Wisdom from a Volcanologist Turned Nonprofit Entrepreneur

Volcano Jess 1

The daughter of FBI agents, Jess Pelaez was destined for a life of adventure.  As a volcano researcher, she’s been on expeditions to Hawaii, Peru, and Wyoming. The nonprofit entrepreneur has dodged cartel shootouts in Mexico, ridden the Mongol Derby horse race, and crashed an $8M remote-operated submersible into the bottom of the ocean.

Today, she and her co-founder (and husband) Carlos Pelaez are building Blueprint Earth, a California based nonprofit that helps scientists work collaboratively to replicate the world’s environment.

In today’s interview, she shares:

    • The power of execution – how far you can take can idea in just a few months
    • The experience of working with her husband as her co-founder
    • Why she’s tackling a scientific problem much bigger than herself
    • How she views her role as a woman in science and as a female nonprofit entrepreneur

1.  What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Why is it so important?

We started Blueprint Earth to solve a scientific problem in a way that has never been attempted before.

We want to bring imagination back to scientific research.

When you’re a kid, and you want to be a scientist, you think you’re going to solve big-picture problems. But you don’t. You end up spending your life focused on a very specific niche. You don’t often find biologists working with geologists or mechanical engineers working with atmospheric scientists.

This creates a problem because scientists can lose sight of the big picture. Blueprint Earth’s goal is to bring these isolated fields back together to understand a very rare time in our world’s history.

2. How did you get started? Where are you now?

Volcano Jess 2

My husband Carlos and I came up with the idea three years ago when we were working in Australia. We were struck by the diversity of environments we saw there.

We got started when we moved back to the U.S. in 2013. We pitched the idea to our network of scientists and friends. That was in June. By July, we assembled our board of directors, created bylaws, and made it official.

We just put our vision out there and kept refining along the way.

I’ve been working furiously to make sure we have our logistics in order – building our website, creating our corporation, filing for nonprofit status, planning our crowdfunding campaign, and recruiting scientists.

We just added our ninth and final board member. We have a proof of concept site in the Mojave Desert and eight scientists who are ready to head out there. These scientists come from a variety of backgrounds from hydrology, to geology and biology.

The goal is to start in this one square kilometer of desert and then do it again somewhere else.

3. Can you tell us about the emotional journey? What’s it like to be a nonprofit entrepreneur with a co-founder who is also your husband?

When I do it, I’m incredibly energized. I work on this all the time – at night and on the weekends.

I know that if it fails or succeeds, it’s because of me. You’re not hiding behind a large company.

I realized how much I believed in what I was doing when drafting bylaws. It was boring, and not at all something I would typically do, but I was so excited to just get it done. The more I work on it, the more I want to keep going.

Jess and Carlos

My husband and I are great co-founders. We’ve wanted to work together since we first met. We have complementary skill sets but similar values and leadership styles.

Where one of us is missing experience, the other isn’t. We keep each other emotionally charged.

When one of us has a bad day, we remind the other person how great things are going with Blueprint Earth, and how amazing the concept is. We keep each other focused on the end goal.

4. What about being a woman in science?

Volcano Jess 3

Not going to lie. When I worked in Australia – the manliest of manly cultures – people didn’t take too kindly when I’d be assigned to a new drill crew. Awwww $#@%^# was the general reaction.They thought they were being punished.

Then a week would go by, and everything would change. We’d develop mutual respect. My colleagues often became very loyal and spoke highly of my performance.

It’s important to show people the quality of your work, that it doesn’t matter what race, gender, or nationality you are. I don’t look at it like I’m a woman. I see it as though I need to show people that I’m the best person for the job, and that’s why I’m here.


Jess Pelaez is the CEO and co-founder of Blueprint Earth, a scientific research nonprofit dedicated to cataloging and replicating the Earth’s environments. Her experiences include:

    • Opening the Latin American market for a division of Dassault Systemes’ GEOVIA branch
    • Researching lava flows on the side of the undersea Hawaiian volcano Loihi
    • Working as a photographer, archivist, veterinary technician, auto insurance claims adjuster, and horse riding instructor
    • Assisting with mapping the world’s largest volcano

Set up a call with Jess to learn about nonprofit development, natural hazards, and natural resources.

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