Podcast

Episode 12 – Jeremy Cowart: At The Intersection of Creativity and Empathy

Jeremy Cowart is an award winning photographer, artist and entrepreneur, having been named “Most Influential Photographer on the Internet” by Huffington Post, Forbes and Yahoo in 2014. Jeremy’s mission in life is to “explore the intersection of creativity and empathy.” He has published four books and is a sought-after speaker, having presented at TEDx, the United Nations and creative conferences across the country. He shares about an idea that was so big, he wasn’t sure he was supposed to pursue it, and then how, at every turn, the idea kept coming back to him; along with clear signs and the means to make it happen. If you’ve ever pivoted from what you thought you were called to in order to do something completely different, you’ll love hearing what Jeremy has to say about the “normality” of insecurity and doubt, and moving forward despite of it.

Going Scared - Jeremy Cowart

Intro: Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. We cover all things social impact, entrepreneurship, and courage. Today’s guest really exemplifies all three of those things. I’m interviewing Jeremy Cowart, world renowned photographer turned hotelier. That’s right. Jeremy has shot everyone from President Obama to Taylor Swift, and he’s now the founder of Nashville’s newest hotel concept; The Purpose Hotel. The Purpose Hotel, as you may be able to guess by the name, is a for profit hotel designed to raise money for nonprofits with purpose and impact.

Jeremy’s mission in life is to explore the intersection of creativity and empathy. So, how do you pivot from one successful career to a totally seemingly unrelated one? Well, a common thread is Jeremy’s passion to live a life of purpose and impact. To choose empathy and see that intersection where empathy and creativity coexist.

“…choose empathy and see that intersection where empathy and creativity coexist.”

This conversation invites you into the journey of what it looks like to “go scared” into an entirely new venture.

 

Jeremy’s Atypical Path To A Photography Career

Jessica: Hey Jeremy! Welcome to the Going Scared Podcast.

Jeremy: Thank you, it’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jessica: Okay, so I have to say that we were just having technological difficulties and it’s been about 45 minutes trying to get this to work, and so you have to be one of the more patient, more gracious people, Jeremy. Thank you so much.

Jeremy: Oh, trust me, I’m used to technology failing all the time, so I get it.

Jessica:Okay, well I’m glad we got to make this work, and I’ve been super excited to talk to you because when I met you, I met you a few months ago at an event with Praxis, which is this business accelerator program, and most people know you as a photographer but you are now pivoting to also be a hotel leader.

Jeremy: Yes.

Jessica: And that is a really fascinating pivot. That is what really made me go, "I want to hear about this journey of how you kind of go from one career to a completely unrelated career."

Jeremy: Yes, completely unrelated.

Jessica: So, I’m excited to hear the journey today, but first, before we launch into that, I want to hear a little bit more about what’s the story behind the story of how you got into photography.

Jeremy: Yeah, well I was … I went to school for design, graduated, worked for a few ad agencies, and didn’t love that world. So, I jumped out of that world and started my own design company, and then somewhere along that way digital cameras became a thing, and started shooting really to include images into my design work. Almost like I was using a digital camera as a scanner to include textures and stuff in my design work.

But all my friends at that time were musicians, imagine that, living in Nashville. And so I would just start shooting my friends, and then my friends would get signed to record labels. I’m serious, one of my best friends in college who is also the drummer in my band, his name’s Dave Barnes. So, Dave Barnes, Matt Wertz–we were all–Brandon Heath–we all went to school together.

And so anyway, they would get signed to labels.

Jessica: Wow.

Jeremy: Labels would start hiring me for their photography, so it was a very organic kind of accidental thing that just kind of happened. That’s obviously the very, very short version, but that’s initially how I got started. And then, within a few months of me deciding to become a full-time photographer, an agent in Hollywood discovered me. So, the next thing I know I’m shooting huge celebrities in Hollywood, so it really was kind of a zero to 60 start into photography.

Jessica: Probably not the typical path.

Jeremy: Not the typical path, for sure.

 

The Love/Hate Feeling of Getting Your Picture Taken

Jessica: The fast-forward track, so would you say that your focus has really been portrait photography? Because that’s sort of what you’re describing.

Jeremy: Exactly, portraits, that has spanned across celebrities and entertainment, but also editorial, advertising, even some weddings along the way. A lot of just all kinds of different stuff. And of course, a lot of humanitarian work.

