LEHI — Former Arizona senator and BYU alumnus Jeff Flake is well-known for his outspoken stances on the actions of President Donald Trump, partisan gridlock in the nation's capitol, and most recently, the confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Beyond navigating the sometimes treacherous political waters of Beltway politics, of which he was a part for 18 years, Flake has put himself into pitched battles with the forces of nature via three trips to remote islands in the central Pacific Ocean.
Now, the 56-year-old is headed once again into the breach — or onto the beach — but this time will have a group of Utah tech innovators in tow for a six-day, survival outing to a deserted island in the Marshall chain. The adventure will pit Flake and six executives from Utah's Podium against whatever the elements bring. And, the group will do it without bringing and food or water and only a small selection of basic tools, hammocks and a desalinator in a test of tenacity and collaboration, according to Flake.
"This all started way back when I was a kid," Flake said. "Growing up on a dry dusty ranch in Snowflake (Arizona) I read a sailing book called 'Dove' about a kid that circumnavigated the world.
"I read more sailing books and survival stories and just always wondered if I were marooned on a deserted island, could I survive?"
That question remained with Flake, unanswered, well into adulthood and through a career that took him into the heart of U.S. politics. Eventually, he said, encouragement from his wife set actions in motion.
"I talked about it so much over the years, she finally said, 'This is your midlife crisis, get it over with,'" Flake said.
After getting the marital thumbs-up, Flake identified the Marshall Islands as a location best suited for his first solo trip in 2009. Flake said the seven days and seven nights alone on tiny and uninhabited Jabonwod Island was "an exceptional experience," even though it included fending off sharks as he spear-fished. He would go on to take two more trips, one with his teenage sons in 2013 and again in 2014, when he made it a duo with Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.
The sojourn with Heinrich was intended to show that the growing political divide could, indeed, be bridged.
"We wanted to prove that Republicans and Democrats could get along," Flake said. "I think we were both just getting disgusted with the partisan divide and … an environment in which we couldn’t even have lunch together."
The Discovery Channel got wind of the plans, documented the journey and later aired a one-episode special about the trip called "Rival Survival." Flake and Heinrich were all smiles in shared media interviews following the trip and footage showed the two working in close concert in the effort to forage, fish and build shelter to survive on the deserted atoll.
A chance to test collaborative ingenuity, albeit in entirely foreign and unpredictable circumstances, is what drew Podium founder and CEO Eric Rea to the island challenge. Rea, Flake and five executives from the Lehi company will test their collective mettle on Biggarenn Island later this month. Launched less than five years ago, Podium has been on a stellar success arc with its cloud-based platform that helps offline businesses attract, communicate with and retain customers through the careful management of their online presences and messaging tools.
Rea said he met Flake a few years ago and heard, firsthand, about the former senator's various adventures in the Marshalls. Much as Flake was inspired by the story of 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham's solo, around-the-world voyage depicted in "Dove," so, too, was Rea smitten with the idea of a bare-bones survival outing.
"It’s a unique opportunity … and also something that many of the executives have kind of dreamed about," Rea said. "What I think it will do is put us in a different, and maybe the most difficult, environment we can think of and see how we’ll fare.
"It’s going to be an experience."
Rea said Podium will also be launching a philanthropic project on Ebeye Island where the company will be outfitting a computer lab for use by high school and elementary students. Podium will also provide a year of coding instruction for the students, via a remote connection between the new lab and a group of software engineers from the company.
Podium Chief Product Officer Josh Penrod said the company's executive staff already has a very tight-knit connection, a characteristic he thought would serve the group well once they were marooned together and left to their own collective devices.
"It’s an interesting thing … and I was excited about the opportunity to do this with a team that I already have a lot of trust in," Penrod said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Penrod also noted that, when it comes to corporate exercises, the Marshall Island trip is in a class of its own.
"You know, the stakes are pretty low when you're doing a trust fall in a Holiday Inn conference room somewhere," Penrod said.
Ahead of the trip, Flake also weighed in on the frequent comparisons that have been drawn between himself and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney who, according to some pundits, picked up where Flake left off as an intraparty voice intent on holding Trump to account for his actions in office.
Just two days before taking office this January, the Washington Post ran an op-ed penned by Romney that featured a blistering attack on Trump's conduct. The piece was quickly held up as an analog to a speech Flake delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate in late 2017 in which he announced his decision not to seek re-election and went on to pummel Trump's behavior.
Flake said he admires the stance Romney has taken on calling out the president when it's been the "right thing" to do.
"I applaud what he’s doing and how he has stood up when he’s needed to," Flake said. "I think he’s done the right thing. My guess is he feels the pull of conscience to do this, whatever the political consequences. You just do it."
Flake said one of the factors contributing to the gridlock and profound partisanship in the nation's capital was simply a function of a "commuter Congress," wherein members fly in and out for floor time and committee work but few actually live in D.C. The itinerant residents don't have the opportunity, or necessity, of spending time and/or getting long with those across the aisle, Flake said.
And, he noted that activities and conduct at the administration level were doing very little to sow seeds of collaboration or mediation among members of congress.
"Right now, there is no currency, no political currency, for bipartisanship," Flake said. "I don’t expect that to change. We desperately need leadership to chart the proper course and set the proper example and that’s why I've been so disturbed by what we see in the White House.
"At just about very turn, they've sought to divided instead of combine."