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Chris Gergen

NOLS memories become leadership realities

By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999

Chris Gergen will never forget his first introduction to NOLS. "I'd never been camping before," he recalls. "And then my NOLS instructors stuck me on telemark skis with a 60-pound pack on my back and a 60-pound sled on my hips. We were heading into an evening snow storm and I began thinking, 'What the heck am I doing here?'"

Memories of Chris' 1989 spring semester in the Rockies refuse to fade, especially the recollection of what he saw the next morning when he stuck his head outside the warm tent. "I awoke to the clearest morning I had ever experienced. The sky was blue and there was snow everywhere with nothing but animal tracks heading into the trees. The beauty was indescribable."

There are other crystal clear recollections as well, even though a decade has passed. Chris will always remember doing Tai chi' at dawn in the Canyonlands, pulling off his first roll in a kayak, climbing his first crack, and the thrill of emerging after ten hours from a cave in Big Horn National Park. Today, Chris is still exploring, learning all he can and leading others, although not always in the backcountry.

Indeed, after his NOLS course, Chris dived right into leadership roles. He received a Bachelor of Arts with honors from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. While there, he was a leader for Project Wild, a student program focusing on outdoor skills and leadership. He went on to earn a Master's in public policy with a focus in education from the George Washington University and his Masters in Business Administration from Georgetown University.

Since NOLS, he has studied and worked on five continents with additional travel through Southeast Asia. In 1994, while traveling and working throughout Latin America, Chris founded Cafi Nunoa in Santiago, Chile.

Chris currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he's an active community leader. He's the founder and executive director of the Leadership Enterprise Action Directive (LEAD!), a non-profit leadership and entrepreneurship program for high school students. Currently in its fifth year, LEAD! has helped young people across the city learn the essentials of leadership and become agents of change in their communities through business enterprise and social action.

"I noticed that the high school curriculum often lacks good leadership training," says Chris of his LEAD! project. "After my NOLS course, I set out on a task to provide leadership training to others."

As part of the LEAD! program, Chris gets to use his NOLS skills by taking students on a four-day camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lessons include route planning, food rationing and equipment use as well as sessions on map and compass orientation, natural history of the area, environmental awareness, and minimum impact camping techniques.

Chris' strong emphasis on leadership and community involvement has also inspired him to try and bridge the gap between the non-profit and for-profit worlds. In the past year he has co-developed the Greater Washington's Emerging Leaders Initiative, a project designed to provide emerging leaders across the Washington region with critical leadership training and access to the city's business and decision-making network. He also worked with the Foundation for the Future of Youth and the World Bank to develop "InfoEnterprises" throughout the developing world. "InfoEnterprises" provides technical training to young people in Dakar, Senegal, Santo Domingo, Ecuador and Santiago, Chile.

He now serves as the co-founder and co-CEO of SMARTHINKING Inc. (, an education technology company providing real-time online tutoring to higher education students across the country.

Chris is the first to admit that, without his NOLS experience, life would be much different now. "My NOLS course was critical," he says. "It opened up many opportunities for what I do now. Confidence, leadership, caring for the environment, and active participation in our world were all lessons that NOLS encouraged. Now I am just trying to figure out how we can help pass these life skills along to others."

Chris Gergen and pals
Chris Gergen and some pals in Washington, D.C.

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