MBA alumnus Andrés Martell talks about creating lasting legacies. In this episode, Andrés retells his journey into the U.S. Marine Corps and fulfilling his childhood dream to join the military.
After leaving the Marines at 22, he founded Vin Ambassador, a travel and events business. Growing up with an entrepreneurial father and a tourism background, he used these connections and experiences to offer something unique. But how did his Haas experience prepare him for this pivot? How did he survive the pandemic, and how did he recalibrate to a new direction?
Discover how he forged his way to entrepreneurship and how he keeps reinventing himself to adapt to the changes, challenges, and struggles life throws at him.
Did your childhood dream to become part of the military live up to your expectation?
[00:18:49] The organization is, is fantastic. The pride that everyone has in wearing the uniform is palpable. The standards that the Marines hold each other are pretty high, and to feel like you’re part of a lineage is just really strong. The part that I wasn’t expecting was —well, let me back up and say, the U.S. Marine Corps is not just an organization it’s also a tool. You know, a hammer is not inherently wrong. A hammer to build a house is a phenomenal tool—a hammer to tear down a house, something else.
How did you end up as an entrepreneur and in the tourism and F&B sector?
[00:27:04] I don’t know what I want to do next, but I want to learn more about wine, and I want to keep traveling. I think somehow that evolved into this frame that entrepreneurship would be the next great hurdle. This is the next way to identify that identity I would find for myself, the next hill I would climb. I was thinking about how do I put these two things together?
How did you pivot to a nonprofit?
[01:32:26] I’m working for a nonprofit, which I was not expecting to say when I came to Haas as an entrepreneur. Or even when I was looking around at potential pivots. But this is a unique nonprofit; it’s called Connected Places Catapult. It is the accelerator for the future of mobility and smart cities in the U.K. It does a lot of things because it has the capacity to not just run startup accelerators but to do research. To do research that potentially affects policy that can create a path for not just any startups but ones that have public good associated with them. As the Design Futures team lead, designing the strategy is to understand what those paths look like and create clear visions of the future scenarios that we all want to work towards.
Despite the many changes in your career path, how were you able to pivot quickly?
[01:34:27] A great deal of balance. Without balancing your life, you will become lost. If not right away, you’ll eventually find yourself off track. If your life is unbalanced you will find yourself going down paths, not necessarily good paths, that you are not expecting to go down. When you have balance in your life you can explore. You’re able to go down different paths. But there’s intentionality around that exploration.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00:00] Narrator: This story starts when Andreas Martel had just turned 13. Like most kids that age, Andrés felt a bit restless. He wanted some excitement. The kind that isn’t easy to come by in a sleepy neighborhood deep within the San Francisco suburbs. Most teenagers in his position might take up skateboarding or just go set off some fireworks in a parking lot. But Andres discovered he wanted more than just a rush of adrenaline. He wanted a new identity, one that was bold and tough and unexpected.
[00:00:34] Andrés Martell: I wanted to be a Marine when I grew up. I grew up in the Bay Area. So as a great town, Burlington, 20 minutes south of San Francisco, half-hour, 40-minute drive from UC Berkeley. Perhaps it was a way to rebel. My mom was a Buddhist, and my father was a bit of a Bohemian who’s a photographer, and before that, a musician. How do you rebel against your Buddhist mother and Bohemian father? I think it’s less about rebelling. And I think it’s more about creating a unique identity for yourself. I suffered terribly with learning disabilities, as an adolescent, specifically ADHD, and dyslexia. It wasn’t medicated. As a child, the way that I coped with it was to create my own path. Paths that were laid in front of me, were almost by default, not the way that I was going to go. Maybe that’s my personality. Or maybe that has to do with my brain chemistry. And this was an identity that I didn’t want to associate with, some of the less desirable things that come from military conflict and war. It was an identity that I associated with as more of an archetype of a protector.
[00:01:51] U.S. Marines Sound Clips: Once there were a few proud men, men of adventure, men of courage. Men who knew the meaning of honor. There’s still a few. The proud. The Marines.
[00:02:16] Andrés Martell: It really just embodied everything that I wanted just basically the service to society, practically capable, resilient, human being that type of thing, but just seems like an art typical character. I chased the recruiter around my high school for about three years until I was old enough for him to speak with me. Basically, developed a scheme where I could graduate early and go to boot camp during my senior year. I was just really keen to get started. I actually came back and graduated in my dress blues uniform, which was pretty, pretty memorable for me.