Jessica: Yes, which is what I know you so well for. So, obviously, there’s something in your vibe and your personality that is able to create a space for people to just let go, because you get incredible work. What would you say to the person that is really wanting to focus on portrait photography? Not like the technical stuff but more of that deeper, untouchable stuff that someone has to have …

Jeremy: Yeah, it really is just relational. Just making somebody feel comfortable in front of your lens. The truth is everything somebody walks in front of my camera, they’ll say one of two things. Either, "I hate having my picture taken," or, "I take terrible pictures." One of those two, like, "I’m so not good at this."

Jessica: Really? No matter who it is? Even if it’s like Taylor Swift?

Jeremy: Yeah. Biggest celebrities, everybody is uncomfortable in front of the camera. Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is kind of like being a dentist, because no one wants to be there, you know? So yeah, I’m very used to people not wanting to, but at the same time, we also kind of love it. Because it’s our vanity, we want to look amazing.

“everybody is uncomfortable in front of the camera. Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is kind of like being a dentist, because no one wants to be there, you know?” – Jeremy Cowart

Jessica: Right. It’s like a love/hate. Right. That’s interesting, because I have this assumption that when I see, especially sort of more “celebrities,” that they just walk into your studio like, "I am ready to rock it, and I’m gonna look hot!"

Jeremy: There is that rare exception, especially once the celebrities have gotten to a point where they’re doing it all the time. It’s literally once a week, or …

Jessica: Yeah, they can crank it out.

Jeremy: So, they know the drill. But once you actually sit down on a lunch break or actually talk to them, they’ll usually say, "Well, I actually hate this, and yes, of course I’m super insecure, but I know that it’s just part of the drill and part of what I do."

Jessica: Yeah.

Jeremy: You know, who I loved shooting, in terms of the confidence was Kelly Clarkson.

Jessica: Really?

Jeremy: Yeah, she was one who just owned it and there was no sign of insecurity or flaw, she just was a blast to photograph. Oh yeah, she just doesn’t care. It’s really refreshing. So yeah, she’s amazing. And then Carrie Underwood comes to mind, I’ve worked with her a lot, and she actually was admirable in a different way because she said, "Don’t Photoshop me, don’t retouch me, because I work too hard to look this way, I work out too much for you to go to mess it up in Photoshop or try to make it look different than what it is." So, both of them were very refreshing in different ways.

 

The Idea of a Lifetime: The Purpose Hotel

Jessica: That’s really cool, that’s really cool. Okay, so let’s head on to the Purpose Hotel, because I’m really excited to chat about this. You were at Praxis, and you were there to be equipped with the knowledge, the network, and the personal disciple-ship necessary to build a sustainable, high impact organization. Tell me a little bit about how you decided–and I guess it’s not a pivot, because I’m sure you’re gonna continue in your photography career–but how does one go from photographer to hotel owner?

Jeremy: Yeah, it was truly one of those just crazy, God, divine moments where I was walking in a hotel, and I know the date because I’ve already gone back and figured this out, but it was April 30th, 2012. I had a photoshoot in Los Angeles and I was walking in a hotel to go to our pre-production meeting in a hotel room, and as I was walking through the hotel – it was actually the Standard in Los Angeles – and they had their room numbers designed like name tags.

It was like, "Hello, my name …" Yeah, "Hello, my name is Room 121." I just thought like, "Oh, that’s clever or cute, they redesigned the name tags." But I also thought in that moment, "But what if instead of a name tag, it was a story that the lonely traveler felt compelled to learn more about?" So, then I was like, "Well, what can the story be?" I instantly thought of child sponsorship. What if as you’re walking down the hallway and every door had a child’s face next to it with their name and their story and their photo, and you instantly felt …

You know, because traveling can be lonely. A lot of times I’m always by myself when I travel, and so it’d be cool just to feel connected to the child around the world. So, then, as I was holding my room key, I looked down and I was like … I instantly thought of Katelyn Crosby from the Giving Keys, and like, "Oh gosh, we could connect to the Giving Keys, so the Room Keys!" And then, when I walked in the door … this is all in real time. As I walked in the door and looked at the crappy art on the walls, which every hotel has, I was like, "Oh man, it’d be so cool to include all my friends, humanitarian artists and photographers, put their art on the walls."

Then, I looked at the TV and I was like, "Oh, and instead of a listing of adult pornography, there could be a listing of like social, good films. Then, when you paid for the internet it could fight against human trafficking." So, it’s kind of like this real time …like those movie scenes where something just hits you all at once and everything changes, you know? So, I remember I shared the idea immediately with the people I was in the room with, and I was like, "Guys, I think I’m having a really big idea right now." And I told them, and they all loved it.

