Whether at home, working in government or starting her own business, Ruth Whitney’s care for and attention to people has been unwavering
By: Kimberly Dishongh – Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Ruth Whitney wasn’t positive she could be a successful business owner, but she was willing to risk it.
In the beginning, she would head from her house to a local bread company each morning, where she would sit with a steaming cup of coffee, open a laptop and think through business strategies.
InVeritas provides public relations and branding strategies, legislative bill tracking, and analysis, research and public policy advocacy.
Two years ago, she opened a subsidiary, Select Litigation, LLC, which uses data to support clients in jury selection and trial proceedings.
“It’s really interesting and one of the things I love to do,” she says of her most recent venture. “My love of strategic thinking and developing a strong road map for success for my clients is what I’m passionate about.”
She just launched a service called Global i — a research database that verifies information on prospective employees or board members for small- to medium-size businesses.
It’s clear that Whitney enjoys what she does. She has followed the advice her parents, Frederick and Gayle Hagemeier, gave her long ago.
“If you have a passion about something, go do it. Find what you love to do,” she says. “Find what you love to do because then it’s an amazing journey.”
Whitney was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but moved to Fort Smith when she was young. Her father, a Lutheran minister, was assigned to a small church there. After his retirement, he completed a doctorate in education and he and Whitney’s mother, a retired nurse, opened Hagemeier Family Counseling.
“There’s not a place I go into in Fort Smith that, if he’s with me, everybody doesn’t know him,” she says. “He’s such an amazing human being. He knows Greek and Hebrew, too, and he’s a lifelong learner.”
“I felt confident that even through really tough times I would, with the right team, be successful,” says Whitney, whose company inVeritas is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Whitney has offices in Rogers, Little Rock and Washington, serving national and international clients, including Baxter Healthcare, Chesapeake Energy, Northrop Grumman and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, as well as those local to Northwest Arkansas, including the city of Fayetteville, Crystal Bridges Museum, Scott Family Amazeum and Walton Enterprises.
There is a picture of her fly-fishing with her dad in her office. He taught her to fly-fish on his 65th birthday, she says, although camping and fishing were popular family outings throughout her childhood.
“We would go up to Beaver Lake and camp for a week or two at a time,” she says. “We had a tent and we knew how to set all that up and loved to cook and grill, swim, fish, tell stories, sing … really great memories.”
Whitney and her husband, Lance, took their now-grown children — Hannah and Noah — camping when they were young. Whitney has three siblings — two older brothers and a younger sister — and remains close to them. Her brother Paul lives in Edmond, Okla.; sister Debbie lives in Indiana.
ADVOCATING AT AN EARLY AGE
Her brother, Tim, the sibling closest to her in age, was injured in a car wreck when she was 1 year old and he was 3. She traces her desire to be a lawyer back to her family’s experience with him.
“I think it came to me as a product of my advocacy on behalf of my brother, who is a special needs young man,” she says. “He had [an] extensive injury, was told he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, see, all kinds of issues. When I was growing up, there really weren’t the kinds of specialized services that there are today for individuals with disabilities or special needs.”
She and Tim, who did all the things doctors said he wouldn’t and who lives on his own in Fort Smith, were in some classes together at school.
“I would just sit beside him and help him with his reading, or I would finish my work and then help him with his. He had dyslexia, so I worked very closely in terms of advocacy on his behalf,” Whitney says. “I give a lot of credit to my mom and dad for the way in which they sort of case-managed each of their kids.”
Her parents made sure that she and her brother went to separate high schools, ensuring that both gained the independence they needed.
“While I didn’t know at the time, I set out to advocate for individuals and others who have challenges or needs, and that could extend from people with developmental disabilities to others in the juvenile justice system to justice period,” she says. “I think it’s an extension of how I grew up.”
Whitney’s first job after law school was with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, where she represented the state in civil rights and juvenile litigation, labor disputes and appeals before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Arkansas Supreme Court and Arkansas Court of Appeals. Four years later, she became director of the Division of Youth Services at DHS, and three years after that she was named director of DHS’s Division of County Operations.
