Episode 116: Ammen Jordan
In this episode of Be EPIC, Ammen and I discuss his passion for the outdoors and sustainability, how he navigated his different professional roles, and the physical and emotional benefits of active transportation. Read more...
More About This Episode
Ammen Jordan is the Active Transportation Coordinator at the University of Arkansas, assisting with the infrastructure and programming needs of people commuting by bicycle, foot, e-scooter, skateboard, wheelchair, and other human-powered transportation. Prior to returning to the University of Arkansas, Ammen worked in a variety of business roles advancing triple bottom line principles: profit, people, and planet. In this episode of Be EPIC, Ammen and I discuss his passion for the outdoors and sustainability, how he navigated his different professional roles, and the physical and emotional benefits of active transportation.
0:00:07.2 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.
0:00:27.3 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Ammen Jordan, who is the Active Transportation Coordinator at the University of Arkansas. And during this talk, we're gonna talk about what that means. But Ammen has a tremendous background in many different areas, and in fact, he's been an investment manager, a fund manager, and now, he's come back to Arkansas, and I should mention, he's an alumn of the University of Arkansas, and he's come back and is serving as Active Transportation Coordinator. Ammen, thank you for joining me today.
0:01:09.6 Ammen Jordan: My pleasure, Dean Waller.
0:01:12.0 Matt Waller: So Ammen, I wanna talk a little bit about your career, but before we do that, could you just tell me a little bit about what Active Transportation means?
0:01:21.2 Ammen Jordan: So Active Transportation, it feels like a buzzword coined by the department of transportation but it really just means trying to get from A to B in anything but a car. So Active Transportation is as simple as walking from your house to the library, but it also means hopping on an e-scooter and taking that from your apartment to the transit stop, putting your e-scooter on the bus, riding the bus to the bus stop, riding your e-scooter to your classroom. So it's multi-faceted and that it means using your body, but it also is vague enough to incorporate other types of alternative transportation. But I tend to focus on the active part of the definition, which is really just using your body. So walking, biking primarily.
0:02:18.6 Matt Waller: Okay, great. And we'll come back to your new role here in a little bit, but I wanna go back a little bit because I know that you graduated a little over 20 years ago. You studied Earth Science and Geology, and I know for many years you've been involved in production. Video, photo, marketing for like paddle sports, cycling brands, etcetera, etcetera. Could you talk a little bit about that?
0:02:51.9 Ammen Jordan: Yeah. This is before Netscape, this is before the World Wide Web. You kinda have to go back in time to think about where I was in life and what the world was like. But I remember when I was 19 years old, I was a sophomore here at the University of Arkansas, and I really, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't know if I should be chasing some sort of pre-defined career path that would lead me to a high-paying job and a picket fence, or if I should be exploring my passions, if I should celebrate my curiosity, or if I should just keep my head down and aim for a WU2. So I didn't really know what to do. And going to school in my hometown here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was both comforting in that I had a leftover high school scene and so I didn't have to make friends. But at the same time it was, I had this kinda claustrophobic feeling where my social circle was stagnant, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was stuck in my hometown.
0:03:57.2 Ammen Jordan: So there was a period when I was 19, when I tried to do a lot of self-reflection, kind of making a promise to myself that one fall, I was either gonna go hiking, or camping with new friends, or if I couldn't find new friends then I'd go with no friends at all. And I had a little Ansel Adams landscape calendar. Every weekend, I would kinda plot where I wanted to go, and who I might be able to invite to go with me. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the woods by myself, and on those little sojourns, I had a lot of time in my hands, no one else to talk to. So I started thinking about, what is it that intrigues me, what do I want to get out of this period here at the University of Arkansas, what are the main takeaways?