I loved it, I went home and I told my wife. I ultimately, long story short, I lived in three years of fear of the idea. What freelance photographer goes and builds a 100-million dollar building?

Jessica: I mean, it is a capital, intense adventure.

Jeremy: For sure, it’s tens of millions of dollars just for one building. And so yeah, just lived in fear and kind of paralysis for three years, and then finally, I think three years ago, finally started taking those first steps. It was really flying over New York City and looking down over the thousands and thousands of buildings, and I just thought, "Every single one of those skyscrapers had to start with one person. One person had to plant that seed to get that process moving, so why can’t that be me in Nashville? Why can’t I be one of those people that gets one of those buildings going, and what if that building was completely, night and day, different from every other building out there?"

“One person had to plant that seed to get that process moving, so why can’t that be me?” – Jeremy Cowart

So yeah, it’s been crazy.

 

Partnering with Opposites: The Jelly to Your Peanut Butter

Jessica: Wow. So, did you start with the crowd-funding? Was that when you said, "Okay, I’m gonna take the first step even though I’m scared, and moving through my fears even though I’m paralyzed by them"? Tell us like your next three steps after you had that moment.

Jeremy: Well, I always tell creative people you have to find your peanut butter, because we, as creative people, we’re the jelly. We need somebody that’s smooth and holds us together, because we’re the messy, unpredictable, unreliable substance. And I think magic can happen when you get two opposites together to make a dream become reality, and so I’ve had a business manager for 13 years and he’s a really genius mind in all the ways that … His strengths perfectly match up with my weaknesses.

I started talking to him about it, and he started kind of putting together, "What does that look like? What does the business structure look like, how would it work?" He started figuring out a lot of that stuff. Quite frankly, this hotel would be nowhere without him, and so …

Jessica: So, step one was sort of talking to someone that you knew was going to complement you and possibly want to be involved? Did you know …

Jeremy: Actually, at first I was gonna look at another partner, somebody in the hotel industry already. And I did pursue that actually, but I immediately got cold feet because any time you pursue a brand-new person you don’t have a history with, it can be very scary. You don’t know if you can trust them, you don’t know their intentions. But when I came back to Michael, my manager, because we had a 13-year history together and I do trust him, even though neither of us have done this before, I knew he was capable of getting there.

And my goodness, he’s like far beyond what I ever could have imagined, in terms of being capable. So yeah, I just basically let him know that I’m serious. Like, "Dude, let’s do this, it’s time to go." You know? So, we started figuring that out.

Yeah, the next step was … I think we wanted to launch a Kickstarter because that was the language familiar to me, and that was my way…basically a version of doing a massive PR campaign. Of course, we needed some money, but more importantly we needed to like blow this thing up. When you blow something up, you never know who’s gonna hear it, who’s gonna get the vision and want to participate and so…

Jessica: That’s how I heard about it was through the Kickstarter, and it’s funny, because when I saw it I was like, "Oh my gosh, they probably are trying to raise like 200 million dollars on a Kickstarter campaign."

Jeremy: Yeah, our first stint was two million, and that was still a very, very ambitious …

Jessica: Super ambitious.

Jeremy: The funny thing is I just had a friend do a Kickstarter, this is very misleading in hindsight, but he had done a Kickstarter for a camera bag. Just a little camera bag, and his goal was to raise 100 grand, and he ended up raising almost six million dollars. Yeah, for a camera bag.

Jessica: What?

Jeremy: So, I was like, "Well maybe …" And I had kind of an equal sized following as this guy, so I was like, "Maybe if my buddy can raise six million dollars for a camera bag I can maybe raise two million for a freaking hotel." But what I realized in hindsight is that, with Kickstarter, people … You know the hotel was a stretch, because it’s an idea that won’t exist for years, and it’s an idea that won’t exist in your city unless you live in Nashville. So, Kickstarter really functions best when, "Here’s a project you’re gonna have in six months, and it’s gonna make you feel a lot cooler." You know?

This was not that at all, and so it was a good lesson that Kickstarter isn’t really made for what we’re trying to do, but we still just got this massive, massive wind in ourselves from the public. People really grabbed on to it.

Jessica: Right. A validation.

Jeremy: So, we re-launched our Kickstarter immediately for 300 grand, and still raised about what we did the first try, which was around 700 grand.

Jessica: Which is no small thing.