It was through the latter position that she met Joni Jones, who now works for her at inVeritas.
Jones remembers Whitney being dogged about finding out how to help the people who came into DHS for assistance. It was common for clients to be asked to complete surveys by mail or before they left the office about their experiences while there, she says.
“Ruth’s style was a little bit different. Ruth would go into a county office, not saying who she was, sit in the lobby next to somebody and then just start talking to them about their experience. She would have more of a personal face-to-face interaction with that client and certainly got a much better understanding of what their past and current experience is worth in dealing with our agency,” Jones says. “Honestly, it was just very important to her, what kind of experiences Arkansas’ families were having if they came to seek some kind of service or assistance. She wanted to have a good understanding about that.”
As a result of those conversations, Whitney worked with the staff to find ways to reduce the wait times for people in those offices.
Whitney also worked with her executive team to create a mission statement, Jones says, “so that everybody would know every day why they came to work.”
Jones recalls being in a meeting with about 900 staff members and hearing them all repeat the mission statement from memory in unison.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Jones says. “Ruth just had a way of taking things off of a piece of paper and having them mean more to the front-line staff.”
As welfare reform got its start and the focus turned from giving assistance benefits to young women to addressing the barriers they faced and helping them find employment, Whitney sat down with a client herself, demonstrating to a caseworker how to find out what was keeping that woman from getting a job.
“I think they were surprised, and they said, ‘You know, I think I can do that. I like the way you approached the client,'” Jones says. “To see a director come and do that, I think really impressed the staff. As a result, I think a lot more of them got to know her on a very personal level.”
Jones, who succeeded Whitney as director, began working at inVeritas in 2015.
“I do some of the same things I did for her when I was her deputy at DHS, and that’s financial and operations management,” Jones says. “But during the time that I’ve known Ruth I’ve seen her children grow, and I’ve been very fortunate to be part of her family and part of her family celebrations. So it’s been a pleasure both personally and professionally.”
Whitney left DHS in 2001 to work for Michell Williams Selig Gates and Woodyard.
“I did health care and insurance regulatory work and was able to work with some of the most amazing people who were former insurance commissioners and health care practitioners and litigators and others,” Whitney says. “From there, I went to work as the chief of staff to, at the time, I guess it was probably the fourth-largest law firm in the state, and that was the attorney general’s office. You know, people don’t think about it in that way many times, but it is.”
Ethan Schwartz of New York, Whitney’s first inVeritas hire, was a staff researcher for the Democratic National Committee in Washington in 2006. He met Whitney after he was sent to Arkansas to work on then-Attorney General Mike Beebe’s gubernatorial race.
“As the campaign wound down — Gov. Beebe won obviously — Ruth had just opened this really interesting firm with a focus on research through consulting, data-driven, analytics-driven, cutting edge stuff, I thought,” Schwartz says. “I had this incredible opportunity, thanks to her, to stay in Little Rock, a town I had fallen in love with, as she was getting the business up and running.”
At that time, Whitney was managing partner in Global Strategy Group, spending three years launching an Arkansas office of that research and public affairs firm before starting inVeritas.
Schwartz returned home to New York in 2010 to be near a sick family member, but he works with inVeritas through his consulting firm, EDS Research.
Though Whitney worked for a Democratic candidate, she has an ability to reach across party lines, Schwartz says.
“Attorney General Beebe was a bipartisan guy in his heart. I know there was a ‘D’ next to his name, but this was a guy who was, I think, grounded in bipartisan solutions and consensus-building,” he says. “These are profoundly important things to Ruth. I think that good advice and hard work is always bipartisan. I think when you meet people who are just gifted in providing impactful solutions, I think one thing you see is an ability to work with all different kinds of people, and I think that’s been something that is at her core.”
Alison Williams, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s chief of staff, met Whitney about 15 years ago through mutual friends in Washington. Williams, a Little Rock native, moved home about three and a half years ago.