0:04:47.6 Ammen Jordan: And I had this interesting habit where I was in the Fulbright College of... Honors college, and so I was assigned a career counselor, if you will, that I had to go talk to in order to get a code that would unlock my ability to select courses. Then I'd go and I'd listen and she'd give me that code, and then I would forget everything that she would say and would look through the course catalog and just pick stuff that looked interesting to me. So I took pottery classes, I took Spanish classes, I took recreation classes, advanced chemistry classes, it was really just anything that I was interested in. And over the course of a couple of years, a pattern emerged, that being one in the Geology, Geography fields of study, and ultimately culminated in the Earth Sciences degree. But interestingly enough, my intention was to never use that Earth Science degree. My intention was to use that period of learning to understand how the landscape was curated, and try and understand human relationship with the landscape.
0:05:57.4 Matt Waller: Well, now, when you started Ammen Jordan Productions, you had just graduated, correct?
0:06:04.8 Ammen Jordan: Yes, and my first job after graduating from the U of A with this Bachelor of Science degree was actually as a manager for a local commercial photo video studio. And they at the time were doing a bunch of product photography for Walmart and Sam's Club, and so I found myself taking pictures, stylized pictures of pork chops, that sort of thing. And while it was really fascinating to me, to be creating these weekly circulars, it wasn't at all interesting. I grew up here in Fayetteville, spent a lot of time exploring, ultimately I fell in love with paddle sports. I remember my mom got me a canoe when I was 15.
0:06:46.9 Ammen Jordan: I remember when I got my first vehicle, the first thing I did was build a wooden rack for the bed of this truck so I could haul the canoe to the Mulberry River. And while I love photo, video and I love geology, geography, I also really loved adventure recreation, and so I'd skip out of town every chance I got, every three or four... Each rain storm that brought the creeks up, I was gone, exploring, running... First some waterfalls, and ultimately, this Ammen Jordan Production company was an excuse to marry my passion of photo and video with my true love of adventure recreation, and power sports in particular. And I had a good run with that. It took me all over the world, and I got a bunch of free flip flops out of the deal, but ultimately it wasn't enough. I found good money in it, I found a great lifestyle, but it wasn't substantial. I don't know, it was a little selfish, I felt like, to... While on one hand, it seemed so glamorous to get to go to the Adirondacks every fall and to take pictures, but at the same time, I wasn't using it as a platform for any consumer education, for any make the world a better place ambitions, and so ultimately, I got frustrated with it. As trite as it sounds, I believe that my, or our, responsibility in this... The few moments that we have here is to make it a better place. Otherwise, we're wasting everybody else's time.
0:08:18.9 Matt Waller: Well, I know you later, for several years, were working for energy-friendly ventures where you were an investment manager, managing a portfolio for creating social and environmental change.
0:08:34.9 Ammen Jordan: Right. So in my travels as a professional film-maker, I had a lot of time on my hands, literally floating down the river, contemplating life, and along the way, as I went with the flow, I started to think about, "Okay, what are the changes that I wanna see, and how can I help create those changes?" And I came to the realization that there was no shortage of idealistic entrepreneurs, young folks, myself included, that think of themselves as capable of anything. They're in this invincible, idealistic phase of life where the world is their oyster and they can do anything they want to do. And so I started to think, "Okay, well, if there's a bunch of idealistic entrepreneurs out there, there's a bunch of consumers that are interested in sustainable or organic clothing or foods, what's the disconnect between that entrepreneur and the consumer?"
0:09:37.8 Ammen Jordan: And I realized that money had a lot to do with it. I needed to try and figure out how to enable these entrepreneurs, so that they could bring their idea to fruition, so that they could start their company which would launch this innovative product or service to connect with this pent-up consumer demand. And so I looked at my bank account and realized, "Well, I don't have any money," and I found myself at the time living on a houseboat in Seattle with my new wife, also a U of A graduate, and Seattle is this fascinating place where there's a... Very supportive of the creative class, a long history of wealth accumulation, thanks in part to Microsoft and Adobe and now Amazon. So there's a ton of high net worth individuals out there, a community that's really supportive of creatives, there's flourishing nonprofits. I heard one time that there are more nonprofits per capita in Seattle than there were anywhere else in the nation.