Jeremy: And for us, specifically, because we had about 5,000 backers, and each backer … One backer wants a large t-shirt, and a small hat, and a robe and a desk …

Jessica: The fulfillment?

Jeremy: Yeah, the fulfillment is just … As you know, it’s much more than people realize, especially for a company that was not, at that time, doing any fulfillment of any kind.

 

Finding the Right Timing

Jessica: Okay, so then how did you go about conquering the whole capital raise for this? Because it is, it’s just like a cash-intensive sort of thing to go about doing.

Jeremy: Yeah, that’s actually the process that’s about to begin. We have had investors banging down our door, thankfully, for a long time now, but we just didn’t want to go there until we felt 1000% confident that we were ready to speak their language and to have the deck ready. We even got asked to go on Shark Tank and we turned that down.

Jessica: Whoa! Because you just weren’t ready?

Jeremy: Just weren’t ready and we’re already seeing … We have actual proof of other hotels kind of wanting to steal a lot of our concept and do what we’re doing, and so to put it on Shark Tank, I think there would have been a lot of danger because hotels could have immediately ran with a lot of our concept before we could. Yeah, sadly it wasn’t the right timing because I freaking love that show, I would have loved to have been on Shark Tank. But yeah, it wasn’t the right timing.

So, all that to say we’re about to, this summer, practice concludes in May and that’s when we have our big meeting with everybody, and then the rest of the summer we’ll be continuing the raise with investors.

 

A Process Bigger Than Ourselves

Jessica: Okay, the last I spoke with you, you were about to close on the land. Have you closed on the land?

Jeremy: It’s a complicated … That’s a complicated …

Jessica: Or am I not supposed to talk about that?

Jeremy: Well, I do want to share quite an amazing story about that.

Jessica: I want to hear.

Jeremy: I’ll try to make it quick. December 2nd, basically the land that we thought we had secured fell through. Long story short. The very next morning, not even 24 hours later, I showed up to do a portrait downtown, which is my non-profit where we photograph people in need all over the world, and I was there by myself bright and early to start setting up, and in walks this guy that we’ve used for years dressed as Santa Claus.

He just hangs out with the kids, gives them presents and does the Santa thing. We’ve never really talked a lot, other than, "Hey, thanks for coming and helping out." But he walks in, he said, "Hey, I heard you’re building something really special." I said, "Yeah, I’m trying to build a hotel." And I explained the concept to him, and he said, "Well, since 1974 my family and I have owned four acres literally right next to the brand-new convention center in downtown Nashville." And he said, "It’s actually already zoned for a 20-story hotel, and we’re trying to find a consult.

Jessica: Jeremy, this is insane.

Jeremy: It was … This guy and I have been quietly serving the poor for years together side by side and had no idea, really, what each other did until that moment. And so that’s the land that we’re currently moving forward on, it’s not finalized yet.

Jessica: Right, right.

Jeremy: But there’s no paper signed, but it’s looking like that’s where we’ll end up. So, the Santa story, I hope, is forever a part of our story.

Jessica: I hope so, too. I mean that just shows you when you choose to just step in faith, and go scared, and not let your fears paralyze you, God shows up.

“When you choose to just step in faith, and go scared, and not let your fears paralyze you, God shows up.” – Jessica Honegger

Jeremy: Yeah.

Jessica: That’s just the formula, if there’s a formula, that’s it. You know?

Jeremy: Yeah, I’ve been telling friends that I’ve never in my life felt so much a part of something that is just 100% God and zero percent me. There’s just so many crazy, crazy things that have … I could tell you hours of stories through this process that are just so, so much bigger than me.

“I could tell you hours of stories through this process that are just so, so much bigger than me.” – Jeremy Cowart

 

Working Out Your “Belief” and “Hope” Muscles

Jessica: Well, it’s such a contrast to how you got launched into photography, which was kind of like you got discovered and then boom, you had this huge career. Whereas this, you’re having to really go scared and practice faith, and you’re like building those muscles and that’s exhilarating. It’s similar to when I think about starting Noonday and all those muscles you strengthen during the beginning years of entrepreneurship. It’s similar to the adoption process too, where you’re like stepping forward. You hope to God that you’re gonna get these kids, but there’s so much in between. Those are special and unique times in life, even as challenging as they are, they form you.

