In his own words: Discovery Museum’s Mat Sinclair
Name/title: Mat Sinclair/Executive director, Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum
Number of years in this job: About a year and a half
Years in this profession: 20
Education: Bachelors of science degree in sociology/education, University of Oregon; master’s degree in public administration, Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University; certificate of nonprofit management, Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University
Last book read: “The Monuments Men” by Bret Witter and Robert M. Edsel
Favorite flick: “Lilies of the Field” staring Sydney Poitier
What’s on your iPod: Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen and the E street band ... everything he’s ever recorded — do you need anything else?
Spouse, kids or pets: I have been married for almost 20 years to my beautiful and brilliant wife Melenda. We have two wonderful kids. Hayden is a sophomore at Damonte Ranch High School, and my daughter Haley is a freshman at UNR studying history in her pursuit of law school. My wife has a soft spot in her heart for “hard cases” from the humane society, so we live with two misfit cats and a well-intentioned Labador/Weimaraner mix.
Northern Nevada Business Weekly: Tell us about your company and the duties of your position.
Mat Sinclair: The Discovery celebrated its third anniversary this September and we continue to grow and expand our exhibits and programing. Originally envisioned as a children’s museum, The Discovery has transformed into a comprehensive science center providing life-long learning experiences for visitors of all ages in the areas of science, technology, engineering, art and math. As executive director I serve many roles. It is my job to lead the organization in the development of programs, services, exhibits and operations. Of course as a private nonprofit organization we also have to raise a portion of our annual operating budget, so I am engaged with our very generous community as our chief fund raiser.
NNBW: How did you get into this profession?
Sinclair: I was fortunate early in my career to be given the opportunity to serve as a traveling science teacher for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in my home town of Portland. I was able to travel all over the western United States teaching students and other teachers the concepts of inquiry-based learning and exploring the world through experimentation. I quickly moved from that position to program manager, department head, vice president and then became the chief operating officer overseeing a 200,000-square-foot museum with a $25 million operating budget. After 16 years there I left to become executive director of Hoyt Arboretum, a 200-acre botanical garden in Portland. When I found The Discovery in April of 2013 I was fortunate enough to move to Reno and begin my role as executive director.
NNBW: What’s the most important thing you have learned in your career that helps you succeed in running a non-profit?
Sinclair: Nonprofit is a tax status, not a diagnosis! A lot of nonprofit organizations will adopt a poverty mentality and rely on their mission to be a compelling enough reason to stay in existence. By definition a nonprofit organization exists to fill a need that neither the private or public sector is meeting. It is vital that any nonprofit leader understand this dynamic and that they too are running a business.
NNBW: What was your first job?
Sinclair: I had a girlfriend in high school whose father was in construction. When I was 15 years old he TOLD me I was working for him that summer (easiest interview I ever had). When I asked him why he gave me a job I didn’t even ask for, he said “every hour you’re working with me, you’re not hanging out with my daughter.” I worked for his company two summers in a row and earned enough to buy my first car and figure out how to operate a circular saw, a skill I use to this day. I also learned that studying hard in school was probably a good idea because I was a terrible carpenter’s apprentice!
NNBW: What’s your dream job and why aren’t you working it?
Sinclair: Well, it’s a bit of a cliché, but I’m working my dream job. My brother and I were both fortunate to have great parents in our lives (and still do) and we share the memory of our father telling us that “it just wasn’t worth going to a job you hated every day, so figure out what you want to do and go after it.” That’s exactly what I have done. I get goose bumps every day as I enter the museum knowing that today I get to inspire wonder in the lives of our visitors. We don’t set out to create Nobel-winning scientists, but if you ask most of today’s brightest minds, the folks who are solving some of the world’s biggest problems; they’ll tell you that some of their inspiration and fondest memories are rooted in their visits to museums like The Discovery.
NNBW: What do you like most about your job?
Sinclair: At three years old, our organization can never say “that’s how we’ve always done it!” I am surrounded by some of the brightest and hardest working people in Reno. Everyone here is an innovator who is solution-oriented and not afraid of change and experimentation. We fail at something every single day, but we never fail to learn, and that learning makes us a stronger organization and helps us get closer to fulfilling our mission. We have a mindset of unlimited potential and that energy and excitement is infectious.
NNBW: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Sinclair: At a one of my graduations we had a great speaker who was motivational and charismatic. At the end of his speech he turned to us graduates and said “years from now you won’t remember anything I’ve said to you today, so let me leave you with this advice…never eat or drink anything larger than your head.” Is it the best advice I’ve ever been given? Probably not, but I can tell you it’s been pretty memorable and as a young college fraternity brother I tested this advice many times and have discovered it to be extremely accurate and good advice.
