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From banking to changemaking: Chris Uhl reflects on his move to the Skillman Foundation

Chris Uhl
Chris Uhl -
This post originally appeared here on the Skillman Foundation's blog, a Rose for Detroit.

I’m often asked how I went from being a vice president at a large bank to being the Director of Changemaking (whatever that is) here at The Skillman Foundation. Many people from my banking circles have a hard time seeing the sense in a leap like that, but when I think about it, I feel it’s perfectly rational. Let me explain. 

I spent a number of years as a middle market banker at Comerica and PNC. I idealized the banking profession through the lens of George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In my mind, I would help my friends and neighbors grow their businesses to benefit the region, rise to be a bank president, and epitomize what it means to be a pillar of the community while helping lead Detroit’s resurgence. 

Though that path made perfect sense, it never was written in stone. When I think about what I want to be when I “grow up,” the only thing I know with certainty is that I want to be a leader – a wise one. I’m open to whether this means leading people, companies or being a thought leader.

A number of years ago, I adopted what I call my life equation: I x X² = W. ‘I’ stands for intelligence, ‘X’ for experience, and ‘W’ for wisdom. I figure my intelligence is what it is and, at my age, I can’t change that variable. However, I have major control over the experiences I choose. Coming to Skillman is a big part of boosting my experience in many ways. It’s helping me expand the context I bring to the table when looking at our region’s problems and the potential innovative solution sets we can use to solve for them. 

Beyond this search for different experiences and the wisdom they provide, there are other reasons I decided to make the leap to Skillman. 

First and foremost, I’m doing this for my daughters. I’m not a native Detroiter but have grown to love living here. However, for a number of years, I couldn’t shake the thought that I was selling my girls short by raising them in the Detroit area. I don’t mean that as a slight to this region. But whenever I go home to Grand Rapids or travel around the country, I’m always struck by how much less energy people in those cities need to expend solving for fundamental issues around things such as education, blight, safety, and even street lights. The basic foundations of society work better in those places, freeing up people to concentrate more on enhancing the upside and maximizing life’s opportunities for themselves and their children. Given this, I came to the conclusion that I had two options: to leave Detroit and never look back, or go all-in for this region. Obviously, I chose the latter of the two. I figured that if I wasn’t willing to go all-in on improving this area then I couldn’t complain about others who weren’t.

Another reason I made the leap was because of the people I get to work alongside at the Foundation. These are some of the most talented, hardest working and thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Every day is a challenge, and we all approach our work from different angles. But we never lose sight of our mission to improve the lives of the 60,000-plus kids that call the Good Neighborhoods home. 

Finally, I’m privileged to connect with and consider myself a part of a group of innovative leaders coming to and rising up in this city. Whether growing new companies, launching new schools, climbing the ladder in large organizations, or questioning the status quo wherever possible, we’re all driven by the same thing. We realize there is no place on earth we’d rather be right now. We have the opportunity to rejuvenate a region, reinvent the social contract for all, and create a Detroit that will be a model for 21st century urban America. Our time is now, and we’re up to the challenge. 

I’ve been blessed to try on and enjoy many titles in my life. Some have been formal, such as husband, father and banker. Others have been more ambiguous -- changemaker, thought provoker and even anarchist (in a good way) -- but they’re titles I embrace all the same. As long as I’m able, I’ll continue to seek out new experiences that will often come with a new title. Maybe venture capitalist, or CEO, or professor. I’ve often thought the title Senator Uhl had a nice ring to it. Wherever life leads, whatever titles I explore in the future, I know my experiences at Skillman will better prepare me to be a wise leader in them.

I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made to come here. I know that my family is better for it, and my hope is that Detroit and the world will be, too.

Chris Uhl is the Director of Changemaking at the Skillman Foundation. Skillman is committed to providing resources to improve the lives of children in Metropolitan Detroit by improving their homes, schools and neighborhoods. For more info, visit www.skillman.org.
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