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WHF Profile: Travis Thul (2020-21)

Can you tell us about yourself and your work before the White House Fellowship?
My name is Travis Thul. My background includes work as an electrical engineer, Coast Guard officer, and college executive. In the years leading up to the fellowship, my civilian focus was on leading Minnesota State College Southeast as their Dean of Technology, Trades, Business, and Transportations programs. Concurrently, I served as the Chairman for the American National Standards Institute standards committee on Wireless Power (C63.30), where I led dozens of technologists in developing electromagnetic compliance standards.  When not working in those capacities, I served as a reserve Coast Guard officer, deploying in support of Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Florence, and the 2020 Democratic National Convention. I hold a Doctor of Engineering from George Washington University and am a licensed Professional Engineer. I am also the inventor of the desktop ramen noodle cooker….but that’s another story. 

How did you hear about the White House Fellows Program and what made you decide to apply?
I heard about it through the Coast Guard message board. After reading the solicitation, the program seemed almost tailored to my background in community development, civic engagement, and military service. I could not help but feel that it was an opportunity of a lifetime. 

What goals were you hoping to achieve through the Fellows program?
My overarching goal was to use the opportunity to serve my nation. Beyond that, learning from some of the most amazing leaders I’ve worked with and growing with a cohort of uniquely amazing professionals were major imperatives. 

Where were you placed and what was the focus of your work?
I served in the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) and the Office of the Vice President. The majority of my work focused on U.S. industrial policy and economic diplomacy. I am immensely proud to have helped lead the establishment of EXIM’s China & Transformational Exports Program Office and to have been part of the Abraham Accords mission. 

What was your fellowship class like?
While all classes are historic, our year may have been uniquely so. Our cohort interviewed during the early stages of the COVID pandemic (first cohort, I believe, to do 100% remote panels), onboarded during the height of the George Floyd protests (just after Sen. Romney marched through DC in solidarity with protestors), served during the midst of the 2020 election, witnessed the passing of a supreme court justice, were well into the fellowship on January 6th of 2021, helped onboard a new administration, and were winding down our time right as Kabul was falling to the Taliban. The uniqueness of the pandemic, transition, and everything in between really was formative for all of us. The relationships forged during that time – I feel – were as strong as those built over 10x as many years. I will also call out the amazing leadership from both Elizabeth Pinkerton and Rose Vela. I cannot imagine what it was like for them to help negotiate the same historic events while leading our cohort. I cannot think of better leaders or peers to have served with during such historic times. 

What did you do immediately after the Fellowship?
After leaving the fellowship, I again returned to dual-hatted status. On the civilian side, I was honored to be selected to serve as a senate confirmed member of the Minnesota Board of Electricity, as well as on the Board of Engineering. This work was complimented by my new role helping to lead the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute as their Director of Operations and Senior Fellow. On the military side, I transitioned to the Joint Staff, serving as a Cyber Security Action Officer and liaison to the DoD’s burgeoning Office of Strategic Capital (where I was able to continue my work with fellow fellow Col. Wesley Spurlock towards guarding our national security through securing critical technology areas). In the middle of all of that, I was recalled to active duty to help support the resettlement of nearly 80,000 Afghan refugees during Operation Allies Welcome. 

How did the trajectory of your life and work change after the White House Fellowship?
It is a little too early to answer this question, as it was only about 30 months ago that our cohort departed. That said, the relationships built during the fellowship have changed, and are continuing to change my life. Lt. Col. CJ Yerage brought her State Department and NATO experience to one of our University of Minnesota classes to discuss the war in Ukraine, I have started a business venture with Dan Kurtenbach, Col. Wes Spurlock and I continued to work together at the Office of Strategic Capital, Jonathan Westbrook has become a mentor and sounding board for parenting advice, and I am regularly dedicating untold hours texting all of the cohort members over various and sundry happenings (including a shared affection for Predator with Steve to commiserating over the Lions with David and Michelle). Beyond the cohort, our leaders from both administrations have been unparalleled mentors and friends. Perhaps the right answer is that the real monumental change has been one of relationships. It is rare that such strong bonds are built over a relatively short period of time. I am thankful everyday for them. 

What are you most proud of achieving since the fellowship?
During the Fellowship — The friendships. No question. That said, from a governmental standpoint, I will forever be proud of helping launch the CTEP program. I believe to my core that so much of the American Dream was built on upward mobility through education, technology, and opportunity. The CTEP program is designed to help support U.S. manufacturers looking to grow transformational technology exports through an increase in production, research, and development. Being part of such a bi-partisan and impactful mission, which continues under exceptional leadership,  will be an honor for the rest of my days. 

After the Fellowship — Shortly after the fellowship I was recalled to active duty to serve Operation Allies Welcome. My piece of the mission was dedicated to approximately 13,000 (out of around 80,000 total) Afghan refugees sheltering at Fort McCoy near Tomah, WI. It was an honor to work with the dedicated professionals from across government towards helping these people seeking a new life and to become new Americans. To be part of one of largest, if not the largest, humanitarian mission in our nation’s history will forever be a point of pride. 

Can you tell us about peers and mentors who helped you on this path?
The U.S. Coast Guard leadership has been instrumental in mentoring and advising me along this journey. I cannot thank the service enough for all that it has given me. I am also eternally thankful to those who wrote my nomination letters and provided encouragement to the WHF and afterwards. It has been their support and inspiration which helps keep me (and, I am sure, others) moving forward!

What are you working on now?
I recently launched the Minnesota Center for Electrification Opportunity and the Minnesota Semiconductor Manufacturing Consortium. Both of these initiatives are designed to serve Minnesota’s local technological ecosystem and grow our economy.

Are there any books you’d recommend for those interested in doing similar work?
Nope. But I really like “River of Doubt” by Candice Millard. 

It sounds like all of those experiences gave you a set of new skills that you might not have had in your previous role. How did you translate those skills into your career and work now?
I’ve found the real skill is finding ways to connect new relationships with those from the WHF and before. By connecting those who have something to give with those who need help, we can all be force multipliers. 

Could you reflect on a learning experience during your Fellowship experience?
I would emphasize that, no matter the situation, we must presume we only get one chance to make an impact in any particular moment. While the WHF is a year in length, there are many opportunities to attempt to make that impact or to hold off until next time. Having erred on taking a chance every time there was an opportunity, I have no regrets (even if there were more misses than hits). 

Have you and your classmates remained close since your Fellowship year?
Yes. 

What advice would you give to prospective applicants? 
Reach out to alumni and ask for mentorship. Also, read the application closely, understand the audience, and apply early!