Magazine Feature / People

Alum achieves success by taking the stairs

Even as a student at the University of Denver, Rory Vaden talked to people incessantly about how to be successful. The key, he said, was self discipline. To be successful, you had to do the things other people weren’t willing to do. His college roommate — and a fellow member of the Pioneer Leadership Program — heard the argument often, and used it to make fun of Vaden once on an airport escalator: “Mr. Discipline doesn’t even take the stairs,” he said.

“After I smacked him,” Vaden jokes, “I thought there was something about that that really resonated with me, that simple decision every day between taking the stairs or an escalator.”

The 26-year-old has since earned his MBA from DU, won second place in the World Championship of Public Speaking, co-founded a multi-million-dollar company that puts on motivational sales training conferences for people by the thousands, and grown his own personal brand: Take the Stairs.

He’s even in the midst of a “Take the Stairs World Tour” —  climbing the 10 tallest buildings on the globe — and anticipating the release of his book, Take the Stairs. As it turns out, the joke that became Vaden’s motto is really a metaphor for his whole life.

Vaden was raised by a single mom in a trailer park outside of Boulder. While other kids played video games, he practiced martial arts and became a black belt by the age of 10. In high school, he studied instead of going to parties, and the work paid off in the form of a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship to DU.

“That was a huge defining moment in my life because I would not have even come close to having a chance to go to DU without that,” Vaden says. “So when I was at DU, I certainly wasn’t going to let that opportunity slip by.”

He spent his free time at the library, meeting with professors, participating in the Pioneer Leadership Program and AUSA Senate. As a freshman, another student recruited him to the Southwestern Co. internship program in which college students re-locate for the summer and sell children’s books door to door for commission. He spent that first summer break in Montgomery, Ala., getting thousands of doors slammed in his face.

“It would have been easier for me to go home and be a lifeguard, but that would have been the escalator,” Vaden says. “Taking the stairs means I’m going to make sacrifices. If I had never gone through that, there’s no way I would have a multi-million-dollar company. There’s no way companies would have me come and speak to them. I would have no right.”

He made $17,000 that summer and came back to DU to recruit a team of students for the following year.

Tina Stack-Oldweiler, a project specialist in the Career Center, mentored Vaden through the process, which was not easy.

“He was always an absolute go-getter,” she says. “He just got better and better and had a confidence that was not cocky. What impressed me the most is that he was not daunted. That is the essence of a true salesperson.”

The next summer, Vaden’s team of 22 was the most successful in Southwestern’s history, with 800 campuses participating worldwide. He took home $65,000. Back at school, he continued to recruit and grow his business while taking 18 credit hours a semester.

He started speaking publicly about self discipline at high schools, colleges and youth groups, and joined a Toastmasters club to further hone his skills. After being accepted into DU’s dual degree program — enabling him to earn his bachelor’s degree and MBA in five years — he used his graduate classes to write a business plan for a motivational conference venture he was planning to pursue under the Southwestern banner with two other veterans of the internship program.

In June 2006, he graduated, became the youngest person to ever make the top-10 of the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, and moved to California to co-found the business, Success Starts Now (SSN).

Later that summer, 750 people came to the first SSN conference. In 2007, Vaden returned to the World Championship of Public Speaking. To prepare, he spoke 304 times in 18 months for free; he came in second.

Today, SSN has two teams that put on conferences all over the country for as many as 1,000 people at a time. Many of those attendees become clients of the company’s core individual sales training and consulting business.

Chad Goldwasser, who owns a real estate company in Austin, Texas, came to Vaden for help with public speaking leading up to a National Association of Realtors convention he was addressing.

“I thought I was pretty good before, but Rory took me to an incredibly higher level,” Goldwasser says. “He’s a good motivator, a good, solid salesperson and great teacher. He has a way of boiling things down and making it really simple to understand and implement.”

Meanwhile, Vaden travels the country giving his trademark Take the Stairs speech at conventions and corporate functions.

“It’s while you’re on the stairs that’s the fun part,” he says. “If you’re on the escalator, you’re not doing anything, not growing, not changing. You’re being dragged through life. On the stairs, you’re moving, learning, failing — but you’re getting better.”

Through his blog,, he’s trying to recruit 50,000 people to make a public commitment to leading more disciplined lives by joining the Take the Stairs World Tour. To attract publicity and raise money for charity, he’s climbed the stairs of the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building and the CN Tower in Canada.

In late 2009, Vaden is planning to bring his message back to the place it started with a SSN conference in Denver.

He says it’s the Pioneer Leadership Program that nurtured and developed his passion for teaching and management and turned him into a voracious reader of books on how to be successful. Even more significant to his career has been everything the Daniels College of Business taught him about ethics.

“I can’t believe how many of our decisions come down to an ethical call,” he says. “From the way you do your accounting to the way you price your services and position yourself against competitors. I’m so glad ethics was such a major focus of what we did at DU, especially now with the Take the Stairs World Tour. A lot of that message is tied to ethics as well, being disciplined in the way you run your company and the way you treat people.”

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