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Former CEO of Patagonia Kristine McDivitt Tompkins Dishes Out Blunt Advice All Aspiring Entrepreneurs Need to Hear: 'Just Freaking Decide to Do Something' Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, president and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, discusses her life's work at the 2023 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize.

By Dan Bova

Light of Blue Photography

Last week, the American Prairie honored Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the president and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, with the 2023 Ken Burns American Heritage Prize, which recognizes "individuals whose achievements have advanced our collective understanding of America's heritage and the indomitable American spirit." Past winners of the prestigious award include filmmaker Jimmy Chin, musician Wynton Marsalis, poet N. Scott Momaday, artist Maya Lin and writer David McCullough.

Tompkins is the former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. and one of the most impactful philanthropic conservationists in history. She and her late husband, Douglas Tompkins have led efforts to protect approximately 14.8 million acres of parklands in Chile and Argentina, and that work continues to expand. Tompkins's incredible career is the subject of the new documentary Wild Life, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the Oscar-winning duo behind Free Solo.

Related: Ken Burns Talks About Leadership, Productivity and Achieving Immortality Through Storytelling

Entrepreneur attended this year's Ken Burns American Heritage Prize presentation in New York City and, afterward, spoke with Tompkins and Burns about starting a business and setting it up to succeed for generations to come.

What do you think is the most important thing an entrepreneur who is just starting out can do to find success?

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: You have to just freaking decide to do something, okay? Decide that you want to be doing something meaningful. It doesn't matter what it is. You get in, you get on it, and you meet people you would never have met before, and it grows. People have to stop abdicating their future. My future is in the hands of the gods. Well, forget it. It's not how it works. You have to participate in your own story. I mean really, what are we waiting for? And be useful. A lot of people in business are not really useful. If you ever want to feel needed, take your business skills to organizations and people trying to do good in the world.

Ken Burns: The poet Robert Penn Warren once looked at me with those riveting eyes and said, "Careerism is death." And I've never used the word "career" again. I only refer to my professional life. Because what happens is we get stuck in the expectations, so we abdicate, and as Kris was saying, abdication gets you nothing.

Between your work in the corporate world and your incredible conservation efforts, you cite the power of partnerships and "consulting the genius of a place." How would you describe your leadership style?

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: I believe in creating teams who know everything. Right after Doug died, I immediately started the process to make both teams in Chile and Argentina independent because I knew if something happened to me, it'd be buggered. If I drop dead this evening and they don't succeed tomorrow morning, then we failed. I'm really proud of what we've done for the last 30 years, but it's not the point. That was then. What are we doing going forward?

Related: Ken Burns Says Entrepreneurship Is at the Heart of the American Dream

You are such an amazing champion for conservation. What do you think most people misunderstand about environmental efforts?

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins: There is a deeply erroneous sense that if I help protect a particular area or species, that I am sacrificing something. I am going to sacrifice this life of mine to help with these things. That's cockamamie. I can tell you, whether it's Ted Turner or whoever, every conservation philanthropist who goes out the door and gets their feet wet realizes that the sacrifice you've been making was the life you've been living. That glorious house in the Hamptons or Jackson Hole or wherever it is? That is a box. That's the actual box that you have put yourself in because that's the current story of success. When you step outside of that box, it changes your life forever.

Dan Bova

Entrepreneur Staff

VP of Special Projects

Dan Bova is the VP of Special Projects at He previously worked at Jimmy Kimmel Live, Maxim, and Spy magazine. His latest books for kids include This Day in History, Car and Driver's Trivia ZoneRoad & Track Crew's Big & Fast Cars, The Big Little Book of Awesome Stuff, and Wendell the Werewolf

Read his humor column This Should Be Fun if you want to feel better about yourself.

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