SXSW Event Recap: Reinventing Exploration with National Geographic Society CEO Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler


Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler became CEO of the National geographic Society in August 2020 after dedicating his life to education. During SXSW presentation entitled “Reimagining Exploration”, the CEO spoke about her journey to becoming the first woman to lead the National Geographic Societyshared some of the organization’s recent accomplishments and previewed what fans can expect in the near future.

(National Geographic)

Grow in Iowa on a popcorn farm, Jill shared her first memory of National geographic magazine she saw in her school library in 1977. King Tut’s mask was on the cover and it sparked her imagination, but she pursued a career in higher education, as an economics teacher and Dean of Colorado College. When the National Geographic Society approached her as its first potential female CEO, she initially thought it didn’t fit her career, but changed her mind.

In taking on this role during the pandemic, Jill connected virtually with National Geographic’s global community of explorers and helped shape the company’s vision for the future. Next is the name of the current initiative, which has the slogan “Legendary Legacy, Boundless Future”. The organization has a theory of impact, which goes both through the protection of what is studied, but also through enlightenment. Enlightenment often takes the form of storytelling, with the multimedia avenues of Nat Geo as its delivery system, which includes Disney+.

Much of the presentation consisted of a broad overview of some of the incredible work done by National Geographic Society grant recipients. This included:

  • Dr. Enric Sala – Through the pristine seas initiative, Dr. Sala is working to protect more than 40% of the world’s oceans by 2030.
  • Dr. Baker Perry – The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition 2019 installed the world’s tallest weather station, providing real-time weather data to help track climate change.
  • Paula Kahumbhu – Named the 2021 Explorer of the YearPaula Kahumbhu continues the narrative component of NG Next with a children’s series titled Wildlife Direct and is the central explorer for the upcoming James Cameron Disney+ series secret of the the elephants.
  • Dr. Steve Boyes – Dr. Boyes started the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project to help protect and study the area, helping to discover new species and protect endangered ones.
  • Kehkashan Basu – One of the 75 Young Explorers, Kehkashan founded the Green Hope Foundationa networking platform to help young people engage with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Anand Varma – This biologist turnedphotographer uses high-speed cameras and custom-made devices see the intricate movements of hummingbirds and bees.
  • Joël Sartore – The founder of the photo ark recently surpassed 12,000 endangered animals photographed in captivity.
  • Carlton Ward Jr. – Since the inception of the Florida Wildlife Corridor ProjectCarlton convinced lawmakers and the public to help protect green spaces, including helping to pass new laws and funding the protection of the areas.
  • Tara Roberts – As a member of Diving with a purposeTara not only helps research and document sunken slave ships, but also engages with the world through the In the depths podcast.

“Science is our foundation and storytelling is our superpower,” said Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler of the relationship between modern National Geographic explorers and the content we consume through Nat Geo magazines, cable networks, podcasts , Disney+, live events and the museum at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington DC, which is undergoing a $200 million renovation. Nat Geo’s online resources were used by over 34 million people in 2020 and recently defined a 5th ocean, the Southern Ocean.

Throughout its history, the National Geographic Society has awarded more than 15,000 grants to more than 6,000 explorers from more than 140 countries. As the organization’s first female CEO, Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler is proud that the organization has achieved gender parity and that 60% of its grantees are outside the United States. As for the future of storytelling, fans will see a more diverse cast of people, driven by a quote Jill once heard that went something like “If you want to change the story, you have to change the storyteller.”

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