Then & Now: As cycling proponent, Ryan Hale discovers his lane

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,009 views 

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the April 27 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.

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Like other business owners, Ryan Hale continues to assess the best path forward amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Even for a guy who plans paths for a living, he is finding a challenging environment.

Hale, 44, is the founder and CEO of LaneShift, an education, planning and consulting agency in Bentonville that exists to create bicycle and pedestrian networks that move people safely and comfortably.

He started the business in January 2017, following several years of working as a Home Region program officer for the Walton Family Foundation (WFF).  The majority of his work — and where Hale gained experience about trails, cycling and placemaking — was spent on helping the foundation to finance cycling infrastructure projects throughout Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.

Hale, a Rogers native and former defensive tackle for the Arkansas Razorbacks, says he never considered himself a cyclist. He still doesn’t. “I see myself as a person on a bike,” he jokes.

He also sees the economic and social benefits that cycling infrastructure and education can make on communities, neighborhoods and employers. Now, more than ever, Hale believes the value of trails, paths and open spaces within communities is evident.

“These assets have helped our community stay active and provide an essential mental and emotional outlet during this [COVID-19] crisis,” he said. “When the dust settles, and we can re-engage with each other and our communities, we hope to continue helping communities prioritize and plan for more investments in bike-friendly infrastructure.”

LaneShift has two full-time employees and partners with numerous groups to work on projects throughout the country. Hale said he is most proud of the work the company does to change the perspective of people who may be a bit skeptical about cycling and the associated investments in infrastructure.

“In particular, some of the study tours that we have done, we’ll often tell these organizations, ‘Don’t just bring everybody from the choir,’” Hale said. “Don’t just bring the people who get it. Bring some skeptics. We have seen some major shifts in people’s thinking and mindsets in the time they have spent with us. There is something about experiencing it on a bike, in person, you can’t get talking about it on the phone or watching a video.”

Therein lies a new challenge for LaneShift. Hale said the pandemic has temporarily forced the company into the early stages of developing some online content and resources, yielding to the restrictions of social distancing.

“Those can serve to educate and to forward these conservations in the interim,” he said.

Hale, a 1999 UA graduate, was the 225th player selected in the 1999 NFL Draft. He played in 25 games in a two-year career with the New York Giants, including a win in Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001.

After retiring, Hale returned to Northwest Arkansas for a job with the nonprofit Arkansas Athletes Outreach. Later, after a few years as a commercial lender for Arvest Bank and United Bank, the Soderquist Center for Leadership & Ethics (now Milestone Leadership) in Siloam Springs hired him as director of business development. The center was named for its founding executive, the late Don Soderquist, former chief operating officer of Walmart Inc., and a 2010 inductee into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Hale’s work at the Soderquist Center was noticed by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in 2010 when he was named a Forty Under 40 honoree. The following year, Hale joined WFF, the Bentonville-based philanthropic organization started by Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton.

“I’ve had some amazing opportunities over the years with all of those relationships,” Hale said.

Also in 2011, Hale and his wife Debi began a personal journey when they followed a call into foster care, opening their home to four children. They eventually adopted them and went from two to six children overnight.

“That was a major endeavor and a tremendous blessing,” Hale said. The sibling breakdown is two boys and four girls. Hale said the engine (oldest) and caboose (youngest) are boys, ranging in age from 9 to 20.

“The oldest is married, and we’re going to be grandparents in August,” Hale said.

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