The death of Wonder Woman
Ruth Kelly's life, passion and public identity was her company, Venture Publishing – but by June, the sinking business was deeply in debt, Jana G. Pruden writes. Ruth never recovered
On the night it was finally over, when even Ruth's last hopes had fallen through, Larry Kelly told his wife something he'd known for weeks, even months: There's no more running away from this. It's time to shut down the business.
We'll give it the weekend, he told her. Then on Monday we'll start figuring out what to do next. We'll declare bankruptcy. You'll get a job. It will be tough for a year or two, but it will get better. We will get through it.
It was a big step. Ruth was 60 years old. Venture Publishing and its flagship magazine, Alberta Venture, had been her life, her passion, and defined both her working life and her public identity. She was also not one to walk away from a challenge. In speeches to other entrepreneurs and business leaders, she talked often about the struggles of entrepreneurship, of the importance of embracing risk and making your own luck, of the "pathological stubbornness" and "irrational optimism" which had seen her through tough times before.
But by June of 2017, the qualities that were once Ruth's greatest strengths were only making the situation worse. Venture was deeply in debt, a sinking business that owed huge amounts of money to throngs of companies and individuals, and which was rapidly taking Ruth and Larry down with it. Ruth's steadfast belief that she could somehow power through it, that the business could still turn around and recover, had become unhealthy; her optimism not an asset but a trap, like a gambler desperately trying to make back money already lost.
It was a tough conversation, but the next morning Ruth seemed almost like her regular self again. She dressed nicely, and came to kiss Larry goodbye while he showered. It was unusual, but not enough to make him worry. He didn't think anything about it until he saw the police officers in his office later, their faces grim, the female officer telling him, "I've got some bad news."
To her friends and admirers, Ruth Kelly seemed like Wonder Woman, a woman who could work 80 hours a week, raise millions as the head of a United Way campaign, give inspiring talks to leaders of industry, cook a gourmet dinner, host a party for 150, and take time to volunteer and mentor – all while looking fabulous and wearing a great pair of shoes.
She could be intimidating and demanding, even harsh, but in the end it always seemed to be because she cared. In your corner, she was a fierce advocate and a good friend, and there were many who felt they owed their success or accomplishments to Ruth.
Suicide is always shocking. But with Ruth, it was almost unbelievable. Person after person told Larry, "I can't believe that would be Ruth." Every time, he agreed.
Larry Kelly met Ruth Sanborn in 1974, when they were both students at the University of Alberta. He was in engineering, she was studying English and writing with an emphasis on Canadian poetry. He was attracted first by her confidence and style, then by her heart.
After working in advertising and publishing, Ruth started her own small publishing company, Troika, with two friends. The company did well, and in 1997 the women expanded their efforts by purchasing a quarterly business publication that was being sold off by the government for $100. With that, Venture Publishing was born.
In a TED talk in January 2014, Ruth remembered watching the first issue of Alberta Venture magazine roll off the presses, and described it as "a moment of sheer bliss."
"I had this slim 64-page magazine in my hands, this thing that I had created out of my heart and mind and soul, this magazine that I had committed all my financial resources to, and beyond that had charmed and bullied and finagled a variety of good friends and family to invest their money in the magazine as well," she said. "This magazine was my passion made manifest."
"And the moment is so crystal clear for me when I held it in my hands and I realized: This is it."
Building the company wasn't easy, and Ruth and her partners faced not only the challenges of growing and sustaining a business, but the obstacles of sexism running a business magazine and publishing company, both of which remained male-dominated fields. But Ruth relished the fight, and she was good at it.
In a Global TV feature about the magazine's first anniversary in 1998, Ruth pointed out that while more than 75 per cent of new magazines failed in their first year, Venture had 4,000 new subscriptions. Eight years later, there were almost 40,000, and the magazine was still growing. She had lofty goals: To produce great journalism on par with Canada's largest and most respected business publications.
It worked. With Ruth at the helm, Venture Publishing became a respected force in publishing and business in Alberta, and grew to be one off the biggest independent publishers in the country with upwards of 50 employees in two cities putting out both its namesake magazine and a growing collection of other house and contract publications, and hosting events that drew some off the richest and most influential people in the province. Though she sometimes worked 80 hours a week, Ruth also volunteered, mentored, hosted parties, and did regular public speaking about business and entrepreneurship.
"Venture Publications head Ruth Kelly never stops," noted one newspaper story in 2008. At the time, Kelly had recently acquired Alberta Oil, her tenth magazine.