[00:02:54] Narrator: Andres joined the Marine Corps when he was just 17. So, he needed his mom to sign off on his paperwork. She agreed under the condition that he pursue his bachelor’s degree part-time during his service. He said, Sure, but the world had other ideas.
[00:03:12] News Clips: Simply stated, There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction, the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations, to disarm Iraq. To free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
[00:03:35] Andrés Martell: The deployment was originally without an end date. So, we were sent over in February. And basically, we were told that you can start asking when you might be coming back down around Thanksgiving. I think they said that deployment was probably one of the most unique deployments out of the entire Middle East campaign in our recent generation because it was an invasion of a country. And that is something that the U.S. military is incredibly good at. It’s something that the U.S. military is designed to do. But what becomes a little bit harder is the nation-building, instilling democracy, rooting out ideological actors, that is a much larger, a lot longer investment,
[00:04:21] Narrator: Heavy stuff. And Andre is barely out of high school was in the thick of it. He makes clear that he worked as an avionics technician in the Marine Corps. So, he wasn’t on the ground as wasn’t engaged in small arms combat, but still his memories of war ripple with tension.
[00:04:40] Andrés Martell: The two biggest stresses for me were equipment readiness, making sure that the weapon systems that I was responsible for on the FAA teams were operational and accurate. It was everything to me because I heard on the radio people calling for that equipment when they needed it. And the other form of stress was the Scud alerts. So on my compound when the invasion started, Saddam Hussein started shooting whatever he had towards the invading American forces. Some of those were long-range Scud missiles. They weren’t the most accurate weapon systems. So, when they went into the air anywhere, anywhere near our position, the sirens would go off on our base. And everyone would go underground, chemical weapons were a threat at the time. So gas masks on full chemical suits underground, just listening to the sirens and waiting for impact. Quite frankly, that was a helpless feeling. You’re trained to act. You’re trained to respond to situations. This is something where there is no response. You’re sitting, hearing yourself breathe through a gas mask. Everyone in your unit breathing through their gas mask. Everyone’s silent, just listening. Are the sirens still on? Do I hear any explosions anywhere?
[00:06:23] Narrator: Thankfully, the missiles never hit too close. Andrés came back to the United States in one piece. He remembers the Marine Corps Band playing when he got off the plane. In the end, he even managed to get his bachelor’s degree, just as he promised his mom. But still, Something didn’t feel right.
[00:06:43] Andrés Martell: The part that I wasn’t expecting was the U.S. Marine Corps is not just an organization, it’s also a tool. And a hammer is not inherently bad. A hammer to build a house is a phenomenal tool —a hammer to tear down a house is something else. After that deployment, we came home. If you want to timestamp it, the mission accomplished photo up was when George Bush landed on the aircraft carrier. His big mission accomplished banner, was a few weeks before I came home. Maybe a month before I came home. It felt like I had lived up to the mission. It felt like I had trained for something, I was called on to do, and I did it. Where it started to turn, I was speaking with our ops people. And when we came back, there was one deployment scheduled after us. That was it. Then the years went on and deployments kept getting tacked on. That’s when it started to feel like the tool had been misused. I started to feel like making a career in the Marine Corps was less of a concern for my physical safety, and more of a concern for my legacy. For
[00:08:17] Narrator: A guy like Andrés for whom identity is so deeply important, you can imagine how uncomfortable a transition this was. For years, he’d woken up with a clear sense of purpose. Now for the first time, he was questioning it. He found himself spending late nights on the phone with his father.
[00:08:37] Andrés Martell: He sent me cases of wine as care packages. I would get on the phone, and we would drink the same wine and talk. He was really keen on me coming out of doing different things. And I think he just missed me. One evening, I remember distinctly, I was just drinking a glass of wine talking to my father. And I told him that I don’t know what I want to do next. But I want to learn more about wine, and I want to keep traveling. And he told me that’s all you need to know. Somehow that evolved into this frame that entrepreneurship would be the next great hurdle. The next identity I would find for myself, the next hill I would climb.
[00:09:21] Narrator: So, there was a window into a new identity from, interestingly enough, the same man against whom he’d sought to rebel when he joined the Marine Corps in the first place. And a man uniquely well-equipped to navigate big changes.