0:10:49.3 Ammen Jordan: It was just a really fascinating place, and I happened to... Just by chance because I was volunteering at a nonprofit that was trying to help the local co-op. Here in Fayetteville, we have the Ozark Natural Foods, but in Seattle, the same version of it is called the PCC, Pacific Consumers Co-op. And another, one of the volunteers was a cashed-out entrepreneur who had sold what was at the time the largest direct-to-home organic produce delivery business, a gentleman by the name of Ronnie. And so Ronnie and I started talking and he's like, "Hey, well, I'm cashed out, I've got all this money. Oh, by the way, I come from an affluent New England family. I've got money that I'd like to invest. What are some of your ideas and how can we collaborate?" And that conversation led to a couple of joint ventures, and ultimately led to a coffee date with this gentleman who had designed all the feature steps on early versions of Microsoft Word, a gentleman by the name of David. And he and his family had drafted a five-point definition of the term sustainability, and four out of five of those bullet points were near and dear to my heart. He, like Ronnie, said, "Well, hey, I've got some capital I'd like to put to use. Maybe we should collaborate."
0:12:14.9 Ammen Jordan: And so we ended up working together for six or seven years. We started a state-wide trade association for residential energy efficiency contractors, and so we helped the City of Seattle receive ARRA funds, and in doing so, we put together a for-profit energy efficiency contractor. The strategy was to try and turn this cottage industry into more of a viable sector of the home services segment pursuant of this larger greenhouse gas emissions goal that was part of the family's definition of sustainability. So the latter part of my time with David was spent doing early stage investing in other startups, early-stage businesses that had an environmental objective to them. But in doing so, we realized pretty soon that while we were willing to invest over a million dollars, that was really a drop in the bucket in terms of the amount of capital that was necessary to shore up the Seattle social entrepreneur scene. And so we created investment clubs, we organized investment funds, and both of those were attempts to de-risk investments and to establish co-investing opportunities, so that you know...
0:13:38.9 Ammen Jordan: For example, if a company needed a million dollars, we could provide a tenth of the capital, our communities could provide that other 90%. And in the process of making a collective decision, we would effectively de-risk it by looking at it from 10 different perspectives and bringing 10 different unique decision-making skillsets to each specific opportunity. And so that was fascinating. And at the same time, we started to establish syndicate strategies with local investment clubs and regional investment clubs, and ultimately venture capitalists. So we became kind of like a pipeline, if you will, of high quality, early-stage ventures that later-stage BCs were considering. So as David and I reached the end of our work together on his family's definition of sustainability, there was other problems that I wanted to solve in the entrepreneurial space.
0:14:40.1 Ammen Jordan: And I also had started a family at this point and began to look at the world through different eyes, and harken back to my time as U of A student, my interest in geography, my early adulthood and all the adventure recreation that I was doing, and I decided that I wanted to try and marry those passions with a sense of confidence that capital would be available to help create changes in the built environment that would be beneficial to my daughter, who at the age of two is learning to ride a bike already. And that leads me to where I am today.
0:15:15.5 Matt Waller: Well, that's great. What a tremendous story. And so now you're the Active Transportation Coordinator and you've explained what that is. Why is this important to you? And why is it important to the University of Arkansas?
0:15:30.2 Ammen Jordan: I was thinking about this yesterday, and one of my officemates said to me, "I've been thinking about what it is that we're trying to do here in the office for sustainability." He said, "I read once that the best time... That people say the best time of my life was in college. And when you think about that, it's like, 'Why? What was it about that college chapter that was so remarkable?'" And one thing that stands out is it was the one time, perhaps the only time in one's life, we actually live in a walkable community, where you're outside of your car, you're interacting with strangers, you're exchanging pleasantries with the person that holds the door for you, and you're using your body. And there's simple pleasure that comes from fresh air and sunshine. There's mental clarity that translates to attentiveness in class, which translates to a higher GPA. It's just fundamentally simple and so simple, we forget how imperative it is to our life experience and our day-to-day quality of life.