There were breakfast meetings and lunches, dinners and parties at night, sometimes four or five events a week. While others marvelled at how she did it, Ruth never seemed to get tired. In their shared Google calendar, Larry could see his wife's meetings and events marked in orange, bright swaths reaching week after week, month after month.
Ruth's accomplishments and accolades became too numerous to list. She was chair of the Chamber of Commerce, chair of Business at MacEwan University, chair of the Capital Region's United Way campaign; variously named a Woman of Distinction, a Woman of Vision, a Woman of the Year. There were honorary degrees, lifetime achievement awards, a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
Receiving a prestigious honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta in June 2016, Ruth was lauded for her "brilliant career as a publisher and entrepreneur" and described as a woman who had thrived in her business endeavours, and continued to adapt and evolve in a challenging industry that was changing quickly.
"Ruth Kelly has always been a trailblazer, creating a path in publishing where no woman has gone before," said Faculty of Arts dean Dr. Lesley Cormack, as Ruth stood beside in brilliant red and white academic robes.
Ruth's face was calm and passive, and didn't belie the reality of what she knew: Her business was not thriving. In fact, though many people suspected Venture was having financial problems, no one, not even Larry, had any idea how bad it really was.
The first signs that Venture Publishing was in trouble go back to at least 2011, when stories began circulating about freelancers waiting months to be paid for their work. By 2013, the problem had grown significant enough that Story Board, a website for freelancers operated by the Canadian Media Guild, ran a story about Venture's lengthy delays in payment to freelance workers. The story prompted dozens of frustrated and angry responses from photographers, writers, and illustrators who were or had been owed money.
"I don't need to point this out, but I will: How ironic that a business magazine celebrating business excellence is terrible at business, doesn't pay its contractors (which includes photographers like me), breaks its contracts and handles its public image with complete disregard," wrote someone identified as Disgruntled Venture Freelancer #0129. "Did I say ironic? I meant ENRAGING."
Some of the freelancers described being lied to or stalled by Ruth or other staff, or being paid only after threatening legal action or going to collections agencies. Some expressed anger at Ruth for not responding to them, or accused her of exploiting their labour and work to fund a successful business.
"She employs terrific editors but she herself is one of the biggest frauds in the publishing field today. A complete phony," one person wrote. Most of the commenters said they would never work for Venture again, and they advised others to do the same.
Joining Venture Publishing as an editor in the spring of 2011, Mike Ganley knew there had been some issues around delayed payment to freelancers, but took the job because he was impressed by the quality of the magazines and by Ruth, who was confident and warm, who set high standards and struck him as a good businesswoman and boss.
A lot of publications were struggling, and he was assured efforts were being made to get freelancers paid more quickly. But despite those efforts, the situation became increasingly worse, not better, and lags in payment soon stretched from months to years.
Like other employees, Mr. Ganley says he had no part in the financial workings of the company, all of which were controlled by Ruth, its president and CEO. But the payment problems could be both stressful and embarrassing for Venture staff caught in the middle, and editors like Mr. Ganley found themselves with an ever-dwindling pool of people willing to work for them.
"The core of it was, I think, the slow death of print media," he says now. "The downturn in the last two years in the Alberta economy certainly had an impact, and I think there were some bad business decisions made by Ruth, primarily along the lines of not making the tough decisions to cut publications, cut employees, dial it back. Cut back to the bone. I don't know if it would have worked. I don't know if it would have saved the patient, but we had to downsize."
In speeches, Ruth had often mentioned the potential of public humiliation as one of the greatest risks of entrepreneurship, and as the payment problems at Venture worsened, so did their exposure to the broader public and business community.
In August 2016, just weeks after Ruth Kelly stood on stage at the University of Alberta being celebrated as a business and community leader, national media criticism website Canadaland ran a story about the company's mounting debt to freelancers.
Quoted in that story, Ruth admitted there may be "a longer lag time [to payment] than any of us would like," but promised the freelancers would get paid eventually.
"Everyone is struggling," she was quoted as saying. "I talk to businesses every day, and I haven't talked to anyone who isn't struggling. I hear of people closing doors, laying people off, or looking for new markets because cash flow has been reduced to nothing. And those are our clients. Then layer on the changing media landscape and it's a particularly fraught time."
But that wasn't explanation enough for many journalists and designers, some of whom were owed thousands of dollars for work completed years earlier, and had been relying on the payments to pay bills of their own.
