RJE sells furniture by Knoll, a company that designs their product in a modernist style I’ve become familiar with through watching the AMC series Mad Men. Really, my only experience in the world of the business elite comes from television and books, so as I peered around the swanky, surreal atmosphere of RJE’s lobby, I found myself anticipating Dennis “Denny” Sponsel, the company’s president, to be the business shark that TV and movies are fond of depicting, or one of the villain CEOs prevalent in recent news.

But his track record suggests a much more compassionate business professional than we see in today’s media. Sponsel is a board member of over a dozen charitable organizations including United Way, American Red Cross, and Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. He is a recipient of the IU Keystone Award and the IU Spirit of Philanthropy Award. When Sponsel led me to his office, we passed a sales meeting in progress. The meeting room struck me as unique for its lack of privacy; people sat relaxed around a large table partitioned off from the lobby with nothing more than a few columns, clearly visible and easily audible to any customer that cared to listen.

I think IUPUI is critically important to the health of our city. I support IUPUI because I like to think that if my small part can make the school better, then I should be doing that. 

Dennis Sponsel | JRE Business Interiors

I would say the average sales person isn’t overly concerned with philanthropy or helping the community. You have to be aggressive, you have to get that product sold. But you’re different. You’ve been heavily involved in community outreach for over two decades. What led to your initial involvement in community support and improvement, and why do you continue to invest time in it?

Growing up, I observed that the people in the community we deemed most successful all had a generous spirit. They always participated, volunteered, and gave up their resources. I admired and respected that. The people that I respected most in business also had that philanthropic spirit about them, and I very much saw where that fit with business. It’s an understanding that, if I truly believe that having a stronger community is essential, I have to do my part. Much can be accomplished when we all do a little. And there is a single word that I believe is the secret to all success: generosity.

Explain that. Do you mean success financially?

Success in life. We live integrated lifestyles today. Our business and our personal lives co-mingle.  Generosity is not just financial. It could be when an employee sticks their head in the door and asks, “Do you have a moment?” and you tell them to come on in. It’s kindness. It’s a matter of helping that person when they’re up against a wall. It’s, how can I help someone with my resources? I believe that having a generous spirit makes you a stronger, more admired person, and it makes people’s lives better. I think when you show generosity it creates a domino effect. People then feel they can be generous to others. And there is no secret that it does make your business more successful. People want to do business with people that are good people.

In your experience, what’s the most important behavior that people could practice to positively impact their community?

Mentoring and coaching. The one thing I have is 40 years in business. I have a lot of experiences to share. I love imparting that knowledge and experience, the good and the bad, to help people become more successful. There’s a thing I share with students more than anyone – welcome and embrace criticism. It will sting at the moment you receive it, but it will make you better in the long run. Also, if you’re capable and you’re talented, more is expected of you, and you should expect more of yourself.  Don’t just work to that average level. You should work to the capacity of your capabilities.

It’s easy to have a lot of interests and ideals you care about; it’s another thing to go out and make change and participate, and at the same time be successful at everything you’re working toward. Do you have any tips?

It’s always good to have a strong supportive home life, and it’s great having a support team at work that is able to help. It’s also a realization of a few other things. Number one, realize where your talents lie. I’m a humble guy, but I do realize I have some skills and talents that I can lend to organizations to help them become better. I think there’s always a responsibility to leverage those into the community. I woke up one day and realized, this world is no longer in the hands of our grandparents or our aunts and uncles. It’s in our hands now; it’s us. And there’s a responsibility there. If you have talents and skills and abilities, it may be on you. Do you want to sit there and say, let so-and-so do it, or do you want to step up? I choose to step up. I enjoy knowing many people in the community and knowing that I’m part of making an impact. It’s very fulfilling. My life is really rich. I’ve had the opportunity to do and participate in a lot of things that many people don’t. I do believe that all of the philanthropic work has helped make my life more complete. Some of my best friends and best accomplishments have come through those efforts.

The Campus Campaign is going on at IUPUI. Why is it worth it for people to donate to IUPUI?

My affinity for IUPUI is very strong. Not only did I go to school there, but I see what they do and what it does for our city having a 30,000+ student campus connected to downtown. I look at the leadership and see the good that they’re doing in driving our economy. I watch the opportunities that people are given by IUPUI on many different fronts. I see IUPUI as being a major engine for our community. It’s putting talent back into our community. It’s a belief that I have to do my part to help the school thrive. The strategic plan for the university is spot on in how it affects our overall economy. I think IUPUI is critically important to the health of our city. I support IUPUI because I like to think that if my small part can make the school better, then I should be doing that. I shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines wondering, if they raise $1.3 billion, how’s my little bit going to make a difference? If everyone sat back and thought that, there wouldn’t be a billion dollars raised. We all have to do our part. I admire the goals, vision, and commitment of the leaders at IUPUI and their presence in our community.