Ronnie K. Irani: An Entrepreneur's Entrepreneur By Jerri Culpepper

Distinguished University of Oklahoma alumnus and university donor Ronnie K. Irani recently recalled his first major “Eureka!” moment – that is, the moment in time when he realized his “calling” in life. And it occurred in the summer between his junior and summer years at OU.

“Woods Petroleum, an Oklahoma City-based, NYSE-listed energy company, offered me a summer internship – the first internship the company had ever offered,” he said. “It was the perfect company for me, a really great match. For the first time I got to see the energy industry for the entrepreneurial business it truly is, and that helped me anchor the connection to what I was learning in the classroom.

“I worked really hard that summer, and the system around me at Woods responded equally,” he said. “I stayed close to the company and the people during my senior year in college and Woods made me a full-time offer following graduation. [Scottish mountaineer and writer] W.H. Murray once said that ‘at the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too.’ That’s what happened to me at Woods that summer.”

Irani stayed on at OU to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in petroleum engineering in 1980 and 1988, respectively.

He then spent almost three decades in the energy industry honing his skills before launching RKI Exploration and Production in 2005. Irani grew RKI into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise and sold the company to WPX Energy in 2015. He currently serves as CEO and chairman for a new venture, RKI Energy Resources.

But in those busy years, he never severed his relationship with the university.

“I knew early on that I wanted to give back to the university, and shortly after graduating, I made my first gift to OU. I remember accepting an invitation to join a volunteer advisory board for young alumni and saying yes to that opportunity led to me serving on many OU advisory boards over the years,” Irani said.

“The people I met at OU and the degrees I received from the university played an important role in my success, and I want to make sure I do my part in helping provide the next generation with similar opportunities for success.”

Over the years, Irani has given generously of his time, talent and resources to several areas at OU that he calls “remarkable.”

“Giving to Mewbourne College and OU’s energy programs is such a natural, as is giving to OU athletics, where excellence and winning are a big part of the OU tradition,” he said. “I also see my investments in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education and their debt-free teachers’ program and our international students and international programs as vital investments in OU’s and Oklahoma’s future. Regarding OU’s international students and international exchange programs… that’s something I intend to spend more time on in the future.”

During the past four decades, Irani also has served in leadership roles on the boards of Price College of Business and the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, David L. Boren College of International Studies and OU Energy Institute. To recognize his dedication and service to the university, Irani was honored with the 2006 OU Regents’ Alumni Award.

$5.35 Million Gift to CCEW

Irani most recently presented a generous gift to the Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth, an experiential learning program located in the Michael F. Price College of Business that is dedicated to student-led technology consulting, software business development, agile product design and social entrepreneurship. In recognition of his $5.35 million gift – the largest single gift in university history from an international alumnus – the center was named in his honor. Irani’s investment will be split between supporting and enhancing existing programs and operations, and funding new initiatives and innovations.

“Ronnie’s love for Oklahoma and dedication to its future makes him the perfect namesake for OU’s Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth,” said Daniel Pullin, dean and Fred E. Brown Chair in Business of Price College of Business. “It means a great deal to me that our faculty, staff, students and alums have the opportunity to benefit from his investment in our state’s collective future.

Jeff Moore, executive director of the renamed Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth (I-CCEW), elaborated on Irani’s gift.

“His gift and generosity have led to the growth of I-CCEW beyond what we had imagined, allowing a new oil and gas program, a new internship program in the OKC campus, an expansion of The Mine social innovation program from Tulsa to OKC and expansion of the OKCoders community-focused software development program,” said Moore. “We now hire over 60 students every semester in I-CCEW, providing a truly distinctive professional development experience for many of our top students across the university.”

When asked what inspired him to provide the leadership gift, Irani said, “Oklahoma is my home, and OU, Oklahoma City and the state have been great to me and my family. When it came time to make a leadership gift, there was never any question it would be at OU. As for targeting my support toward entrepreneurship, I see it an opportunity for me, and others, to be champions for OU students and help turn their ideas into viable businesses. With the right project and the right team, the students’ final presentation for their internship at the Irani Center could really just be a springboard to launching a successful Oklahoma company.”

Price College Dean Daniel Pullin said that students appreciate Irani's hands-on approach.

"We are honored to have a namesake like Ronnie Irani supporting our wealth creation efforts," said Pullin. "Students have great respect for Ronnie and what he has done for Oklahoma business and the broader community. In particular, they love the way he rolls up his sleeves, digs into a project and challenges our students and innovators to move farther, faster."

Moore agreed that Irani's experience is equally impactful.

“He's given far more than the financial gift; he's dedicated his time and expertise to train the next generation of oil and gas entrepreneurs,” Moore said. “He's brought his 40-plus years of wealth creation to coach and mentor our students in both the engineering and the business of oil and gas exploration.”

Contributions Outside OU

Irani’s largesse is not limited to his alma mater. The new chairman of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation believes that the Oklahoma City Boathouse and River Sport activities and programming are helping transform Oklahoma City into a destination place. Additionally, he launched a nonprofit, OKC Respond, which is focused on the wellbeing of first-responders and their families and provides opportunities for first responders to connect more closely with the youth in the community by mentoring at-risk teens.

He also is involved with the newly formed Integris Arcadia Trails Addiction Center in Edmond, a one-of-a-kind facility for Oklahoma and surrounding area, currently under construction. The center, he said, will provide “equal treatment to addiction, mental illness and the underlying trauma through world-class therapies.” Noting that “addiction is the No. 1 cause of death for Oklahomans between ages 25 and 64,” he said, “we can’t sit idly by and do nothing. This is a life-saving, family-saving investment.”

Additionally, he and his wife, Shahnaaz, are leadership supporters of the American Indian Cultural Center, the OKC Contemporary Art Museum, Positive Tomorrows and KIPP Public Charter Schools.

Student Involvement

“I’ve entered a part of my life and career where my time is clearly the most valuable asset I have,” Irani said. “Mentoring young people is a joy, and I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to devote more time to this role in the years ahead. That said, whenever I do get the chance to be around and coach our amazing students, I never let them leave a meeting with me without reminding them that one has to be totally committed to the task and that all good things come at the cost of pain and effort; it’s such a valuable lesson for them to learn.”

Dean Pullin said Irani's entrepreneurship continues inspiring students.

“Ronnie is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur,” Pullin said. “He understands that to build the entrepreneurial skill set, our students must practice entrepreneurship. His wisdom and experience are regularly brought to bear as he sharpens our students’ work while opening their horizons to what might be possible.”

Numerous OU students have expressed their appreciation to Irani for his mentorship and financial support, which Irani says has strengthened his desire to keep giving back. “I’m always pleased to hear from students who have been positively impacted through programs I support with my time and my gifts,” Irani said. “The validation that my involvement and/or my support has made a difference, has helped others, has accelerated their opportunities for success or has helped them realize their potential makes me happy and want to do more. I am fortunate and immensely satisfied by giving back.”

On Success… and Balance

Irani says that, without question, his greatest success is his family. “My professional success is as much my wife’s as it is mine, and together we have raised two amazing young women. My other big area of pride is that I didn’t leave Oklahoma to achieve my dreams,” he said. “I came to Norman 41 years ago and have been in the OKC metro area ever since. This great state gave me everything I needed to be successful.”

Balance is important, though, and Irani said vacays with the family are high on his list of important things to do. He enjoys cruises and golfing, but he said his favorite hobby is “thinking of an original idea and creating companies.”

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