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Building Pathways to the Future

CMU establishes Davis School of Business in honor of Ron Davis’ investment in students

Ron Davis accomplished in business what few people dream of achieving. His track record among entrepreneurs is well known. Having traveled the globe, Davis established meaningful relationships and life-long friendships throughout the world. However, success in business isn’t what provides meaning in his life today. Providing upward mobility for youth and a pathway to a better future has been the focus of his life for more than two decades. He believes each individual human being contains within them equal intrinsic value. He values a world where education plays the continuing role of equalizing opportunity for all people to pursue the higher aim of their choice. The newly established Davis School of Business at Colorado Mesa University will provide a legacy for the values Ron Davis believes can enrich the lives of young people through his philanthropy. 

At the age of 45, Davis retired for the first time after the sale of Perrier Group of America to Nestlé Corporation. While serving as CEO for a major international company, he became known in the business world as the “father of bottled water.” Despite retirement he continued serving on corporate and nonprofit boards and was, for all intents and purposes, at the top of his career. Davis founded Davis Capital, LLC where he was able to use private equity to support other entrepreneurs and business innovators. His business ventures interfaced with brands like Celestial Seasonings, Perrier and a litany of other household brands. Even with all of these successes, there was something missing. 

The financial rewards of corporate life were not fueling Davis’ inner desires. He wanted a life that would allow him to combine his skills in business and his passion for philanthropy in order to create lasting good in the world. 

In 1997, Davis visited the neighborhood where he grew up. Not far from his childhood home, Davis called on his alma mater, California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). Speaking with staff in the development office, Davis brainstormed what his next move in life might be. He wanted his philanthropy directed towards education because college was what changed his life and gave him direction. Davis grew up in an abusive home in a difficult neighborhood and lacked substantial resources in his childhood. In his early life, there were no shortage of challenges. This reality would have an influence on the charitable organizations he would later found.

Across the development office at CSUF, a young student was discussing her plans for school with the foundation staff. With limited resources, no parental support and as an emancipated foster youth, she knew continuing to pursue her educational goals as a single parent would prove to be an uphill battle. She also knew that being a “poverty statistic” was not what she wanted for her future. Davis heard of her plight that day and decided to help. Davis continued to help other students in similar situations and this chance encounter became the spark that would ignite his passion for the rest of his life. Davis said in that moment he went from “retired to re-fired” as he found a way to use his business success to help others in a way that meant something to him personally. 

In 1998, Davis founded the Guardian Scholars at California State University, Fullerton with a preliminary gift of $250,000. Guardian Scholars was so popular with other donors that the corpus of the endowment he established has not been touched to this day. The program has graduated more than 700 students since its inception and expanded to more than 70 colleges and universities.

Becky (McGraw) Wells was the first Guardian Scholar graduate.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t really sure what the scholarship would entail. We were all working through the details together. Little did I know at the time the scholarship would shape the course of my life for years to come. I have gained a father, brothers, sisters and lifelong friends from my days as a CSUF Guardian Scholar. Relationships I treasure now and always,” said Wells.

The alumni from the program totals hundreds including Jason McBeth, a recent semi-finalist for the Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

“Ron is not just the person who funded my scholarship,” said McBeth. “For me, he is family. Beyond money, he provides advice, counseling and support that continues to help me to this very day, more than the financial aspect ever did. I am so grateful for our ongoing relationship.”

The program derived its name from the fact that nearly all the original recipients were former foster youth, and in some respects lacked the “guardians” needed to provide support and resources to further their education. Hence, the Guardian Scholars program was created to cover the cost of their education and provide support. Perhaps just as important, the scholarship came with mentorship opportunities.

For Colorado students, the mentorship aspect was formalized to offer students a “Guardian Angel,” a person to guide and inspire the student as they advanced through their educational journey. These volunteers provide scholarship recipients with coaching and they invest time to assist the student in reaching their full potential.

Davis empathizes with many of the scholarship recipients because their challenges echo those that he faced in his own early years.

“There was alcoholism in my family and there was abuse in my home growing up,” said Davis. “This early experience means no matter how my life might be different today, I can empathize and relate to those youth who face uncertainties and struggles at home,” said Davis.

Honesty, humility and the early personal challenges Davis experienced in life keeps him grounded and connects him to the people he devotes his energy and life to serving.

Considering the stature of Davis in the world of businesses and philanthropy, CMU considers the relationship with him fortuitous and important. CMU serves a student population that includes significant low-income and first-generation college students. These students oftentimes need extra support throughout their education — the same kind of support offered by Davis, the Guardian Scholars and many programs at CMU. This chemistry between the mission of CMU and the ethos of the Guardian Scholars resulted in the two organizations growing together.

“There are around 5,000 universities and colleges in the United States,” said CMU President Tim Foster. “Ron has chosen CMU as one of the few he works with because our faculty and staff have demonstrated over time a commitment to first-generation, low-income and minority students. He knows this isn’t just lip service, it’s real service and central to our identity.”

Davis started the local branch of his Guardian Scholars program after moving to Colorado. Today he resides in western Colorado where he and his staff continue providing guidance for young people.

Davis recently established My Future Pathways to fulfill the increasing social and emotional needs of students who are first-generation college attendees and who are generally underserved youth in Vail Valley. Many of these first-generation students attend CMU with the support of Davis and the My Future Pathways staff. The Guardian Scholars program and My Future Pathways have a nearly exclusive relationship with CMU in the state of Colorado because of the programs the university established that support first-generation and low-income students. The values held high by Davis are reflected in the operations and priorities of Foster.

“Earlier in my life I grew tired of what some people call ‘checkbook charity,’” said Davis. “I know from business that people perform better and take more personal accountability when their thoughts, words and deeds align. So I invest my time, talents and resources in places where I see that happening. CMU is a place where I see shared values and a commitment to excellence and mutual success.”

While the relationship between CMU and Davis’ philanthropies has grown throughout time, it wasn’t until 2019 that Davis agreed to maximize his contribution to CMU in the form of investing his time. Colorado Governor Jared Polis appointed him to serve on the CMU Board of Trustees. 

“We are lucky to have Ron on the board,” said fellow trustee and board chair David Reed. “Ron has served on some of the most influential boards in the country through his career. Having him donate his time to CMU isn’t taken for granted and is something we highly value.”

Davis’ service on the board mirrors the values implicit in his philanthropy. He always matches his financial contributions with his time, talent and treasures. In the case of the Davis School of Business at CMU, his significant investment in CMU scholarships and students will be matched by his tireless efforts on the governing board of the university.

“The money going to CMU isn’t a gift to the university,” said Davis. “It’s an investment in the future Guardian Scholar youth who will occupy the halls of CMU. I chose Colorado Mesa because anyone can make an overture that they care about marginalized students, but I have watched CMU over the years and they keep their promises to remain an institution of access and affordability for all people.”

The arc of Davis’ life reflects the journey of many people who modify their values and views through time as they experience the world. From business executive to philanthropic leader, Davis’ legacy is fixed not in the brick and mortar of buildings, but in the hearts and lives of the people who have knowledge woven into the fabric of their lives and families because of this generosity.


Written by David Ludlam