“In her role as a lobbyist and consultant, I see her with clients from time to time, but also, we spent Labor Day together,” Williams says.
Over that hot holiday weekend, Whitney and her husband helped the Williamses rebuild part of a fence in their backyard.
“She takes her friendships seriously,” Williams says. “And she takes her commitment to this community seriously, and I think it’s what has made her such a trusted adviser and so successful in Little Rock.”
Williams and Whitney serve together on the Arkansas Cinema Society board — Whitney is president, and she is also the co-founder of an Arkansas film production company, Mudroom Films, with producer and director Jack Lofton.
Mudroom is currently filming The ‘Vous: Memphis, a documentary using the barbecue restaurant, The Rendevous, as a backdrop for a look at culture, politics and music history of that area from the 1940s until now, as well as Kings of Tort, a documentary about trial attorneys going up against powerful corporations in the name of justice for their clients.
Whitney’s involvement with the Cinema Society was spurred not only by her love of films but by her children’s love of performing arts. Hannah and Noah were both active in theater at Little Rock’s Central High School.
“Hannah did all the lights and production, she did some acting, and she kept things organized. My son was out front on the stage,” Whitney says. “She’s gotten better about it, but she was shy like I was. I was always the shy kid.”
Hannah graduated from Hendrix University with a degree in film and just finished working on True Detective, Season 3.
“She was able to work on that project very closely with Emmy Award-winning Mahershala Ali, so she was with him every day, helping with makeup,” Whitney says.
Noah, a graduate of the Chicago Conservatory, is a vocalist, working on his second album, and he does improv and stand-up comedy.
Besides spending time with family, Whitney enjoys gardening and taking long bike rides. She fractured her back in a bike wreck right after she started inVeritas.
“I just had to get up every day and go to work and make it work,” she says. “There are challenges whenever you’re an entrepreneur. You have a day when you think ‘I just don’t know if I can do this’ or turned the corner and something happened that was unexpected, and you have to just keep going to be successful. Most businesses fail within three years, so I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be in a business that’s been in existence for more than 10 years.”
She incorporates advocacy into her business plan, leading her team in an annual discussion about which organizations they will volunteer with and financially support.
Whitney and her husband were co-chairmen of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance board’s Serving Up Solutions fundraiser in 2016, and that event raised $132,000.
“Access is another place that we’ve given a lot of time and energy to. It started as a small two-person shop where they were trying to help individuals with disabilities,” Whitney says. “And 29 years later, it’s got two campuses and serves kids from ages 2 to adult. Having that resource for families who need extra help with their kids, whether they have minor disabilities or significant issues, is important.”
Tammy Simmons, executive director of Access, says Whitney has helped with strategic planning, public relations, branding and growth for Access over the years and that she always knows what to do or who to call about legislative and Medicaid concerns.
“She just makes you feel like you’re the most important thing, and she does find a way to connect. I think that’s kind of uncommon in this world of technology,” Simmons says. “She has that ability to really connect with people. I love Ruth. She’s really one of a kind. I think, really, this world’s a better place because of people like her.”
• DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: May 4, 1964, Council Bluffs, Iowa
• FIVE PEOPLE I WOULD LIKE TO INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Benjamin Franklin, Meryl Streep, Louis Armstrong, Leonardo da Vinci, Ruth Bader Ginsburg
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY: Camping and hiking with my family. Also, all of us helping my brother learn the Boy Scout motto so he could pass the test.
• MY HAPPY PLACE IS: My backyard, with family and friends.
• I RECENTLY READ AND LIKED: Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks and Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.
• I COULD NOT DO WITHOUT: My faith
• A MOVIE I LOVE IS: Antiquities. It is so funny and it’s an Arkansas film, made by Arkansas filmmakers.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL: Tapas
• IF YOU ASK MY KIDS, THEY WOULD SAY: I’m always aspiring to do better, to do more. They would say I’m a lifelong learner, always trying new things.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Aspiring