“Those are special and unique times in life, even as challenging as they are, they form you.” – Jessica Honegger

Jeremy: They really are, and I’m so glad you used the analogies of working out and strengthening your muscles, because that’s exactly the same analogy I always use. It’s just like working out, you just gotta keep exercising those beliefs and the hope, and man, it’s been hard. It’s actually … It seems to get harder and harder because the longer this journey takes, the more I just start second guessing everything, I feel irrelevant, nothing’s happening. I don’t have any big news for anybody, meanwhile my photography career is disappearing because my clients think I’m building a hotel, but there’s no hotel yet.

Jessica: Right.

Jeremy: Meanwhile, in Nashville, you’ve got Richard Branson, every major hotel chain is coming to this town, so I feel like I’m David and Goliath right now. It’s just overwhelming voices that continue to haunt me even throughout the process, I just know that God is … That this is so much bigger than me and that I see the end-vision, I see what we’re trying to do, and I know that it’s completely opposite of what all those other hotels are doing, and so …

Jessica: Yes.

Jeremy:…I keep holding on.

Jessica: Keep holding on, and it’s just such a long-term vision. And I think that in this Instagram sort of culture we’re in, we’re so used to Insta. In a hotel, there is nothing Insta about a hotel.

Jeremy: Exactly, exactly.

Jessica: In Nashville.

Jeremy: Yeah.

 

The Nashville Scene

Jessica: Okay let’s talk Nashville for one second, because Noonday Collection, we’re holding our leadership event in Nashville in July. Where all the top leaders of our company, about 80 women, are gonna be descending upon your town. So, tell me your top three faves, real quick, before we move on.

Jeremy: That is amazing, first of all. It’s so cool. By the way, the Purpose Hotel will have a venue specifically for things like that, so I can’t …

Jessica: Oh my gosh, I cannot wait!

Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. In fact, currently the plans are to have about a 500-seat venue/theater.

Jessica: So awesome.

Jeremy: And conference space and all that, but anyway, so Nashville, I’m sure you’ve already hit up Pinewood Social before.

Jessica: I have not, Jeremy. I’ve only … I’ve been to Nashville twice, but it was business trips so it was in and out.

Jeremy: Oh, okay. Well Pinewood Social is my favorite because it’s right downtown. It’s like a bowling alley/restaurant/coffee shop, it’s where … It’s definitely the spot right now where everybody goes to hang, and the food is actually amazing. They have fried broccoli that’s to die for. So yeah, Pinewood Social, I’m trying to think … I live South …

Jessica: Is it a restaurant?

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s a restaurant. They have this bowling alley, it’s really … It’s very much a hipster spot, but it’s also where … I’ve seen, you’ll definitely see celebrities there, it’s a good place for celebrity sightings. It’s just a really cool, creative place to go, and again, the food is amazing.

Oh gosh, there’s so many other spots. I’m now like a dad in Franklin, away from the town, so I’m definitely not the best …

Jessica: Franklin’s cool though, it’s a very sweet spot.

Jeremy: Yeah, Franklin’s amazing. It’s where a lot of people escape to, and so …

Jessica: Okay, well I’ll take your … I’ll just take this one tip, because that sounds perfect.

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s really fun.

Jessica: We’ll go check it out.

Jeremy: And I’d just recommend just going on Broadway and Second Avenue, just simply people watching. Just going into all the honky-tonk bars and it’s just a blast to see Nashville in all its glory.

Jessica: I did go to the honky-tonk bars one night, and danced with some 70+ men, and I have to say that was pretty fun.

Jeremy: That’s awesome. I love it.

 

The “Normality” of Insecurity And Pushing Beyond It

Jessica: It was awesome. Okay, I was really surprised to hear that you were paralyzed by fear for three years, mainly because I know that you’ve started an event called Liminal, and I want to ask you what it means and how you came up with the concept. But. it’s a forum for those of us who have dreams and ideas, and just need a little bit of encouragement, as I like to say, to just “go scared.” So, you invite people in and you just have a round table to ask questions like, "What does it look like to pursue your ideas? What kind of people do you surround yourself with? Have you ever had doubt, fear, insecurities?"

Did you start this previous to your big hotel a-ha moment, or after?

Jeremy: Liminal was just a recent thing that I kind of did here at my building. Yeah, the hotel I’ve been pursuing on and off for six years, but Liminal is just a recent thing I’ve been doing for fun, just really to talk about the idea process.

Jessica: Okay, because that’s what you’re in! You’re in this process.

Jeremy: Yeah, exactly. So yeah, it’s very much speaking from experience, all the good the bad and the ugly, for sure.

Jessica: What have you seen some of the big takeaways from those who have attended?

