Micah’s Winding Path
I don’t quite remember where I first met Micah Gilmer, 41. I do know that it was over a decade ago. It wasn’t a particularly memorable first meeting. However, five years later I was visiting his hometown of Durham, North Carolina for a week. I didn’t know many people who lived in the city and reached out for coffee. We met in a hotel lobby and connected deeply over our shared introversion and from there a friendship developed. I share this as a gentle reminder that important relationships sometimes take a while to build.
Micah is the Co-Founder of Frontline Solutions and the Interim CEO of Activest. He received his PhD at Duke University, he taught for nine years at his undergraduate alma mater, UNC, and was recently the Interim President of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. Welcome to his winding path.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
My work centers on fixing problems and building systems. I wear a few different hats.
First, along with founder Marcus Littles, I help Frontline Solutions build strong partnerships with potential clients, collaborators, and staff. As part of that effort, I seek opportunities to elevate Frontline’s voice, perspective, and influence.
Secondly, I work on discovering, developing, and launching new ventures within the Frontline universe. For instance, I am the managing partner of our retreat space, Ocean Dream. I am also helping to conceive a new venture that focuses on increasing Black and Brown ownership of the food ecosystem.
My third role is as interim CEO of Activest, a racial justice investment research and advocacy firm. I was Activest’s founding board chair and stepped into this role early in 2023. I am helping the team launch the Fixed Income for Racial Equity (FIRE) Fund, a fixed income racial justice firm, and continue our campaign to demand fiscal justice for the cities and towns that Black people call home. We are launching the fund through our new Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), Next World Assets.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
I wanted to be a fighter pilot for much of my childhood. I have always been attracted to fighting for what is right, even if it means significant sacrifice. As my understanding of geopolitics and my aversion to authority evolved, I left that dream, but not the values underpinning it.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
With the exception of my parents, few of my heroes growing up had white-collar jobs. I spent a couple of summers building driveways and sidewalks with my Grandfather and Uncle’s construction business. The work ethic they exhibited has always stayed with me. My grandfather would wake up at 4am to beat the hot Texas sun, and work until it was well over one hundred degrees outside. I have also had to adapt my understanding of what work requires as more and more of my workload centers on people and requires emotional intelligence and calm energy.
I am a third-generation worker in the social sector. My paternal grandfather was a plumber, firefighter, pastor, and the head of the Charleston OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center). My paternal grandmother was a schoolteacher and historian. My maternal grandmother has been a schoolteacher, lay minister, and school principal. My parents co-founded a Black-centered campus ministry for college students called the Impact Movement. While I haven’t chosen the exact field of any of my ancestors, I lean upon the spirit of community empowerment that they embodied.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
By far, my journey with Frontline has been my most important formative leadership experience. I started with Frontline when it was just Marcus Littles, our founder, managing his first contract. I was in graduate school at Duke University at the time and was coming to the realization that a career in academia was not something I wanted any part of. Over the next few years, I completed my Ph.D. and taught for nine years at my alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill. But far more importantly, I was learning how to do consulting work with philanthropy and the non-profit sector. I have had many roles at Frontline, from being a consultant to helping to manage our consulting team. During those role shifts, I have exercised new muscles and adapted to new situations as our team grew from three people when I started to several dozen now.
A crucial moment was adding Melissa DeShields to the ownership team seven years ago. Around that same time, we began working with Jose Acevedo as a coach for our ownership team. Jose challenged me to think deeper about my leadership and the impact I was having. I began to seek better feedback from teammates and saw rapid growth in my effectiveness. That process led to deep beliefs about what it takes to be effective as a leader. I now seek feedback relentlessly, and my team knows that giving me constructive or critical feedback is a keyway to gain my trust.
An interim CEO role at the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation recently presented a phenomenal opportunity to test my leadership approach in a radically different context. This pivot was sparked by the “push” of needing a break from how hectic my work at Frontline had become. I developed some bad habits during our lean and scrappy start-up days. In particular, I would sign up for tasks I did not have the capacity to do well or would accomplish at great significant cost. This showed up in my physical health (like the time when I passed out from exhaustion in an airport bathroom) and in my emotional capacity (not wanting to take time to spend with friends or family because of emotional exhaustion). And the weird part was, no one was “doing this to me,” at least for the most part. I used to joke that the good news was that I was my own boss, and the bad news was my boss was an asshole. Like many jokes, it held a hard truth.
I was also “pulled” into the MRBF opportunity because of my passion for the organization. I had gotten to know the leadership team there in my role as a board member, and I thought I might be able to help them better maximize the incredible people within the organization. I was also excited about the prospect of working in a completely new context. It proved a fertile place to try out some ideas I had been working on. I navigated the foundation through a series of painful staff departures, began implementing our new strategic directions, and helped lead the search for a permanent CEO. I am leaving that experience with fresh excitement and confidence about the possibility of leading differently, with an equity lens.