[00:09:37] Andrés Martell: He had a number of careers in his life, the way that he tells the story. He grew up in New York City. An orphan running gambling houses. This was his background, and then at some point in the 1960s, he drove across the US in VW bug to get into the music scene in LA. Then somehow the music scene brought him up to northern California, where he got into photography. Basically, I grew up in the back of a photography studio, literally in a commercial space in the back of a photography studio. And there was a fire in the studio on Christmas Eve. I’m too young to know the exact year, but as probably in the late 80s. Long story short, the studio went away, his equipment and negatives. So, my father started driving a taxi. He was a very gregarious, outgoing individual. He came up with the idea of starting a company called San Francisco Photographic and Historical tours, and purchased a luxury vehicle to do this. So, what he offered was a scenic tour of San Francisco by a professional photographer. And at the end of the tour, you could purchase the pictures that he took of you. This was back in the days of film. He would develop the film and send them the photos. That was part of the service. And he was very curious. So, he has a history walk. And that worked really well
[00:11:26] Narrator: Then he knew he had in his father an extraordinary asset. And as he sat on those late-night phone calls, scheming. He figured he could leverage his dad’s experience in California’s hospitality sector.
[00:11:39] Andrés Martell: Ultimately, it manifested as a company called Vin Ambassador. And that firm that I operated, went on to operate for over a decade— provided tours, travel, and events in wine destinations. I started the firm with the contacts that my dad had made through the wine that he purchased with the intention of sending it to me. I reached out to luxury hotels in San Francisco initially, letting them know that I can show their guests to amazing wineries and get them to intimate experiences with winemakers and owners. Take them to places that don’t have tasting rooms, that have great kitchens in homes next to the vineyards. I didn’t realize then, this was in 2006, how advanced that value proposition was. But they did. And they gave me a shot. Through that process. I spent my working hours in the vineyards, in caves, sitting around tables with winemakers because my job was to bring guests there. I was part of that experience. I quickly found out that it was important for me to know, really know. Not just the people, and not just to have access, but to really know about wine because people had questions. I never wanted to say that I didn’t know. I started studying wine formally with the Court of Master Sommeliers. And a couple of years after starting, the company was certified as a sommelier.
[00:13:17] Narrator: And that it was the ideas guy, the dreamer, but Vin Ambassador worked because every last detail of customer experience was a point of pride. And that culture was dictated in large part by Andres, his dad.
[00:13:31] Andrés Martell: For the first few years. It was very much a father and son operation, he would work for me. He was moonlighting in my company, which was really cool. He was just incredible. Anytime guests went out with him—let me just put it this way, ten years into running the company, I have people calling me asking for my dad. The direction that I went, was really around specialty knowledge around wine, establishing this new space, differentiating my company from transportation companies. Right at the time, there weren’t specialty wine tour companies, wine tour hosts. One of the things that I did was get my sommelier certification. And one of the things that I also did was hire sommeliers to lead tours. So much the way that he had San Francisco photographic and historical tours, which was history and photography. My interest was wind destinations and real rigorous why knowledge
[00:14:36] Narrator: Business boomed. Andres had every reason in the world to feel really good. Pardon the cliché, but he was living the American dream. He had served his country honorably, and now he was crushing it in the private sector. But as Andres lean deeper into Vin Ambassador, he started to feel uneasy.
[00:14:56] Andrés Martell: I was explaining My vision to my staff for where I wanted the company to go, and why what they were doing was so important. I wasn’t able to explain how we were going to get there. I had clients telling me that I had an amazing business model, giving me all kinds of compliments, asking me what I wanted to do with this company. Having them ask me, “How much money do you need?” I didn’t know. I didn’t have a sense of what a reasonable figure would look like. I didn’t know how to think in these terms. Like, I really knew the service. I knew how to make a small business operate, no matter what. When I met an accountant, I didn’t know if they knew more than me or not/
[00:15:52] Narrator: It was happening again. Andrés on today’s had seized on a goal and leaned so far into it, that it became an identity. Then he realized the life, the identity he’d created, maybe wasn’t as great as he’d hoped. It was time for a change.
[00:16:08] Andrés Martell: I didn’t have the capital or the confidence to make really big moves to scale the company. And the way that I thought I would achieve that was through formal education. I think that’s how I ultimately decided that business school was the way to go.
[00:16:28] Narrator: So, he pressed pause on Vin Ambassador, and he got ready for his first semester of school. He was optimistic. He had already survived Scud missiles and built a business up from nothing. How hard could Haas be?