Jeremy: Kind of like what you’re saying, I think a lot of … For lack of a better word, I want to use the word beginners, people who want to pursue a dream. People who are maybe young, or maybe just quitting their job, I think that they think that people, maybe like you and me, who are in our professions and we’re doing, we’re pursuing our dreams, I think that they think at one point you and I like, "We did it! We beat fear and doubt and we’re good, and now we’re professionals, and now we’re killing it and now it’s awesome, and everything’s just amazing."

The truth is none of that ever happened.

Jessica: Right.

Jeremy: The truth is like every day I’m just as insecure as I’ve ever been, if not more so. And I’m just as full of the voices, full of the comparing myself, all of that. But the difference is I’ve just learned that that’s normal, that that’s part of the process. That that’s what, really, being a professional is, is embracing all of that crap and moving forward despite it. You know?

“The truth is like every day I’m just as insecure as I’ve ever been, if not more so.” – Jeremy Cowart

Jessica: Yeah.

Jeremy: So, I just … I’m just used to it, I’m used to all the internal … The enemy. You know, the internal voices, exactly.

Jessica: Voices.

Jeremy: So yeah, just keep moving forward.

 

The Legacy of Listening

Jessica: Now I get asked this question a lot because I’m in a purpose-driven job, I feel like you’re known as very, extremely purpose-driven, and people say, "If I want to give back, or if I want to make an impact, what can I do?" How do you answer that question, because I feel like … Gosh, my whole company is about building, making an impact. That’s what your hotel is all about. You do a ton of humanitarian photography and I don’t want people to think it has to look 100%, your whole life, in order to do good. So, what do you say to that question?

Jeremy: Yeah, I actually just had that exact discussion yesterday with a buddy who was asking the same thing. He’s super successful, but he was like, "Man, I don’t know what my legacy is gonna be, I don’t …" You know, he was thinking it had to be some massive endeavor. And, as cliché as it sounds, I really do think that, especially in this age of distraction where we’re always looking at our phones and we’re always just so distracted, that the most important legacy we can be doing is listening, looking our children in the eyes and being with them, and I’m speaking to myself here, because this is definitely a hot topic lately, between my wife and I.

“The most important legacy we can be doing is listening, looking our children in the eyes and being with them.” – Jeremy Cowart

Both of us, because she’s a real estate agent, and so we’re both really figuring out this … when we both get home, how hard it is, especially for her since she’s on call, if a client wants to go see a house, she has to go see a house. Has to leave the family. So, all that to say I think a lot of times people are thinking their legacy—their life–has to be this massive, massive thing and if they don’t do a massive thing, they’re a failure. I just really think, more than ever, intimacy is the massive thing. Intimacy is the legacy. Obviously, I mean intimacy in a sweet, personal … Like just loving your children, loving your spouse.

“Intimacy is the massive thing. Intimacy is the legacy. Obviously, I mean intimacy in a sweet, personal … Like just loving your children, loving your spouse.” – Jeremy Cowart

Jessica: Yeah, connecting.

Jeremy: Loving your … Exactly, connecting.

Jessica: Knowing your neighbor, like knowing who your neighbor is.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Jessica: It is something that we don’t do, I love that quote. There’s a quote by Mother Teresa, I think it says, "If you want to make a difference in the world, go home and love your children."

"If you want to make a difference in the world, go home and love your children." – Jessica Honegger quoting Mother Teresa

Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah. Was it her that also said … Oh, I think it was her that said, "You say you would know the poor–name them." I was like, "Oh, that’s a good one."

Jessica: That’s really good.

Jeremy: Anyway, so I’d just encourage people to like … There’s no rule, there’s no Bible verse, there’s nothing that says you have to go, to give back, that it has to be this massive thing. My intention was never to go build this big, epic hotel, it was truly … God punched me in the face one day in that hallway, like, "Hey, what if every room in a building had a story?" It was just that simple of a thought.

 

A Progression To Realizing Need in The World

Jessica: But I have to say, there has to be a certain level of awareness and openness to entering into need and suffering, you know? Because you brought a lot of things to light, you did this incredible series on the devastated wildflowers that occurred in the Smoky Mountains that most of us didn’t know about. If you hadn’t have been connected to understanding poverty and hunger, you wouldn’t have had that a-ha moment at the Standard Hotel, of all places.

Jeremy: Right.

Jessica: So, there is, I guess, too … You gotta position yourself to be aware of the needs in the world. I think we can usually point out something that made us aware of need.