Similarly, I am thrilled to serve Activest in a transitional capacity. After significant staff turnover, our progress toward launching the FIRE fund was in danger of failing. Nonetheless, the Activest team has remained incredibly talented and uniquely equipped to accomplish our mission. I have been able to help the team recover, reorient, and reconfigure to do our best work together.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
Many people are surprised when they find out I began my career journey in academia. I don’t think anyone I know well calls me “Dr.” I found early on that when folks think of you as an academic, they show up with a set of expectations that can be challenging to overcome. In short, people often expect you to pontificate rather than collaborate.
Why did you pivot?
I think of my career journey as two distinct pivots. The first was moving from academia into consulting. The second was moving from consulting as my primary work to embracing management of teams and leadership within and outside of Frontline as my essential functions.
I left academia because of my experience in graduate school. Most professors and graduate students I encountered did not express joy with their work. They felt weighed down by the rigid, antiquated structure of the university system and the white supremacy and patriarchy they experienced as a routine part of their jobs. Also, having come from a middle-class background with a few elements of financial struggle, the economic precarity of the tenure track was terrifying to me.
I got into consulting by happenstance. My long-time friend Marcus Littles jumped from a “safe” job at an established consulting firm to returning to working for Ford Foundation as a consultant. His second project, focused on Black men and boys, closely aligned with my research area, and he asked me to join him in the work. I immediately saw the tremendous potential of what was then a one-person shop. Along with Ryan Bowers, I came aboard as the founding team of the business. Over the last seventeen years, we have had plenty of ups and downs, but we also got to have a hand in some tremendous moments like the launching of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
Marcus always envisioned a place where talented, perhaps misunderstood Black folks and people who shared our values could have a professional home. Over time, that vision has expanded to a team of over thirty people working with some of the most influential institutional funders, ground-breaking non-profits, and transformative advocacy organizations.
My second pivot came in my leadership journey at Frontline. As our team grew, it became clear that while I had learned to be a very good consultant, I struggled to lead teams effectively. Our team at Frontline worked with Jose Acevedo, who introduced many of the tools he learned at Rockwood Leadership Institute or picked up along the way in his work as a leadership coach. I got invaluable critical feedback from my teammates, and began incorporating simple practices like listening generously, seeking feedback, and running toward tough conversations. I also began re-imaging what my role and impact could be. I no longer felt as much pressure to be “the smartest person in the room,” and realized that new-found ease could help create space for others to be vulnerable.
My most recent pivot happened in early 2020. At the height of the covid pandemic, I agreed to take on an interim role as CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. That experience helped crystalize my emerging leadership practice. Now, having fully re-integrated into the Frontline team, I am pivoting again. My role now involves learning from, coaching, and supporting the next generation of senior leaders who will take Frontline into the future. With that leadership team in place, I have been able to step out of day-to-day management of the firm, and to focus my energy on new partnerships and ventures.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
My deep experience in facilitation was my secret weapon during my time at Babcock. I used skills around designing and conducting conversations to accelerate bonding and decision-making with the leadership team. This allowed team members to step up to participate in decisions, give each other difficult feedback, and feel greater ownership over the organization’s direction. This sort of work, which other folks have termed “facilitative leadership” allows the opportunity to make moves that align with collectively shared values.
While I have worked with, for, and around philanthropy for a long time, I was clear going in that I was not a grant maker. And I was OK with that. I have found that owning my ignorance and showing up with confident curiosity is a great way to learn quickly and to build trust. I often focus on asking good questions that demonstrate that I am listening and that I understand my knowledge gaps. As I have evolved as a leader, I am less focused on proving that I am smart and more focused on demonstrating empathy, care, and my desire to understand.
I often felt out of my depth in my lack of intricate knowledge of the political and organizational infrastructure in each of the eleven states in our footprint. While I never fully closed that gap, I now have a much deeper understanding of power building and the conditions necessary to enable transformative change.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
While transitioning into my role at MRBF, I struggled mightily with my own identity. Before that role, my career had been a contrast of breadth and depth. On the one hand, I led or supported hundreds of projects over fifteen years of direct consulting work. I had a good working sense of the different types of organizations out there, and even the different styles of senior leaders. Similarly, I had held numerous roles in the start-up environment of Frontline, from directing communications to leading our consulting practice to designing team retreats. On the other hand, I have not had a permanent full-time job outside of Frontline (and now MRBF). This special and transformative place intricately shaped my identity as a worker and leader.
