"I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than me." - Microsoft Life (2022)

“That looks like a great hill for sledding!” exclaims Lucas Joppa as we meander up the Granite Creek trail near North Bend, 45 miles east of Seattle. He’s gazing up at a row of prehistoric-looking ferns dotting some slippery black rocks that blend together into a perfectly sloped hill perched above a nearby ridge.

Perfectly dangerous, too—something that Lucas also notes. There is no snow, but memories of winter’s unexpected storms still linger.

“My kids are always looking for the best sledding hills,” he says with a shrug. “Habit.” They prefer the perilous ones, too, something they likely inherited from their father.

Sure enough, just days after our hike and my visit to the Joppa home, nestled near the foot of Mt. Washington at the end of a dead-end road, I get a curious automatic reply from his email account:

I had a bit of a tumble and have found myself unable to type for a while. I will be reading emails but unable to answer at much length. Please give me a call.

When I reach Lucas the next day, he confirms that he had a skiing accident where he broke his arm and dislocated his shoulder."I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than me." - Microsoft Life (1)

“You know that saying, ‘look before you leap?’” he says, his voice still full of sparkle despite being in pain. “I often forget the first part.”


His inclination for leaping is what ultimately brought Lucas to Microsoft where he is the company’s chief environmental officer and the brains behind an ambitious idea to use computers to help understand and preserve the natural world.

Off the mountain now, he stands behind the bar in the living room of his airy home, its interior cabin-like and stitched together with reclaimed wood, barn doors, and wilderness artifacts.

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He peers out from under a trucker hat that reads “Believe in Mountains,” and a tattoo of a tree is tucked beneath his shirtsleeve. The tree is there to remind him to be patient and to find perspective, he explains.

“Just the idea that you can have a living organism around for thousands of years, standing in one spot, and all that has happened around it and all it has seen!”

Lucas has long been driven by two things, wonder and worry, both as they relate to the natural world. Wonder around how it works, how it’s built, and how it’s evolving. Worry around what’s becoming of this world and our impact as humans.

Though his penchant for spending hours outdoors would be what you might expect for someone with such a post, his trajectory has been a bit more unexpected. He’s leapt often and looked later.

Lucas started his studies taking an entry-level zoology course, which stoked his passion for science and wonder about the world around him. After the first class, he went straight to the admissions office and declared his major in ecology.

Now, he’s heading up Microsoft’s AI for Earth program and team, and part of their work is to try to make the importance of our everyday actions and their impact on Earth tangible. The program, now a $50 million investment for the company, grew from Lucas’ passion for the planet and an idea that captured the attention of Microsoft’s leadership—and ultimately resulted in another leap, to the company’s headquarters in Redmond.

“Nature fascinates me. Trees. What are these things?” he says, pointing outside the window. “How are we protecting them? What is our future?”

Once he found his passion as a zoology student, Lucas leapt again, applying for a rigorous PhD program.

But first, he and his wife, Jamie Joppa, newly married at the time, set off for Malawi for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps where Lucas worked at a national park and Jamie was a health-care volunteer. He returned to the United States and to North Carolina to finish his doctorate in less than three years—lightning speed by most standards.

Lucas’ doctoral advisor, Dr. Stuart Pimm, says that Lucas’ working in the field in Africa complemented his efforts in the classroom and beyond, adding that he was impressed early on by Lucas’ flexibility in different environments.

“It’s one thing to be good in the field. It’s quite another to put on a suit and tie and pound the corridors of power,” he adds.


Lucas took a job at Microsoft in the Cambridge, UK, research lab, where his world first intersected with Josh Henretig, a Microsoft employee based in Redmond, Washington, working on Microsoft’s sustainability efforts.

“He is brilliant,” says Josh, who now works as a senior leader on Lucas’ team. “He challenges conventional wisdom and brings insights into new areas.”

Josh, who has worked at Microsoft for 16 years, says he admires Lucas’ clear sense of purpose. “We all look for new perspective to help us refresh. He’s helped reinvigorate that in me. His career path and professional ambitions are something that I’m inspired by.”

Josh and Lucas also spend time outside together, hiking, biking, and skiing. “The thing that surprises me about Lucas? It’s a little comical, despite his interest in the outdoors, how prone to accidents he is.”

I mentioned the dislocated shoulder. “That, and a broken thumb, broken wrist, cracked knee, messed up face. And that’s just this year,” Josh chuckles. (Lucas assures me that the year has been atypical. He’s not usually that accident prone.)

You know that saying, ‘look before you leap?’
I often forget the first part.

Lucas says that he feels identical to when he was five, that ever since he can remember, he’s had a strong sense of self that’s propelled him forward. And that his mind has long been curious to know “how it all works.” The natural world, that is. And a persistent sense of wonder. And worry.

“We’ve discovered and cataloged 2 million species, a tiny drop in the bucket. Yet, we have this grand sense of accomplishment. We forget what little specs we are; that depresses me,” he says.

He thinks we can do better.

“The problem in tech is that in some ways, we’ve been too successful. People turn inward. We need to take that energy and channel it. Everyone can put energy into one thing.”


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Lucas grew up in Phillips, Wisconsin, which he describes as a great place to be a kid.

To say the rural town of Phillips is quiet would be an understatement. In fact, the nearest stoplight is 30 miles away. Its sleepy Main Street is surrounded by wilderness and a handful of pocket-sized lakes.

Jamie and Lucas met when his family moved to Phillips. They were in the second grade. They played soccer together in middle school.

