Grand Rapids native Chris Uhl is vice president of Community Investments for Rock Ventures, LLC, the umbrella organization for Dan Gilbert’s more than 110 companies and investments. Uhl, who lives in Berkley, MI, with his family, previously worked at Skillman Foundation.
How did you end up joining Rock Ventures this spring?
At Skillman Foundation, I was doing a lot of work with Rock Ventures about blight removal in Detroit. Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc., chaired a task force on this issue that was started by the White House three years ago. I was basically working in Rock Ventures’ office almost as much as my own at Skillman. I had a good working relationship with the team here. Then this position presented itself and it was way too good of an offer to pass up.
Now, I’m responsible for identifying strategic investments that drive high-impact outcomes for Rock Ventures. I firmly believe that society’s problems will be solved in the blended space among traditional for-profit, nonprofit, and government structures. I also firmly believe that our Rock Ventures family of companies must play a leadership role in driving these solutions to strengthen the communities we serve and ultimately build a strong enterprise.
Before working at Skillman Foundation, you came from the corporate banking world.
It was interesting switch. I spent 10 years as a commercial banker, but I was really plugged into community efforts like education reform. Skillman Foundation called me one day out of the blue and I started there as the director of change making — it was a crazy and cool title. That evolved into us creating a social innovation team and I became the VP of Social Innovation. I was responsible for creating a variety of capital vehicles and working with nonprofit partners and entrepreneurs to create new business models for improving the lives of Detroit children.
I also launched and served as executive director of the Detroit’s Children Fund to grow the number of highest-performing schools and youth development organizations in the city. There are 62,000 kids in the six Skillman neighborhoods — that’s one-third of the kids in Detroit — and Skillman made a $100 million commitment to that area over 10 years.
I’m really glad to have made that move and I learned a lot in my four years at Skillman. It was great being able to drive home every night and know the work I was putting in was meaningful. And at Rock Ventures, I still get to work on really cool things to drive change in the city of Detroit and keep pushing.
How have you and IFF worked together?
At the last minute one day a few years ago, I was called to a meeting at Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. IFF’s CEO Joe Neri and IFF founder Trinita Logue were in the room, and we talked for half an hour. It was a match made in heaven. At Skillman, I was building our first program-related investment tool, and we wanted to scale up charter schools. The Skillman and Kresge, and W.K. Kellogg foundations founded the launch of IFF’s Detroit office. We had IFF’s Detroit Real Estate Services team on retainer to develop and scale schools in the Skillman neighborhoods, along with comprehensive community development plans, housing, schools, and all sorts of initiatives.
How else are you involved in the community?
I’m on the advisory board for Detroit Food Academy and do a lot of work with Green Garage Business Greenhouse. Previously, I served on the board for United Way of Southeastern Michigan and was past chair of United Way’s Leadership Next organization. I also have been involved with other community projects including Hatch Detroit and Cody High School Champions Council.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I do a lot of mountain biking and I beat myself up in all sorts of ways (laughs). I played basketball last night and am very sore today. I also stay active with my wife, Tricia, and our two girls. I coach them in soccer and basketball and all sorts of things.
As a kid, I wasn’t able to travel much and didn’t have much money. I never saw an ocean until I was on my honeymoon. We travel together as a family and I am proud I have given my kids a better life. It’s cool to provide my kids with opportunities I didn’t have while also driving change in the community.