“You gotta position yourself to be aware of the needs in the world.” – Jessica Honegger

Jeremy: Yeah, it was a slow progression of realization, because I was at the height of my career, photo career, I was just shooting every celebrity. It was a really crazy pace of jet setting, working in Hollywood and New York. But then I would start to do these one-off projects for those Help Portraits or My Haiti Project or Rwanda Project, then I started to realize every time; that that stuff is so much more fulfilling than the celebrity work. When I talk to my kids one day, when I’m old, I don’t want to be bragging about the fact that I photographed Kim Kardashian or that I toured with Britney Spears, I want to be telling them about the Gatlinburg Project or the people I helped in Haiti.

I just realized I’m really, truly fulfilled by helping people through what God has given me as a gift of photography. I’ve actually changed my Mission Statement to be, "Exploring the intersection of empathy and creativity." Because oftentimes, when people help, they do it through traditional ways.

“I just realized I’m really, truly fulfilled by helping people through what God has given me as a gift of photography. “ – Jeremy Cowart

Jessica: Right.

Jeremy: Think of Red Cross, we need people to rebuild houses, we need money, we need … And all those things will always be crucial, but I think there’s this big gap in utilizing new ideas, new technology to help in brand new ways. I love finding that, you know? Like with the Gatlinburg project, there were a lot of people filming the wildfires with drones. There’s a lot of technology being used, but I think to this day I’m the only one who’s used drones to reveal emotion. And what that was–was by placing the person on the mattress–I not only showed the devastation, but I showed the emotional impact of the person kind of curled up in a fetal position, laying on their mattress in their formal home for the very last time.

And something about that … It was the first time in my career that I’ve just bawled, I just wept when I saw the first photo on the back of my screen, because that was an idea and a vision that God gave me just in church, randomly sitting in church. I was thinking about the wildfires, and I just heard like, "Drones and a mattress." I’ve never flown a drone, I didn’t know how to use a drone, didn’t own one, but I was like, "Oh, I bet this would work, to use drones and a mattress." So, put the concept together and found some volunteers, and next thing I know I’m in Gatlinburg with a team of 10, and we’ve got all these drones and made it all happen.

The final day of that project was crazy, because I was like, "Man, I wish this … Time Magazine feels like the right outlet for this." But I had never worked with Time, nor did I know anybody at Time, so I hugged my crew goodbye that next morning and went to eat lunch by myself, and opened up my phone at lunch and, I kid you not, I had one email. It was like, "Hey Jeremy, this is Josh from Time Magazine, I’m the photo editor here, and we have been following your photo project in Gatlinburg and we want to publish it."

Jessica: Whoa.

Jeremy: It’s just crazy, I don’t know that I’ve got a more obvious God story than that one, because I’m in church, drones and a mattress hits me, then it hits me that this needs to go in Time, then Time contacts me and the next thing I know, they’re tweeting to their 20 million followers about the 20 people that I helped.

 

The Inspiration for Generosity

Jessica: Wow. And it raised awareness for everything.

Jeremy: Well, it raised awareness and we were posting links to their individual crowdfunding pages.

Jessica: Whoa.

Jeremy: So, every person I photographed had an individual link to raise money, so we were able to put money directly into those peoples’ bank accounts, which was incredible.

Jessica: That is absolutely incredible. So, I can’t help but think, as we’re talking, just generosity. You are a generous person, I think you attract generosity, what does that word, what does being generous mean to you, and who has inspired you to be generous?

Jeremy: Yeah, that’s a good question. Gosh, this almost sounds like that kid in Sunday School answer, "Jesus!" But what I think of generosity, I just really think all it is loving people. You know? Just being selfless, putting others in front of yourself, really, is what generosity is. But in terms of who taught me generosity, I think it’s a lot of people. It started with my parents, who raised me so well, loved me unconditionally and were always supporting me in whatever I wanted to do, but my wife is extremely selfless and has shown generosity since the day I met her.

I mean, I live in Nashville, I’m in this community of just insanely generous people, you know? You and I have friend–like Bob Goff is the most generous person I can think of. So, I don’t know, I feel like there’s kind of generosity everywhere.

Jessica: It’s contagious!

Jeremy: Yeah, it’s very contagious.

 

Knowing the Value of An Idea

Jessica: It is. Now what about being generous with yourself, because earlier you did allude to having to fight that mindset? That’s what I found so interesting, I was telling you earlier that I interviewed Patrick and Justin, who are part of the book “I’ll Push You” and the Documentary, and was just so struck by Justin’s ability to have this mindset of resilience, in spite of being completely immobile from his neck down.

