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Michelle Carr named director of Nature Conservancy of Illinois

January 19th, 2013

After years of focusing on the almighty dollar, Michelle Carr is eyeing the great outdoors.

The Goldman Sachs & Co. vice president who spent the past 18 months raising close to $200,000 for President Barack Obama’s re-election has been named director of the Nature Conservancy of Illinois.

“I always thought I’d make a career change in another 10 years,” says Ms. Carr, 42. “I wasn’t looking for a job. But I had a conversation with someone who said I should get involved.”

That serendipitous discussion led to more talks with the conservancy, and soon she was hooked. “I realized I couldn’t not do it,” Ms. Carr says while taking a break from a meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., with a Goldman client who spends winters there. It’s a long way from her first conservancy trip, in March, to the South Dakota Badlands.

The Florida meeting last week was one of her last duties as she wraps up a 16-year career at Goldman’s Chicago office, where she led a team that directed more than $1 billion in assets. Clients include CEOs, wealthy families, foundations and endowments. She starts her new gig Feb. 11, after taking a short vacation to hike in Muir Woods in Northern California.

“I’ve had a terrific career at Goldman Sachs and thought I’d always be there,” she says. “But the more I got to know what the Nature Conservancy was doing, the more I knew that I was really thankful to have an opportunity to do it in the prime of my career.”

Her career path runs parallel to that of Mark Tercek, president of the Nature Conservancy of Virginia and also a former Goldman executive. Ms. Carr says it’s only a coincidence, and indeed there are numerous former financial executives on the Nature Conservancy’s board and staff.

Chicagoans will recognize national board member Muneer Satter, who recently left Goldman after a 12-year career that had him commuting from here to New York, and former Goldman CEO Hank Paulson, the conservancy’s former national chairman.

Ms. Carr calls them great examples of the conservancy’s “melting pot of supporters.” Both men pull different levers than she does at the voting machine, she says, but they have her “utmost respect.”

As the conservancy’s state director, Ms. Carr will manage a $6 million budget and oversee a range of projects across the state, from the Emiquon floodplain restoration project on the Illinois River to the preservation of the Nachusa Grasslands a few hours west of downtown Chicago in Franklin Grove, where bison will be re-introduced.

“Bringing in bison will help ensure healthy prairies and grasslands,” she says. “And the lessons learned will influence projects around the globe.”

Closer to home, Ms. Carr will study declining water levels in Lake Michigan, threats from invasive species and climate change.

Ironically, the statewide job may keep her on the road far more than she has been with Goldman. It’s quicker to fly to New York and back then it is to get to the Kentucky border to study the Cache River for a project that will have an impact for the faraway Amazon, she says.

Still, the switch from the private sector to nonprofit won’t be entirely a culture shock.

Ms. Carr, a former cross-country runner who grew up near the lush Oak Openings region near Toledo, Ohio, long has taken a ribbing for her sense of green. And it has nothing to do with making money for Goldman clients.

She rarely takes taxis and is known to round up her three children with writer husband Dane Carr for long walks around the city. Vacations are far from the madding crowd: Think Death Valley and the El Yunque rainforests of Puerto Rico.

She’s also looking forward to the switch from high heels to comfortable shoes. “It’s a perk” of the job, she says.

(This story was originally published in Crain’s Business.)

 



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