0:16:34.7 Ammen Jordan: And so I'm just trying to bring back the basics to the University of Arkansas campus, so that people can safely get from their bedroom to their classroom with a smile on their face and not having to worry that something dangerous could confront them. I just want everybody to have a good day, and to have a smile. And if I can do that by enabling their experience through infrastructure, great, but it's... Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Behavior change is probably one of the biggest challenges, there's evidence that if you build it, it being active transportation infrastructure, that it would be immediately and universally adopted. But there's also this dominant perspective that vehicles are a necessity. If every incoming freshman from out of state realized that this community was walkable and bikeable, they may not bring their SUV from across the border. And ultimately, we do live in a very bicycle and pedestrian-oriented community. People talk about the hills, but the hills are actually good for us in terms of exercise. And...
0:17:54.5 Matt Waller: This summer, I read a book called No Sweat, and I won't go into the book, but it inspired me to start riding my bike to work. And the problem is, I live in a neighborhood that is connected to a busy highway that has no shoulder, and cars are going 60 miles an hour. So I hadn't been riding my bike to work. Now, I periodically... When I have my meetings in Bentonville, I'll drive to the Greenway, and then ride my bike to Bentonville. I have a place to shower up there, I have my meetings up there and I ride back. But I only do that periodically. But this summer, I started riding my bike to work because the Razorback Greenway is such a great way to do it. And when I ride to work, I don't ride hard enough to where I'm gonna get really sweaty and... But I ride more leisurely. And I've noticed that I feel more energized at work. And then at the end of the day, a lot of times I will ride a little harder, but I've noticed when I come home after riding my bike, I'm more present with my family.
0:19:08.9 Matt Waller: It creates more of a break than driving my car for some reason. But something about this, I'm telling you, I wish I would have figured this out much earlier in my life. So I think there's a part of this active transportation that our society is really missing out on, that affects you, not only does it make you healthier physically, but I really feel like it makes you healthier emotionally.
0:19:38.4 Ammen Jordan: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think what you're talking about is a really great compromise for folks who live somewhere where walking or biking from their home to their place of employment or campus is really not the best option. Maybe there's narrow roads and fast cars and open ditches, and it would really be a bad idea to bike on one of those segments of roadway. But what you're talking about, this hybrid solution where you drive the scary bits and you enjoy the beautiful bits, that's a great approach, and I would strongly encourage people out there to explore those opportunities. No matter where you are, there's gonna be bicycle advocates in your community, and if you look around, you'll find that there are established bike routes, or maybe there's even dedicated infrastructure for walking or biking, and it could be as simple as a sidewalk. So I wholeheartedly encourage people to think creatively about how they travel for work or for errands. Maybe your office is out of reach, but maybe the library isn't, or maybe you could put your backpack on and go to the corner or grocery store for bread and milk instead of driving.
0:21:00.8 Ammen Jordan: But then to your point, society is missing out, they are. And who doesn't want to at the end of the day, as they fall asleep, have this feeling of, "Wow, today was a good day," or, "I'm satisfied with my life," or, "I'm excited for tomorrow." Who doesn't wanna have that? And it's not that all day, every day is gonna be awesome. We're always gonna have challenges. But what are the little things that we can do to create the feeling of joy. And active transportation on a chemical level, it releases hormones that create feelings of elation, and they translate not only to this feeling of joy, but they translate to productivity. Productivity translates to getting recognition for the outstanding work that you're doing, maybe even a pay raise, maybe it's a GPA. It translates ultimately to successes in life. I think that anything that we can do to help people have a good day and to be invigorated and to sleep well and to succeed is our responsibility. So I'm really proud of what the university is doing. I'm proud of what the City of Fayetteville's doing. I'm proud of what you're doing at the Walton College of Business, 'cause I think it's so fundamental and it would be so well-received by folks who don't even realize it didn't exist in the first place, and ultimately improve the broader quality of life for staff and faculty and students in the community at large.
0:22:38.6 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BeEpic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast, and now BeEpic.