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Chris Michel: Exploring Life’s Edges

Posted on Jul 02 , 2014 in Articles

Chris Michel: Exploring Life’s Edges

Fasten your seat belts. Keep your eyes peeled. Chris Michel is going to show you the world from a whole new angle.  As a photographer and explorer, Chris has boldly gone where most haven’t gone before, from Antarctica to the edge of space.  As an investor and entrepreneur, Chris has found novel ways to make a difference, including founding Military.com, a portal for military members, and Affinity Labs, which helps firefighters, policemen, nurses, and other niche groups build online communities.  His seed venture fund, Nautilus Ventures, continues to help other entrepreneurs make a difference. Chris’s 10-year association with the Academies has been a bargain on both sides—for the Academies to benefit from his unique talents and drive, and for Chris, to find many more fascinating people on his journey.

 

It says on the Nautilus Ventures site that you’re not easily defined by a traditional bio.  Of all your pursuits, which is most important to you?

I wouldn’t even know how to pick among them, but I think the common element is that I’m an incredibly curious person.  I love learning about the world and spending time with interesting people on projects that matter.  In fact, that’s essentially the tagline for Nautilus Ventures.  I’m trying to live the most exciting and meaningful life that I can.

You earned a commission in the U.S. Navy from the NROTC program at the University of Illinois (where you graduated Phi Beta Kappa!).  How cmichel2did you get into business?

Growing up, I was a computer nerd with an interest in national security.  I wasn’t interested in business and probably hadn’t really even heard anyone talking about being an entrepreneur.  I joined the Navy after college and serendipitously got to know a Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate who encouraged me to apply. A lecture by Dan Bricklin, the creator of VisiCalc, during my first year of business school inspired me to become an entrepreneur.  So, in a sense, Military.com, which I founded in 1999, drew on all of these passions (technology, military & entrepreneurship).

You’re featured in a book about entrepreneurship.  What advice would you give to someone starting a business?

Just do it.  Too often people see all of the things that could go wrong.  While it’s true that bad things can happen, I prefer the advice of the writer John Burroughs: “Leap and the net will appear.”  Entrepreneurs don’t have to be the smartest people in the room—they’re often just the ones who took a chance.  The second bit of advice is that, if you work with great people and build a system of incredible trust with them, anything is possible.   Fostering a culture of trust is the single most important part of leading well.

Photography and exploration has taken you from the South Pole to Everest to the Korean Demilitarized Zone to the edge of space, among other places.  What motivates your travels?

Travel delivers for me novel information, new perspectives, empathy, memories—I could go on and on.  Travel also inspires me as an artist.  I’ve been taking photographs seriously for 15 years. Using imagery to tell stories is incredibly compelling on so many levels.  If memories are one of the most important currencies in our lives, photographs enhance the frequency and fidelity of those memories.  It’s also a great excuse to get out there and engage with people and pay deep attention to the world around us.  As Dorothea Lange said, “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”

Of all the things you’ve done, what do you think has made the most difference?

I’m very proud of Military.com, which is still making a difference in the lives of people every day.  I’m also very proud of the part I’ve played in helping formative leaders on my teams to blossom into more successful business leaders than I’ve ever been.

What draws you to the Academies?

For me, one of the most fun parts of life is spending time with people with different backgrounds and points of view.  The Academies have some of the most interesting people in the world, working on some of the most important questions.  I’ve come to see that scientists operate in a kind of world of authenticity that feels increasingly rare and special.  I’ve loved spending time with people like Dr. May Berenbaum, who is one of the world’s leading entomologists and a truly amazing person.  I care less about the specifics of a person’s profession and so much more about their passion and commitment.  The scientists at the Academies are some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met.

I’m also a big fan of how the Academies leadership is open to engagement and new ideas.  I feel like I could get on Ralph’s calendar and chat about anything.  Not to mention that the Academies’ work is critical—some of it even addressing how we’ll be able to survive as a species.  If we do our jobs right, it could change everything.

You’ve served on the Committee for the Division on Earth & Life Studies (DELS) for many years.  How have you contributed there?

Most of the help I provided to DELS is in the realm of communications.  For quite some time, I’ve encouraged the division to take more full advantage of social media and Internet share tools.   My role has been to gently educate and persuade staff and volunteers to use available tools. I think the Academies leadership now accepts that communications is a very important part of their work.

What do you want to do with the Presidents’ Circle?

Whatever Davis Masten tells me to do.  Seriously, though, I don’t want to just go to dinners and be on the receiving end of things.  I would like to be able to say in 3 to 7 years that what I’ve done has really made a difference.

What’s next in your travels?

I’m heading soon to the Ladakh region of India to photograph the Kalachakra Initiation and His Holiness The Dalai Lama.

Wow.

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Chris’s photographs can be found online at his gallery and also on his travel blog, Explorers. He also has published a number of fine art books, including Monochromatic, Rajasthan, Point 95, and Roof of the World.  Nautilus Ventures, founded in 2008, has made over 40 investments, including Palantir, Doctor on Demand, Sparks, Goodreads, Castlight Health, 3D Robotics, RelateIQ, Blue Bottle, Tinker, Ruby Ribbon, etc.  Chris serves as a Director and board member for Dale Carnegie, Kixeye, Tugboat Yards, 3D Robotics, and Castlight.

 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot

 

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