As I transitioned to roughly ¼ time at Frontline, I was plagued by self-doubt. I had pretty irrational (in hindsight) moments of wondering if there would be a place for me at Frontline when I fully returned. I sought the support of you Russ (the interviewer) and increased work with my therapist to help sort through these transitions. To complicate things, my wife figured out she wanted to leave an even longer tenure at an organization she founded about a month after I started at MRBF. We invested a lot of time, resources, and emotional energy in our journeys over the last couple years!
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
By far, the most important lesson has been leaning into my own vulnerability. That’s the foundational approach that supports everything else. For me, being vulnerable starts with myself. I have to “say out loud,” sometimes literally, things that I am uncomfortable with about myself. Negative emotions that I’m not “supposed to” or “allowed to” have, like jealousy, hurt, or anger, are really important for me to acknowledge. That self-awareness helps me be intentional about what is appropriate to share with my teammates. This helps all of us better connect emotionally to what is happening around us and how it is impacting us.
It also helps me avoid the trap of finding easy, “academic” solutions. When I let go of my need to be the smartest person in the room (because I have acknowledged my own insecurity or imposter syndrome), I am better able to sit with the complexity of intractable problems. I am better able to grieve the things that I cannot change. And I can work with others to move forward.
I have also learned that even the best of us are in recovery from White Supremacy and Patriarchy. Racism and gender-based violence are not just abstract concepts in our environment. They live in our bodies and govern our actions. We are people who care deeply about changing the world. And most of us understand that to do that we need to lead with a deep understanding of how racism and gender-based discrimination impact every aspect of our lives. But leading with an equity lens requires more than just a new set of values. It also requires a new set of skills.
Our current set of institutional leaders are fundamentally misaligned to equity centered leadership. This isn’t just because we are “old,” or struggle to work a mute button on Zoom effectively It is because we have been praised for, reinforced in, and selected for our adherence to a culture of White and Masculine Supremacy.
So, my personal project is deconstructing how those systems show up in my mind and my body. And that corresponds to a professional project: deconstructing how they show up in organizations and the folks leading them.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
I would say measure twice, and then jump, to mix metaphors. It’s important to deeply consider your reasons for a shift. Is the problem really a boss, a team, an environment, or truly a need for a more drastic change? But once you have done that work, remember that courage is doing something that makes you afraid. You absolutely ought to have a healthy fear of a big career change and be thoughtful about how you approach it. But you can’t wait until you have it all figured out or know everything you will need to know in your next role. Ultimately, at some point, you have to take a courageous chance on yourself. Human beings are resilient, and it is very likely that you can make you way back to thriving even if you fail.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
My wife, Jamaica, has been hugely supportive of me. She was a critical friend when I was overextending myself physically, mentally, and emotionally to try to make Frontline work during our most difficult times. She has helped me better understand what I want, and to articulate more intelligently what I need.
I was also really grateful for the support of Marcus and Melissa, the other owners at Frontline who had to “pick up the slack” in my absence. They were gracious as I struggled to exit smoothly and made it clear that I was wanted back.
While I don’t always feel confident, based on my high-risk career choices, I also have a deep internal belief in my ability to “figure it out.” As silly as it is, a mantra that I developed in grad school has turned into a weird anti-affirmation for me: “People stupider than me have figured this out.” So, no matter how incapable I feel in the moment, I know I have it in me to work through it and figure it out.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
The thing that comes to mind is my life-long struggle with depression. I have had pretty severe brushes with depression as far back as middle school. In graduate school, I often struggled to drag myself out of bed in the morning.
Although we didn’t have all the language I have now to describe my needs, my partners at Frontline, Marcus in particular, were supportive in getting me what I needed to be at my best. For example, even when we couldn’t afford it, I have always kept an office outside the home. The (very short) commute to the office helps me focus and the return journey helps me decompress and separate myself from work.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
Most people probably don’t know just how hard things were for me financially while we were building Frontline. There were times when I missed paying my mortgage or taking a trip I wanted so we could make payroll or pay another bill. Frontline was built on the value of being generous with our staff, so we often chose to invest in our people or the growth of the business rather than ourselves. I vividly remember the dissonance of people singing my praises or heralding Frontline’s success while I was living under a leaky roof in our fixer-upper home.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I have two big aspirations. One, I am hopeful I continue to figure out what my next contribution to Frontline will be. My role has evolved from direct consulting to almost all management, and I am hopeful it will continue to shift. I am building more time to think about the future of our work, the country, and the planet. Secondly, as my transitional role with Activest reflects, I will continue to seek opportunities where my leadership skills and experiences can be helpful.
What social media links, if any, might you like to share in the piece?
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/HelpingChangeHappen
Instagram - @helping_change
Twitter - @helpingchange
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship and a Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z & LGBTQ Influencer by LinkedIn.