Jamie, over lunch, describes young Lucas as “intense.” So much so, that she’d hang out with him for a bit, only to call it off a few months later—a pattern that persisted through their days in Phillips.

“You know those guys that would string together three study halls just to get through high school? That was Lucas. He was a total slacker,” she says with a wide smile, before adding, “I think he was bored.”

"I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than me." - Microsoft Life (2)

Bored indoors, perhaps. But Lucas spent his days outside, exploring and having adventures, often wandering the woods for hours on end.

His family didn’t have a television. “There were two things the kids could do,” remembers his mother, Nancy Anderson. “Read and play outside.

“People thought it was an ideological decision,” she explains. “It wasn’t. Our TV broke when the kids were little. I had a choice of spending money on a new antenna to get three fuzzy channels or a bike. It was an easy choice.”

Nancy raised Lucas and his two older sisters, taking them to the pool, where she was the aquatic director, mornings before school.

“We did everything together outside: hike, bike, mountain bike, road bike, snowshoe, cross-country ski,” she remembers. “The kids were raised doing that stuff.”

Lucas remembers that his mom, who was also a triathlete, had an outsized impact on his love for the outdoors and wonder about nature.

Lucas’ sister, Kate Olson, who is a couple of years older than him, remembers her brother always being that person who said he was going to do “lots of stuff.”

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“And he actually did it. He never thought possible that he couldn’t do something.”


Back on the trail, Lucas describes himself as a “gregarious loner,” someone who is curious about people but also needs a healthy dose of alone time.

To get this solitude, he often wanders these trails, and his kids know them just as well.

One of the things Lucas likes about being a father is the potential that is inherent, for the future. That and the easy sense of curiosity that comes with being young. He wants to inspire others to stay curious, to keep that sense of wonder."I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than me." - Microsoft Life (3)

For his kids, now 9 and 7, he has a simple but profound wish: “I want them to be interested in something. To find something they’re passionate about . . . and do it.

“My mom always used to say that ‘people who are interested are interesting,’” he adds.

Lucas is both.

As we wind deeper through the ravine, Lucas notices some old growth, pointing to a hollowed-out stump the size of a compact car that his kids often play in on the weekends.

“Let’s go check it out.”


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Suddenly, the door opens, and her dad, Royce Martin, signs: “Did you forget your key again?. She’s back home with her dad, Royce.. “What I love most about my dad is how he believed in working hard for our family.. “Some people say nothing good comes from the South Side of Chicago, but Michelle Obama did.. One day, young Heather came home from junior high school with an idea.. I’ve been interpreting for you and mom my whole life,” she pressed.. “Wow, I could make accessible technology and really change people’s lives.”. She came home that summer and told her dad, “Engineer.. He kept me going.” Royce empowered Heather to challenge herself so that she, in turn, could challenge the field of accessible technology.. “Okay?” Heather signs back to her dad.. She finds herself challenged every day, as this is not easy work.. “If I can just remember every day that there are people who didn’t go to college, who don’t have degrees or the earning power to buy the technology we make, then I can push myself and the engineering team to do better.”

Just over two decades later, Awa makes the trip back to Senegal for the first time since she left.. Awa’s prepared for a deep sadness, but the beauty of the plant life dancing in the wind stirs something beautiful into the sadness, complicating the history of this land.. Back at home in Seattle, Awa’s blending up the next batch of shea butter for her business, Nekawa Beauty , with her friend and business partner, Chelsea Trotter.. Awa’s been making shea butter for her own skin and hair for years.. A few years ago, while in business school where they met, Awa and Chelsea turned Awa’s shea butter recipe into a company and named it Nekawa Beauty.. “I understand that I make my own home, and that’s many places at once.. But she knows it’s complicated: home is not only Ndoth.

As India Powell reaches for the tarnished brass doorknob to Eris Northern’s old media room, the former student is transported back in time to when she was 15, opening this door for the first time.. Last year, as a freshman, she had bugged the counselors nearly every day after school to make sure that she could get into Ms. Northern’s highly coveted, hands-on class that was available only to second year students.. Ms. Northern started working at the high school in 1968, just a few years after it opened to an all-black student body.. India’s “auntie” had been close friends with Ms. Northern in the 1960s, and India’s mom and sisters all had Ms. Northern as their librarian when they attended Raines.. India tells Ms. Northern that she looks the same, that she always had her hands busy and was almost always behind a camera recording football games, assemblies, and school events.. They get lost in reminiscing, and as India uses her phone’s camera to snap a picture of an old photo, Ms. Northern says, “I just always knew you were going to make something of yourself, India.. India wants to honor Ms. Northern’s powerful presence in her life, and instead, it’s Ms. Northern who gushes on India.. “Of course you were, Ms. Northern,” India says.. India was the kind of student that teachers want to duplicate, according to Ms. Northern.. Right before school let out for summer at the end of India’s sophomore year, Ms. Northern told India about a summer journalism camp at her alma matter, the University of Florida.. Ms. Northern was retiring after India’s senior year, and she established a scholarship for Raines students.. The year that India graduated, she and four other classmates were awarded Ms. Northern’s $500 scholarship.. She pulled out a DVD that was labeled “India’s videos.” Ms. Northern had compiled each of India’s reporter and news anchor appearances into one highlight reel.. India learned that the Northern family has been spending their own funds to convert Raines’s vast VHS archive (most of which Ms. Northern taped) to DVDs.


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