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One-on-One with Charles Rath

Charles Rath, founder of RS21, a rapidly growing data company. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chalk it up to the Bush-Gore election skirmish 19 years ago.

That’s when a young Charles Rath – a guy who had come close to flunking out of three colleges – finally found his groove and headed down the path that eventually led to RS21, the rapidly growing data analytics firm he launched in Downtown Albuquerque.

After “floundering around” for a while, Rath had been working as a personal trainer in Las Vegas, Nev., when he learned at age 21 that he had inherited a small amount of money from his grandmother.

“I had this brief moment of levity where I was like, what can I do with this?” he said. “I can blow it and have a great time in Las Vegas, or I can get my act together and go back to school and use this money for good. That’s what my grandma would want.”

So Rath, who grew up in a small town in Illinois, enrolled at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Besides earning a degree in strategic communications, he got to hang out with his roommate – a “very interesting, progressive-thinking person.”

“It was during the time of Bush vs. Gore, and we just got really into the issues of the day,” said Rath, 42. “It really just lit a fire within me: wow, there’s these big issues in the world, and I’m starting to understand them. I was really engaged for the first time in my life.’

Rath got straight A’s, and when it came time for graduate school, he chose American University in Washington, D.C.

A month later, a plane crashed into the Pentagon as part of the 2001 terrorist attacks – less than two miles from Rath’s apartment. A flight attendant who lived across the hall from him happened to be on that plane and was killed. Two other neighbors worked at the Pentagon and also lost their lives.

The experience helped cement Rath’s interest in global policy, and he began working with the newly formed Department of Homeland Security doing risk analytics on global threats.

“It was an amazing experience because during that time, all these leading minds on this issue came together,” Rath said. “It was really the best of the best, and we had such a clear mission ahead of us. And everyone in the country during that time – there was just this incredible amount of patriotism.”

In 2012, Rath moved to Albuquerque for a job at Sandia National Laboratories, where he used his interest in data analysis to start the Urban Resilience Program. The aim was “to help cities around the world prepare for the shocks and stresses of the 21st century – things like extreme weather, flooding, socioeconomic inequality, poverty, crime.”

Rath stayed at Sandia for about three years, before starting his own company to do similar work for government agencies, police departments, public utilities and universities. A firm that started with a staff of one (Rath) now has more than 50 employees, with a satellite office in Washington, D.C., and plans to expand internationally.

“It was one of those unique opportunities where I felt like I could assemble a group of people passionate enough about these issues to accomplish things that would leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren,” Rath said. “And I thought I could make a good living doing it.”

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a small town in southern Illinois, Harrisburg. The nearest city was three hours away, which was St. Louis. The city survived mainly on the coal mines. Beautiful country. Salt-of-the-earth people. But also, you know, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources as a community. My father was a small-town lawyer who worked harder than any man I will ever know. My mom was involved in politics. They both cared deeply about the community but also had pretty worldly views, so every night I’d watch the news with my dad and talk about the events of the day.

What do you think you took away from your years working with the Department of Homeland Security?

On the mission side, I continue to be chronically frustrated at how we’re not making objective, empirically based decisions on these big issues. The data says “X,” but we let our emotions tell us to do “Y.” And that bugs the … crap out of me. On the business side, what I took away is that it’s incredibly important to build and nurture a network of people. The people who I was with in the trenches getting doughnuts for when I was an intern – some of those people are executives in government agencies now or starting incredibly successful data companies in Silicon Valley. When I was in a position to hire interns, now those interns are some of my clients.

How did you get to New Mexico?

(While working for the Department of Homeland Security,) I got nominated for a peer group that was being led by the Partnership for Public Service. It was a cohort of emerging leaders, and once a quarter we would take a trip to study under a leader. We came to New Mexico to study under some tribal elders at Ohkay Owingeh. I stayed in Albuquerque for a week and checked off everything I would ever want.

As a Downtown business owner, you’re known for being a local booster.

We believe being able to revitalize and energize this Downtown area is the tipping point for the entire state. About a year and a half ago, we decided to take on two new policies. One was that anything we could source locally, we would, and if you look at the list of businesses we support now, it’s mind-blowing. The second thing is we started offering housing incentives for our employees to live in the Downtown area – $350 a month for rent or mortgage. As of this moment, we have 50 percent of our employees living in this proximity.

How do you spend your free time?

I have two boys, Leo, 3, and Teddy, 1 ½. I spend a lot of time with them, changing diapers, reading books. I love to travel. Having two small children gets in the way sometimes, but (wife) Ava and I had an opportunity to go to Singapore together and spend a little time in Indonesia a few weeks ago, and that filled my tank for a while.

Where are your favorite places?

I love New Mexico. I really do. I love the weather here; I love the people; I love the culture. I’m New Mexico’s biggest cheerleader.

Favorite foods?

The things that I enjoy the most tend to be not very fancy. I love street food. One of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life was in this really dingy, smelly part of Bangkok. I had the most amazing pad thai I’ve ever had in my life. Off a plastic plate.

What worries you?

T hat we’re too comfortable. I mean we haven’t lived through some of the times like our parents and grandparents lived through in terms of World War I and World War II and the Great Depression. We’re comfortable, so we’re not investing enough in research and development for future generations. I don’t think we’re tackling the most pressing issues of our time right now. We need to be unleashing the best and brightest to tackle these problems. One of the statistics I like to use is that 90 percent of the data in the world was created in the last two years, but we’re using less than 1 percent of it.

What gives you hope for the future?

The people sitting in this building give me hope. I mean every one of them, I think, and there might be nuances on my perspective, but every one of those people believe that we can have an impact on the future.

What’s the most important thing you want to teach your children?

Compassion, hands down. The ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. Getting out of your comfort zone and seeing the world. It definitely brings a different perspective to how you live your life.