[00:16:41] Andrés Martell: When I got to Haas, I realized it was darn hard, but I loved everything about it. And I wanted to chase down every bit of knowledge. I started to see a lot of other doors being open. Not just doors for me to walk through, we call it doors for me to look into. There were incredible conversations happening all over campus— things around virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, future of mobility. So, we’re talking about autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles, big ideas around social justice, and environmental sustainability. These are topics that I didn’t want to have a surface-level understanding about. I found myself spending a lot of time on campus. I found myself spending a lot of time with classmates. And, I found myself studying a lot because I wanted to excel in this. This is more than a few business tips. For my small business, this became an identity. I wanted to be an exceptional Berkeley leader,
[00:17:58] Narrator: An identity, one that might finally stick. During his time at Haas, on the days had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona and to Hong Kong. While he was there, he became increasingly fascinated with the built environment, real estate infrastructure, urban planning, and he figured he could leverage that new curiosity within his business.
[00:18:19] Andrés Martell: Hotels and restaurants exist in the built environment. That’s part of the value chain. And it’s so integral into creating an experience— how those buildings are designed, the history of the buildings, things like adaptive reuse— was really interesting to me. So creating hotels and restaurants out of old train stations, mills, or farmhouses, it’s fascinating to me. I think, those types of experiences, not only are they charming, but they send a great message that not everything has to be new. There’s value in things that had a context before you got there.
[00:18:59] Narrator: Andres felt like his brain was firing at full capacity. He had a plan, he had a direction. And then again, everything changed.
[00:19:11] Andrés Martell:
When Covid-19 hit and everything was locked down, offices were locked down too. This was the onset of a major change in how cities would be designed, how people would interact, where people would live, what people would value. So overnight, you have central urban cores that are completely hollowed out. You have some of the most expensive real estate in the city that is rendered worthless. So, the future of cities became a fascinating question to me. But I also have to say, and whether this goes into the Final Cut or not, I lost my father when I was on exchange in Hong Kong. That then, I decided to do a hard pause on Vin Ambassador. That was another signpost along the way, that it might be time to try something else for a little while.
[00:20:14] Narrator: So he altered course. Once he finished his work at Haas, he walks down the street and enrolled at Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
[00:20:23] Andrés Martell: There’s a one-year program is called the Master of Real Estate development plus design had my name all over it. I felt it would be a really great opportunity to really understand what it takes to influence the built environment. So in that program, you understand how real estate development sits between architecture, construction, finance, and government planning, with the intention of creating liveable cities that people not only want to pay rent in, that people want to go.
[00:21:01] Narrator: This goes without saying, but as Andreas immersed himself deeper into his new course of study, the Ambassador faded further and further in the rearview mirror,
[00:21:13] Andrés Martell: With my father passing and with COVID-19, really stopping travel and the opportunity to make money in the travel and hospitality industry, that basically said, the time you’ve positioned yourself to do something else. And similar to your time at Haas, that foundation allows you to come back to the world of wine when and if you’re ready. The pivot that I’ve made now will also allow me to do that. Throughout these transitional years, there was a conflict around intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. I guess as much as I was learning as much as I was gaining the tools to execute this vision. I was also recognizing that my intrinsic love of wine, and the connection that it gave me to my father, and now memories of my father, and where I come from. When it’s tied to extrinsic rewards of monetary gain, and I don’t just mean, you know Rich —literally your job, it can actually undermine the love that you have for something. But you can look at a painter who loves to paint and someone comes along and says paint this thing for me. And all of a sudden, they spend their days not painting what they love to do, but painting what they’re paid to paint. And at the end of the day, they probably don’t feel like painting what they love painting because they’ve spent their whole day painting what someone else wanted them to paint. I’m working for a nonprofit, which is something that I was not expecting to say, when I came to Haas as an entrepreneur, or even when I was looking around at potential pivots. But this is a really unique nonprofit. It’s called Connected Places Catapult. It is the accelerator for future mobility and smart cities in the U.K. Because it’s publicly funded, it has the capacity to not just run startup accelerators, but to do research, and to do research that potentially affects policy. That can really create a path for not just any startups, but startups that have public good associated with them. So to flourish, and my job as the design futures. Team Lead and currently designing the strategy is to understand what those paths look like and to create clear visions of future scenarios that we all want to work towards.