And then, hearing you, I think I tend to be a little more like you, where I’m constantly having to fight, in spite of appearing to be quite confident and courageous in running a bigger business, I still have to fight that. Do you find, at times, that it’s easier to be more generous towards others than you are with yourself?

Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. Definitely sense that, for sure. I don’t know why that is, that’s a really … That’s a good question, but … Absolutely.

Jessica: And then, how do you overcome that? So how do you move into those places of faith, because you’ve got Santa Claus and you’ve got Time Magazine tweeting, you’ve got all sorts of stuff going on?

Jeremy: Yeah, I don’t know. I just keep … I think everybody has ideas, I think … When I say, "I heard these words," I think culture calls those our own genius, our own ideas, and I’m sure people of different faiths have different words, which is great, but to me, I really do believe that God speaks to us. The only thing I’ve done that’s good is I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing, identifying those moments, and knowing the value of that idea and being a steward of pursuing those.

That really is faith, and I just see God working every time, I listen. And again, I’m always scared, but I think that’s where we’re supposed to be.

Jessica: Right.

Jeremy: So, I don’t know, it’s a crazy, crazy journey for sure.

Jessica: Wow, thank you so much for your time today. How can we continue to follow the journey, because I am … I was so ready for this hotel to be done yesterday, oh my gosh. How do we keep following along?

Jeremy: It’s even harder for me now, because even this week, our architecture team has started to show us actual 3D renderings of the exterior of the building.

Jessica: Oh my gosh.

Jeremy: So, I’m actually sitting here staring at it on my computer, and it is just killing me to not launch this on Instagram right now.

Jessica: Totally.

Jeremy: To show the world this thing is happening. I don’t think anyone has any idea how real it is, this is … like right now, it’s scheduled to be a 16 story, 240 room building, I mean it’s a monstrosity. Yeah, it’s just killing me. You have no … I’m like that guy who can’t keep a secret, and you never want to tell me secrets because I just get too excited, I want to tell everybody.

So, to be in this position where I have to wait, man, it’s just testing me on all kinds of crazy levels.

Jessica: You’re waiting because you’ve got to get the final … When the land is completely signed, is that when you’re … Or it’s just you have to wait until it’s closer? Like they say when you’re launching a book, you can’t talk about it until the first … You know, you don’t want to start talking about it too early.

Jeremy: Exactly. Yeah, we have to wait until contracts are signed, until the land is officially locked down, so that … So, everybody says, "Alright, we’re ready to announce it." And then we will for sure blow it up. And there’s lots of other announcements too, there’s one idea for the hotel that I had a few weeks ago that I think will be our main thing that people talk about. And I’m also wanting to hold out on that one, that surprise, for a while.

But it’s, man, it’s just hard. It’s really, really hard to not say anything.

Jessica: Well, I will see you in May in New York, I’ll be there for your pitch and I cannot wait. At Praxis.

Jeremy: It’s gonna be fun.

Jessica: And I have to thank you, because you gave me an iPhone tip that you probably thought was not a big deal, but wiping the lens of your iPhone, Jeremy, that’s kind of changed my life. That was a game-changer.

Jeremy: I know, right?

Jessica: Yep.

Jeremy: Yeah, it really is.

Jessica: So, thank you.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Jessica: Thanks again for your time today, and for being super gracious with the tech stuff.

Jeremy: Of course, no problem at all. Thanks for having me, it means a lot.

Jessica: Speaking of hotels, my April email is all about my greatest travel tips. We talk thigh sweat to how to flush the toilet if you don’t have running water. If you have not joined my e-mail tribe, you are missing out. So simply pop on to jessicahonegger.com – that’s one “N” and two “G’s” – and subscribe.

I cannot wait for May’s email–already planning and it out. One of the questions Jeremy asked at Liminal is: what does your first step toward your idea look like? The first step is so important because you can’t finish what you don’t start. I love how Jeremy was so vulnerable and sharing that he had this truly “aha” moment of inspiration, but it took him years to actually act upon it. Why don’t you join Jeremey today in walking through your fear? Maybe an area where you are currently paralyzed and instead of being paralyzed, stand up, walk through that fear, and take your first step.

“You can’t finish what you don’t start.” – Jessica Honegger

I hope today’s podcast has brought you courage like it did me, and I’ll see you next week.