Frustrated creditors phoned and e-mailed Ruth directly, and when she failed to respond, became increasingly vocal on public platforms like Twitter about the money they were owed.
At the Venture offices, staff also knew, or at least suspected, that the business's troubled finances were tied up with Ruth and Larry's personal money. Mr. Ganley noted the situation with concern, but both Ruth and Larry were smart and capable business people and it didn't seem like his place to bring it up.
"One of the ironies is that as a business magazine we had frequently written pieces advising business owners not to do that," he says. "That if the business cannot survive on its own, basically let it die."
But Ruth could not, or would not, let that happen.
Instead, by the fall of 2016 Ruth had been racking up alarming levels of personal debt trying to keep the office going, and continued to actively seek investors for a business that was no longer viable. She paid for office supplies with a credit card Larry didn't know existed, and at some point stopped paying household bills and expenses he believed she was handling, putting the money instead into her failing business, believing it could still turn around. Unclaimed receipts for Venture expenses filled a large garbage bag.
In November 2016, lawyers for the Canadian Media Guild sent a letter to Ruth demanding $40,000 be paid to 13 contractors. In December, Ruth stopped taking a paycheque herself.
The company moved to a new and less expensive location, and she and Larry started economizing at home. But though Ruth maintained optimism about the business when she talked to staff at Venture – she sometimes said an entrepreneur had to be a "merchant of hope" for their employees – Larry was among those noticing a gradual change in her behaviour.
At home, Ruth no longer seemed excited about the things she'd always enjoyed, like cooking, and had even stopped caring about the TV shows she used to like. He saw how the orange blocks that once filled their shared calendar had been shrinking, until they almost disappeared altogether. Larry pushed her to see a doctor or a counsellor, begged her to at least talk to her friends and tell them Venture was struggling, but she refused.
When he told her, "Dear, you have to see someone. This is depression." She brushed him off. "I'm just stressed," she would say. "I'll be fine. We're just about through this."
Ruth's friends knew there was a lot weighing on her. The things about which she cared so deeply – Venture, the broader publishing industry, and the Alberta oil patch – were all struggling, and there was negativity all around her. She talked with sadness about empty parking lots at corporate headquarters in Calgary, about her heart breaking as publishing companies in Alberta and elsewhere merged and folded. As someone who believed in journalism, she felt hurt by the escalating denigration of media in the charged political climate around Donald Trump's election.
"We knew for a couple of years that things were difficult in those areas, and we knew her business must be suffering as well," said Shelley Miller, an Edmonton lawyer who had been a close friend for 15 years and acted as legal counsel for Venture. "People reached out in various ways, but out of respect no one was prying. I think we all believed with her prodigious intellect and her energy for solving problems, she would ride it through."
Janet Riopel, a land developer and chair of the Chamber of Commerce, said she knew Ruth was having a hard time, but in the economic downturn, it wasn't unusual. Lots of small businesses were struggling. Ms. Riopel also knew that as a business owner your work and life are one, so problems can feel amplified and all-consuming. But she had no doubt Ruth would get through it.
"I thought she would rally and rise up and tackle it," Ms. Riopel says now. "Like she tackled everything else in her life."
But in February 2017, the darkness that had been hovering over both Ruth and the business finally closed in. The Canada Revenue Agency froze a bank account over unpaid payroll taxes, and damning portrayals of Venture's operations became public in another statement from the Canadian Media Guild and in new stories on Canadaland and CBC.
That month, Ruth went to Larry for an emergency loan of $50,000. Larry had his own small business and some cash reserves, but after two years of recession they were dwindling, and he knew he and Ruth were in serious jeopardy of losing both of their businesses and their home, all of which was tied to Venture. Still he gave her the money.
In March, Ruth couldn't make Venture's payroll. There were emergency meetings, and staff were increasingly upset and frustrated. Ruth was barely communicating, and when she did she seemed unemotional, unrealistic about the situation. When Mr. Ganley told her he couldn't continue to work without a paycheque, Ruth said she hoped to be able to hire him back within a few weeks, but otherwise showed little emotion. Though they had always been so close, she didn't tell Larry what was going on, or let him know just how bad things had gotten.
A special issue had been planned for April 2017 to celebrate Venture's 20th anniversary. Instead, no magazine was printed.
Outside work, Ruth had stopped responding to friends and spent hours glued to her tablet, usually on Twitter and social media. At the office, she floated through the days with staff who remained out of loyalty or because they hadn't yet found another job, sometimes a mixture of both.
