As a senior business major at Calvin, Chris Palmer ’06 was working as an intern at Universal Forest Products. Due to his bilingual skills, he was given the task of translating a document from English to Spanish.
“I remember the document very clearly,” he said. “I was sitting there translating the dangers of wood dust, and it’s just this tedious work of conjugating verbs, while next door—the walls are so thin—I could hear almost this entire conversation about a $15 million acquisition. I was like, ‘I want to be in that room.’ But I remember thinking, ‘Maybe someday; just be faithful in the small things today.’”
That was 13 years ago. Since then, Palmer has been on an unimaginable journey. After working for a nonprofit, going to graduate school, helping start and lead a company, and now working for the entrepreneur side of a large corporation, he loves where he ended up: “The skill sets I learned at Calvin and what I’ve learned along the way have actually prepared me quite beautifully for the job that I’m doing now.”
As a concept lead for new business innovation at Steelcase, the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world, Palmer and his team look at the future of work and create new business models that will be relevant for the company in the future.
“We get to go scan and scout the world to see if we can find startups to bring into Steelcase,” said Palmer. “When I get to engage with those companies, I have a lot of deep empathy for them since I spent eight years in the startup world.”
Palmer’s own startup, PhotoUp, which is a thriving company of more than 350 employees, began when he saw a need for good jobs in the Philippines. “I was working for Unbound, an international nonprofit, whose mission was simply walking with the poor,” he said. “I was speaking to a group of scholarship students, the cream of the crop, that we had spent years helping get through school, and there were no jobs for them.”
That’s when Palmer, along with his business partners, came up with the idea of matching photographers in the U.S. and around the world who needed help with photo editing with trained workers in the Philippines who could do this work, with a mission of keeping young leaders engaged in their communities instead of having to find work abroad.
“We have created one of the most desirable places to work in Cebu,” said Palmer, who continues to serve on the board for the company. “People want to come work for us because of the culture and the benefits and the ability to have meaning at their work. So, just by happenstance, we get to raise the bar of what employment looks like in Cebu.”
Palmer says Calvin sparked his interest in social entrepreneurship. “I look back at some of my econ professors that were asking some really good, challenging questions like, ‘Is there anything wrong with our current system of creating a business? Are we morally obligated to care for our environment? Are we morally obligated to care for those who work for us?’” said Palmer. “Those questions haunted me for a long time. How do you reconcile those? What is a redemptive way of creating a business?
“I’m proud of PhotoUp, but knowing the true story of our company is that it’s not us. It was never me; it was never even our leadership team. It was a group moving in a direction, but God was in it every step of the way.
“When I look back on the things that give me the most joy, it’s when I’m pursuing a noble quest with a small group of people with a hope that we can create something beautiful,” Palmer said. “PhotoUp was an idea. It was a noble idea, and if you invite the right people into those ideas at the right time, beautiful things begin to happen. I think there’s no difference if it’s photo editing or if it’s office furniture. But those are the moments that I love, when you can hear those deep rumblings of something happening that wasn’t there before.”