December EO Chicago Member Spotlight: Mike Nellis

Closing out our member spotlights for the year is Mike Nellis, CEO and Founder of Authentic, an award-winning digital agency that specializes in fundraising, advertising, web and graphic design, and online organizing. They helped Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win their presidential campaign in 2020 and lead the industry in developing unique and creative digital programs for all of their clients. Here’s how Mike fell into entrepreneurship, where he hopes to take Authentic in the future, the best Chicago pizza hill he’ll die on, and more.

EO Member: Mike Nellis

Company: Authentic

Years in Business: 15 years

How long have you been a member of EO Chicago and why did you join the organization?

I joined just a few months ago. I was looking to get more involved in the business community here in Chicago and find opportunities to connect with people who are entrepreneurs like myself, who want to run a business the right way—by making an impact and treating employees well. I believe that business has the ability to be a force for good when done right, and I really was hoping to find a community of people who felt likewise.

What was your first job?

I was a bag boy at the grocery store when I was 16.

Can you describe your entrepreneurial journey? Where did you start and where do you hope to go in the future?

I kind of fell into being an entrepreneur. It wasn’t my intention to ever start my own business, but I was doing what I do now, which is marketing and political consulting. I worked at this place that did a really poor job of taking care of its people to the point that it collapsed on itself. This led me to start my own business—because there was a need for a firm that could do good work while treating people well.

But more on my story overall: I’ve worked in politics and for nonprofit advocacy organizations my entire career. I was a senior advisor to Kamala Harris for many years, all the way through her presidential campaign, and have worked with big organizations like the ACLU. As someone who always wants to make an impact and do the right thing for my community, my journey has been about finding ways to positively impact the world around me. Being an entrepreneur has allowed me to do that.

From here, I want Authentic to continue to grow and be able to offer more services to campaigns, organizations, nonprofits, and potentially businesses down the road. We bring a really unique perspective to digital marketing and advertising, so I think there’s an opportunity for us to do more. We’re a mission-driven, values-focused firm, which means we care about how the work gets done, how we treat people from our colleagues to our end-users. We try to develop digital programs that we can be proud of while understanding that the people we’re communicating with are real people that deserve to be treated like humans and not ATM machines.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

The people I get to work with. I work with some tremendously talented people. My favorite thing about the team that we’ve built is that they’re incredibly diverse—different backgrounds, different lived experiences, different perspectives. Because of that, I am pushed to be a different, better leader. Studies show that diverse organizations succeed at a significantly higher rate than non-diverse organizations by getting away from groupthink and insular conversations. Every day I work with people who have different perspectives that challenge me to be a better person. I’m someone who has a growth mindset by default. I do not believe I am the best version of myself today. I believe I’m going to continue to work that way. And I hope that when I’m 90 years old I’m still working to be the best version of myself. That growth mindset is reflective of the team that we’ve built and the culture we have and a big part of the reason why I’m so excited to go to work every day.

What daily challenges do you face at work?

I work in politics, so I think it would be wrong not to admit that our political system is a mess right now. It’s broken and there’s a lot of divisiveness. It’s unfortunate, because I believe that there is more that unites us than divides us. Even though I work in the industry, I’m as sick of it as anybody else. I want to spend less time fighting with one another and more time trying to make people’s lives better.

I think the work we do at Authentic does that, but that’s the daily challenge—you worry about becoming cynical about our government and our country’s future. It’s a challenge perhaps unique to my business within EO, but it’s certainly not different from what any of us have experienced over the last couple of years. We’ve all been going through a period where, from COVID to the George Floyd protests to the presidential election, we’ve all had to look at ourselves in the mirror and decide who we are and what we believe in.

Beyond that, I didn’t go to business school. So I have to learn how to do things right. I’m going back to get my MBA at the University of Notre Dame right now because I wanted to get a formal education in how to run a business. It’s been tremendously beneficial.

What are some ways you try to become a better leader? 

It starts with mindset—having a growth mindset and realizing that I’m not a perfect leader, I’m going to make mistakes. And giving myself the grace to make those mistakes, too. Sometimes we expect the leaders around us to get things right 100 percent of the time, but everyone’s making decisions without enough information.

I also do a lot of reading and listening to podcasts. Another great example of leadership behavior is the show Ted Lasso—it really models what good leadership should look like and how we should treat one another as adults.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

People want an empathetic leader but they don’t always want to give empathy to their leader. Be mindful that you’ve got to provide empathy to people who might not provide that empathy back to you. Maybe it comes down to the idea that it’s harder to give empathy up than to give it down.

What are your goals for the future of your business?

Maximizing our impact without losing sight of our values. I want to grow the firm in a smart way and keep bringing on good, talented people who want to make a difference, both in the political and non-political work we do. I don’t want to grow nonsensically or just for profit. Aside from making money, I also want to make sure that what we’re creating and what we’re leaving behind is of lasting value to the community and the world around us.

What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

We’re working for an amazing candidate in Boston named Michelle Wu. She’s a young woman of color who’s running for mayor. By the time this comes out, she’ll probably have won because the election is on November 2, 2021. [Update: She did!]

Boston has never elected a non-white man as mayor of the city, so we’re helping someone really special break a barrier and do some real good for their community. I’ll shout from the rooftops about how excited I am about her as a leader. She’s inspired so many people around her and she’s what we should expect from our elected officials.

Who or what inspires you?

My wife and son inspire me to be a better person and to try to be the best version of myself and build something that’s worth keeping around from a business perspective. More broadly, I draw a great deal of inspiration from my Catholic upbringing. “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, what do we owe each other?” I think about that a lot.

What is the greatest challenge you have overcome?

I’ve overcome severe anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome. The greatest challenge has been the work it’s taken to get myself to a place where I have a structure to support me when I’m not quite right. That has included going to therapy and investing in relationships so there are people around to help me.

A lot of people with anxiety and depression suffer in silence. They may not even know what it is or that they have it. For men especially, there is a stigma around getting help. It was challenging to break myself out of that stigma and give into vulnerability.

What brought you to Chicago?

We lived in DC for a long time and got tired of it. We wanted to split the difference between going back home to Omaha, Nebraska, where my wife and I are from, and living in a big city. And Chicago is the best city in America, in my opinion.

How do you find work-life balance?

It’s challenging as an entrepreneur. As someone with a wife and kid, you have to have a really strong relationship with your spouse and clear lines of communication when you’re available and when you’re not. A big part of balancing my work life is just having a schedule of when I’m with my family and when I’m not that’s clear and consistent—and sticking to it.

When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?

An architect. Or, before that, a football coach.

What are your favorite things to do outside of work?

I love to play chess and poker. I also like to read and listen to audiobooks. I love watching movies and watching really creative people build elaborate worlds—the Marvel cinematic universe or something like Critical Roll, for example.

What’s one thing still left on your bucket list?

I want to go to Italy.

What are you currently reading?

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins—which one of my more conservative friends recommended I read to challenge me a bit. It’s intense.

Can you recommend one podcast?

SmartLess with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett.

What’s your favorite restaurant?

Happy Camper—best pizza in the city. I’ll die on that hill.

What is your top Chicago activity?

My happy place is on my boat on the lake.

Where’s your favorite place in the world to visit?

I’ve spent time with my family in South Haven, Michigan. I love Michigan and exploring the little towns on the lake there.

Thank you to Mike for sharing his story for our December member spotlight. The Entrepreneurs’ Organization is a global business network of more than 14,000 entrepreneurs in 198 chapters and 61 countries. EO is the catalyst that enables entrepreneurs to learn and grow from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life. If you’re interested in becoming an EO Chicago member, check our membership requirements and submit an application to join today.