NNBW: What are your favorite hobbies or pastimes? How do you spend your time away from work?
Sinclair: I have been blessed with a really great family. When I’m not working I tend to spend most of my “free time” with my wife and kids. I have been a coach for basketball and soccer for 10 years. I have been a volunteer adult leader in scouts and youth groups. I’ve organized parent vs. kid dodge ball games and Nerf wars. My wife has diagnosed me with “Peter Pan Syndrome” in that I will never grow up. In short, I love to play and have fun with my friends and family. Moving to a new state and community has meant that a lot of the past year has been a series of small expeditions as we seek out new adventures and places to explore. We haven’t been disappointed yet.
NNBW: If you could live your life over again, what one thing would you change?
Sinclair: This is an impossibly tough question to answer. We don’t get any do-overs in life so it’s best not to contemplate such things. However, if forced to answer the question, I would probably go back to the summer vacation when I was 10 years old and we got cable in our house for the first time. My dad sprung for HBO, back when they just played movies one after the other. My older brother and I watched “Star Wars” every time we possibly could that summer and proudly boasted to our friends when we returned to school in the fall that we had watched the movie a total of 27 times that summer. In retrospect it probably would have been better had I read a book. I’m sure we could have survived having seen the movie just seven times. Incidentally, my dad promptly cancelled our cable once my brother and I announced our accomplishment.
NNBW: What has been your biggest professional accomplishment?
Sinclair: Ask me when I’m retired. There’s a lot of things I feel I have accomplished in my career and I have reached the point where I know I’m doing something I’m actually pretty good at; but I don’t know that I have painted my Mona Lisa just yet. I have big dreams for The Discovery, and I think in about five or 10 years I’ll be able to point to this museum as the biggest accomplishment of my career. We’re doing really great things here and in a few short years The Discovery will go from “good to great.”
NNBW: What did you dream of becoming when you were a kid?
Sinclair: When I was little I used to think that being a Merry Man was an actual job. I thought I would hang out in the woods with Robin Hood and Little John, set traps for the Sheriff of Nottingham, and generally run amuck. Imagine my disappointment when I learned this wasn’t a viable option. Fortunately this realization happened around the same time that I decided I wanted to become a teacher, so things worked out in the end.
NNBW: What can you do that someone else can’t?
Sinclair: As mentioned before, I once spent an entire summer practicing to fill in for Mark Hamill should they decide to continue the “Star Wars” saga. As a result, I can recite the entire dialog from “Star Wars Episode IV” (the original movie). I don’t think that puts me in a league of my own, but I have found this to be a pretty elite club.
NNBW: If you had enough money to retire right now, would you? Why or why not?
Sinclair: My wife and I have spent many Februarys on the island of Maui in the company of the Pacific Whale Foundation and of course, Pacific Grey Whales. February is the time of year when whales migrate to the calm, warm, and safe waters on the lei side of the island to give birth. The waters are literally churning with whales. It is a religious experience to share the same space with these majestic creatures and if the rest of my life was spent watching them and sharing the same water, I would be a blessed man.
NNBW: What’s the last concert or sporting event you attended?
Sinclair: I went to see the Reno Aces come from behind to pummel the Oklahoma Redhawks. There is no greater sporting event than attending a minor league baseball game. Where else can you actually talk with the players, see the look on the umpires face when you provide helpful tips and feedback, and catch a fly ball … regularly! It’s the essential “all American” experience and we have one of the best teams and ball parks in the country. Go Aces!
NNBW: Where’s your perfect vacation spot?
Sinclair: Maui in February, about a mile out to sea. Whales + ocean = heaven.
NNBW: Why did you choose a career in northern Nevada? What do you like most about working/living here?
Sinclair: When I told my friends and family in Portland, Oregon, that we were moving to Reno, Nevada, I got a few strange looks. In fact, a few even questioned my sanity. We chose this community not only for the professional opportunity but because there was something exciting that we experienced when we visited the community. Reno is clearly a city that is on the verge of a major transformation. I don’t know when or how, but there is a tipping point coming. I believe The Discovery will play a major role in Reno’s revival, and I am excited to play both a personal and professional role in the change that is coming to Northern Nevada.
Reno-based design firm MBA Architecture and Design is assisting on the $47 million Caesars Entertainment project in downtown Reno.