their teams. -Rich

I was an early founder at fast-growing technology start-up where I experienced firsthand the endless challenges that surround employee engagement and retention. Employees were expecting and demanding more – traditional training and benefits were not enough. People wanted to connect and contribute to the world in meaningful ways and if companies didn’t offer this, employees would look elsewhere. I felt this desire myself and had gotten involved as an advisor with Spark Ventures. In November of 2015, I ventured to Nicaragua with Rich and Spark Ventures and immediately realized how this powerful experience could benefit companies and their employees. -Ryan

Rich and I had both recently adopted young energetic dogs and we decided to get them together and talk about possibilities for expanding this impactful travel program. Our dogs, Harvey and Zambezi, became best friends and would play for hours – so we had plenty of quality strategy time. These chats, along with a lot of support from generous advisors, the Spark Ventures Board, and our friends and families, eventually led to the launch of Ignite, with the mission to provide experiences that benefit humanity and the planet.

At the core, Ignite is a people development company. We help people become the best versions of themselves through purposeful journeys that combine cultural immersion and adventure. We primarily work with companies who offer our journeys as a way to recognize and develop their employees, but we have trips for everyone. We’re thrilled to be building this here in Chicago – a world-class city with so many people interested in this type of opportunity. -Rich

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
One of our first challenges was to define what these journeys are – to help people who haven’t traveled with us get a sense of what it is. Part of what makes these journeys so powerful is how they are carefully crafted to combine cultural immersion and community engagement, alongside personal and professional development, adventure and fun. How do you encapsulate that in a word or phrase? Sometimes we tell people to think of it like an incentive trip with a purpose – or a work retreat with more meaning and fun than you thought possible. -Rich

We also decided to raise a small round of funding from friends and family to invest in the right team and areas of strategic growth. It took time to find investors who understood our vision and realized the opportunity in front of us to build a successful, and impactful, company. It meant foregoing salaries and becoming extremely scrappy and resourceful – we essentially lived off the miles and points we had accrued over the years to sustain ourselves.… but we got eventually there. And we are so thankful for the investors and advisors who are now on this journey with us. -Ryan

Ignite – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
We believe that a lot of the biggest issues we face as a society stem from our lack of authentic and meaningful connection to the world – and so we’re most proud of how our journeys connect, transform and inspire in a way that addresses these challenges and overcomes ideological divides: Our journeys range from 4 to 10 days and combine cultural immersion, professional development, and adventure.

Each has a carefully crafted itinerary – we take care of each and every detail. By offering these journeys to companies, we empower them to build a more diverse and thriving culture by connecting their employees to the global community. We’ve been doing this for 10 years and we have a great track record – there’s something incredibly powerful about stepping out of your comfort zone and having this shared experience – with people you know or you are just meeting for the first time. -Ryan

And I’d also say that we’re really proud of the fact that we continue to highlight and support community partnerships. Going all the way back to that first trip that I took to Africa 10 years ago – we’ve stayed true to the goal of supporting the local communities we visit. Whether it’s the youth education program in Nicaragua or a women’s entrepreneur program in Mexico – our travelers have the opportunity to engage with these programs, as well as know that they’ve financially supported them through Ignite. That happens by a percentage of every trip fee going to those community partners through our relationship with Spark Ventures. It’s thousands of dollars every year, not to mention the awareness and advocacy that comes from all of the returning travelers. -Rich

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
For me, at the end of the day, success is whether or not we’ve left the world a better place. At Ignite, we have the opportunity to see that happen on so many levels. People are personally transformed through our journeys – they become better people, stronger leaders, more present and engaged in how to build a better world. Through our partnerships with business and community organizations around the world, we are financially supporting local economies and bringing attention to their amazing work. And we are intentional about keeping environmental sustainability as a key criteria in the decisions that we make because our mission is to benefit both humanity and the planet. -Rich

If we can help companies to build a more diverse and thriving culture – we’ve succeeded. If we develop global citizens – we’ve succeeded. If our journeys help to connect and inspire the world… we’ve succeeded. We want to build a business that far outlasts ourselves – a sustainable organization that continues to provide experiences that benefit and humanity long into the future. If we can do this, that will be a success to me. -Ryan


  • Currently we offer journeys in Mexico, Nicaragua and Zambia – journeys to Mexico and Nicaragua start at $2000, Zambia journeys start at $4,300.

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageChicago is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in