Careers in Motion: TREE founder Jordan Flagel BA'11
By Deb Cummings
In our series, Careers in Motion, we bring you interviews with alumni who are innovators, thought leaders and experts in their field. From entrepreneurs and financiers to people in the film industry, architecture and law, you will find illuminating insights from all-star professionals in this monthly slot in our newsletter.
This month, our featured alumnus is Jordan Flagel, BA’11, who is currently working in the rainforests of Belize, Guyana and Jamaica. Executive director and founder of an ecotourism company dubbed TREE (Tropical Rainforest Education & Exploration), Flagel quips, “How many people can say they’ve seen a black jaguar in their ‘office’ before?”
What role have sports played in your career?
At the University of Calgary, I played football and basketball from 2007 to 2011. I had my ups — starting at least one game in three different positions (quarterback, receiver and small forward) and being the only person in school history to win a CanWest championship with both teams in the same year — and downs (injuries and inconsistent play). UCalgary athletics prepared me for life’s challenges and for pro football in Germany, semi-pro basketball in Malta and pro football in Brazil, where I am currently starting as a quarterback. Season ends mid-October and the first post-summer TREE trips commence a week later!
How do your ecotours differ from others in the area?
We might hike up through jungle, float down along a river, make chocolate with Mayans, walk 100 feet high in the canopy, join local music festivals or swim with nurse sharks — while visiting protected areas, learning about their management and about the local flora and fauna.
How has your career path evolved?
I first became interested in conservation while at UCalgary. After battling nagging injuries as a dual-sport varsity athlete, I decided to focus on other passions. When I discovered environmentally focused electives, I changed my major to geography and never looked back. Now, my work is wholly focused on promoting environmental sustainability through experiential learning and exploration. Most of the revenue from TREE trips goes back into conserving the areas we explore and engagement with local cultures that helps people better understand sustainability challenges from a holistic perspective.
What were your Top 3 lessons that you learned from UCalgary?
1. There is more to life than sports.
2. Electives are important — if you choose classes with an open mind, you might find your true passion.
3. You need to work for what you get — the U of C prepared me for many aspects of life beyond work, from living in jungles to continuing in higher education.
What do you love most about your job?
I love surprising people with experiences they would never expect. The look on a person’s face when we reach a hidden waterfall in Belize; the joy of feeling a connection to others through the distinct Caribbean music; the shared excitement from seeing a manatee or tapir . . . these are the things that make me feel so grateful to be doing this. The thing I like least is travelling to and from the tropics, although flying is the only realistic way to get there. (Driving to Belize would emit roughly 2 tonnes of CO2 compared to 0.32 tonnes per person for a commercial flight; Guyana and Jamaica are not even reachable by car).
What qualities are you looking for in people you hire?
I love being surrounded by people who love trees, love to learn and are interested in sustainable living. I enjoy collaborating with people who have different views and skill sets than mine so I can try to see things in a new perspective and tap into a variety of talents in building TREE. Currently on my team are two locals from Belize — Emil, the program co-ordinator, and Jaren, a project officer — as well as Hannah, the director of strategy and development, who’s based in Calgary.
What have you learned about yourself in launching this company?
I already knew that I liked taking risks and I disliked working for other people. But, after launching TREE, I also learned two main things: I’m very capable of forging partnerships and that success takes time, which is fine. I’ve also learned throughout life that failure is not the end of the world — I’m not worried about the long term. Everything will always work out, one way or another.
Where do you hope to take TREE in five years? How will you gauge its success?
My vision for TREE is big. I want to expand the trips into Brazil and Colombia and bring more locals on board as guides in the three countries TREE currently runs in. I’d love to have a place in Belize where people can stay between expeditions while enjoying local food and learning about sustainable, regional agriculture. I’d like to be running at least 30 trips each year and partner with more sustainable-minded providers to accommodate more amazing and unforgettable adventures. Ultimately, for me, success is measured by how many life-changing experiences TREE provides.
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