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Meet Chris Heeter, The Wild Institute

By Erica Rivera

Chris Heeter wants you to get wild at work.

Before your jaw drops, Heeter defines that four-letter adjective as: “Having the courage to bring the gift of all of who you are to all of what you do.” An award-winning speaker and founder of The Wild Institute in Bloomington, Heeter does just that by translating her 30 years of experience as a wilderness guide into practical lessons for organizations across the country.

“If we’re able to be more wild, free and alive, that leads us to better connections,” she says.

Heeter, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, came to Minnesota after graduating from George Williams College with a major in recreation and a minor in social work. She worked odd jobs so that she could lead wilderness trips as often as possible; unfortunately, guiding alone didn’t pay the bills. She decided to explore public speaking after receiving many interested reactions about her outdoor adventure stories: “My goal is to open people more to their wild side where they live—not just in the wilderness.”

She completed the apprentice program at the National Speaker’s Association and founded The Wild Institute in 2001. Heeter now speaks an average of six times a month to clients like Wells Fargo, Ecolab and The Ordway, often sharing the stage with her retriever mix, Tuu Weh. And it’s safe to say Heeter has mastered her craft, earning recognition as the highest ranked speaker at the 2014 MPI World Education Congress, as well as a MNM+E 2014 Best of Minnesota readers’ choice finalist in the Team-Building category.

“Her use of sled dog personalities to relate to different personalities on a solid team, in leadership and as a way of understanding diversity really resonates with audiences,” says Devie Hagen, president and CEO of Élan Speakers Agency.

When using dog-sledding as her metaphor, Heeter breaks the audience into small groups to look at the equipment and figure out how each piece is used. “There are great parallels to the workplace,” she says. “An example is the snow hook; it’s an impressive metal piece. We only use it when we have to stop the team, because it’s jarring when it hooks into the ice.” Heeter says several companies have snow hooks hanging in their team rooms to remind them of this lesson.

Heeter appreciates that customizing her programs to different industries exposes her to a wide array of professional roles and the challenges those people face in the workplace: “I’m excited about getting to do this in a consistent manner, learning about all the stuff people do to contribute to the world, and hopefully inspire and teach within that.”