By then, Ruth was the company's president, CEO, and its last remaining director. But still she refused to believe the business could not be saved. Instead, she continued borrowing money and threw her efforts into a potential investor and a new contract she believed could be a solution.
"I think she thought that with her intellectual weight and with her energy and her determination she could just plow through it, and some investor solution would come about. And when that finally didn't happen, she had given up all her resources," says long-time friend Ms. Miller. "I think by then she was so mentally fatigued trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, trying to solve it, that her mental fatigue and the ego disintegration swirled into an abyss from which she couldn't pull herself, and no one else could pull her. The dark place."
The investor fell through first, and, days later, the publishing contract.
Though Ruth had hidden the extent of the situation from Larry, what he knew was bad enough. It's time, he told her. In a way, it seemed like a relief to at least have it decided.
On Tuesday, June 13, Ruth told Larry she was going to Calgary. Instead she checked into a hotel in Edmonton and took her life.
News of Ruth Kelly's suicide circulated quickly throughout the province, the business community and media. Friends and acquaintances described being "shocked" and "gutted," those closest to her most of all.
"The first few days, holy cow," Larry says. "If anyone should have seen it coming, it should have been me. And I didn't."
Around Ruth were people knowledgeable about depression and mental health, highly aware of risk factors and warning signs for suicide. Ruth was smart and resourceful. She had a loving and caring husband and a huge support network.
And yet she didn't ask for help, and those around her didn't know to offer it. The idea that Ruth, of all people, could kill herself had been incomprehensible.
"I think we're all at a loss how it occurred, how it could have been avoided, and how people can come to terms with it who knew and loved her," Ms. Miller says. "I think there's a reaction in the community that people just want to not talk about it and push it under the rug. It's hard to come to terms with, so some people's reaction is to try to ignore it and move on."
Those who knew Ruth variously blame the depression, the shame and wounded pride; the corner she trapped herself in by not being honest with Larry and others about how badly the business was doing and about all the money that was gone. Some believe she would have been judged more harshly for her business failure because she was a woman. Others compare her to a captain who went down with her ship, unwilling or unable to separate herself from the business she loved so much.
"I think about Ruth every day and ask why. And I have no answers," Ms. Riopel says. "I wish every day that I had better insight into what happened. There are so many people who say, 'What could I have done?' And we will all carry that forever."
Dr. Michael Freeman, who studies entrepreneur suicide at the University of California, San Francisco, says in some ways, Ruth typified the kind of person that can be at great risk. He points to the qualities he sees again and again in his work: a dominant leader who doesn't like to ask for help; a person who is deeply dedicated to their work and used to success, who feels defined by their business, and may believe that a business failure is the same as a personal one.
"They can't untangle themselves as just a person," he says." For the entrepreneurs who are overly invested in the identity of the business, taking a step back is really, really difficult. And that is the beginning of this downward spiral. The tragedy is about how people who have that temperament, which is so great until it isn't, can lose perspective in situations like this."
Before she killed herself, Ruth deleted all the angry e-mails off her computer, hiding one last thing. Larry answers all her e-mail now. When a new one comes in demanding payment for some unpaid bill, Larry sends a note saying Ruth is dead, that there is no money left. He says people are decent, understanding. The same way he thinks they would have been if she closed Venture a year ago, maybe two.
"Maybe she was uncomfortable saying it, or maybe she thought she was protecting me," he says. "But now that I see the books and now when I look back at financial statements, I realized, holy cow, this was not a recoverable company. I know that it was her baby, and the reason she is gone now is how much she loved it. But I personally don't think it was savable."
The last of Ruth's clothes are in garbage bags in the living room, waiting to be donated. On the kitchen table are binders filled with notes of love and admiration, written and collected by friends after her death. The notes are from politicians, business leaders, prominent people in the community. They call Ruth an inspiration, a role model, a shining light, a star. They call her Wonder Woman. Few mention Venture at all.
The red pen Ruth used to edit her magazine sits beside a pile of paperwork Larry has yet to do, the dark bureaucracies involved with closing her business, facing her debts, tying up the loose ends of her life. It is hard but he does what he can, a little every night.
Some days, Larry is angry at Ruth. Other days he is mad at himself for what he didn't see, and that he couldn't help her. Mostly he just thinks it didn't have to be this way.
On a weekend not long ago, he went on the bicycle ride they used to do every Sunday.
He made it halfway before he had to turn back alone.