By Michelle Johnson
Jenna Walker’s résumé is made up of a motley of endeavors. She’s worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee, Ford Motor Company, and the Pepsi Center; opened her own professional photography business; founded photo-goods powerhouse Artifact Uprising; and most recently, became general manager of the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, a mentorship-driven program that helps tech startups grow.
“I feel like I reinvent myself every 5-7 years in life,” says the Hastings, Minnesota, native who relocated to Denver in her early 20s.
Throughout all of her job titles (including mom to two girls), one philosophy has remained constant: Heart is the driving force behind her work.
At Artifact Uprising—which she launched with her sister, Katie Thurmes, and husband, Matt, in 2012—Walker designed products using eco-conscious recycled materials. In fact, the company became the first of its kind to use 100 percent recycled paper in its photo books, and later, crafted frames with repurposed beetle-kill pine. Now at Techstars, Walker is helping pave the way for companies that also approach business with Mother Nature in mind.
“When what you believe is important aligns with your work, it doesn’t feel like you’re working, it feels like you’re building a mission,” she says. “It’s always been ingrained in what I do and I think we’re more powerful when we’re aligned with who we are in the work that we do.”
Q: Why is sustainability in business important to you?
A: By 2050, we will likely have more than 9 billion people on Earth. This puts a tremendous strain on our planet because the things we need to live—food, water, shelter and everything else we consume daily—require natural resources. That puts our forest and oceans and the work that they do to keep the planet healthy at risk.
Techstars Sustainability Accelerator is really focused on those three things—food, water and climate change.
In terms of business, I believe that entrepreneurs have a powerful ability to use skills in tech and the creative arts to make a difference. How do we use new materials and science to build products and technology that promote a more sustainable future? I love the idea of supporting entrepreneurs that are trying to do exactly that. Innovation has a powerful way of impacting these spaces.
Q: What makes mentorship so impactful?
A: It’s important that those of us who have been fortunate enough to build companies give back to other entrepreneurs. Mentorship allows you to see around corners faster.
As an entrepreneur, you’re building something that’s never existed in the world before. Often times you are the one who truly has the answers; you can’t always look to the external world to have answers for you. So I don’t believe that’s the important part of mentorship. What’s important is that it allows people that have other pattern-matching skills and have been through similar journeys ask you the right questions so you can grow faster, accelerate your path, and be more successful.
Q: Do you consider yourself a creative?
A: I still identify as a creative first. I don’t think the rest of the world would see that—it’s not what my work looks like on a daily basis. But I believe creativity is one of the most overlooked powerful tools in building anything.
If you want to be a great doctor, engineer, business person, investor, anything—it takes a phenomenal amount of creativity to look at patterns in the world differently and then to choose to make things exist that didn’t exist before. It’s this amazing superpower. People ask, “Do you want to build another business? Do you want to be an investor?” And I always say, “I just want to make things that matter.” Some days I’m going to make dinner; other days I’m going to make a garden; or maybe I’ll make a business. It’s the making itself that’s powerful to me.
Q: Do you have any mantras you live and work by?
A: Oh, I have several. One that my sister and I used for many years was, “Strive for significance and success will follow.” And by that I mean when you’re doing significant things—whether with your customers or in your employees’ lives—when you strive to be significant and do things that have meaning, success is often a byproduct of that. Whether it’s financial success, or emotional success or impact.
Another one is just put your head down and do the hard work. And that means thinking critically about the products that you build and the impact that has on your customer. There’s no replacement for just getting hard work done.
And lastly, it’s all about the team.
At Artifact, I thought we were building a product and a customer base, but really we were building a strong, powerful team. Being dedicated to your team first and helping them be successful in their work and their career will make the business more powerful than just focusing on yourself as an entrepreneur and the product you’re building. If you give other people opportunities to lead, magical things can happen. When I look back at the things we built, the thing I’m most proud of is the team we’ve helped succeed in life.
Q: What’s your advice for women who want to start their own businesses?
A: I want women to be brave. I believe that too many of us don’t start out of fear that somebody else is already doing it better than us. You don’t have to be first, but you do have to be better.
If you believe that you can do something better than it’s already been done and you hit go, in time, you’ll create ways of being first too. You have to create that first path, and then you’ll have the grit and perseverance to find determination and pivot and find new paths.