Meet Management: CEO Joe Thiel

“Chief Executive Officer” is quite the job title to possess. No matter who you are or what organization you lead, you are guaranteed to turn some heads. When you imagine a CEO, what do you see?

Do fictitious characters like Gordon Gekko of Wall Street pop into your brain? Or, as a realist, does your mind ponder the great innovators of our generation such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whose contributions to society impact our everyday lives?

Whatever mental image appears inside of your consciousness, the fact of the matter is that CEO’s come from diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and have different ideas of what the position of CEO actually means.


For starters, Joe Thiel is an executive and entrepreneurial innovator who understands that infinite potential is all around, and within us. A mindset of abundance and focused dedication have led him to realize the untapped potential within corporations, mission-based organizations, and tech startups across Michigan and the globe. Educated as an industrial engineer at Northern Michigan University, Joe is a lifelong learner who places a high value on strong relationships and offline creative thinking. Today he serves as CEO of Innovate Marquette SmartZone and Executive Director of Invent@NMU. Joe’s mission in adopting these leadership roles is to guide sustainable economic growth in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, resulting in high-quality jobs and U.P. pride as an epicenter of world-renowned innovation. Like a snug-fitting Stormy Kromer hat, Joe is the perfect fit for Innovate Marquette SmartZone’s CEO position.

In order to really get to know Joe, we first need to rewind the clock a bit. Joe grew up on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan in a town called Traverse City. At a young age, Joe fell in love with the sport of football. It was Joe’s passion and love for the sport that first brought him to the beautiful coastal town we all know and love, Marquette, MI.

“I came [to Northern Michigan University] as a scholarship athlete. I was a football player in high school. I really enjoyed the sport and I was recruited up here to play. Immediately, I felt like it was the right place for me to be.”

That’s right. Between the years of 2000 – 2003, Joe played as an inside linebacker and fullback for Northern Michigan University’s football team. Joe’s determination for success both on and off of the football field is extremely clear to those that know him. As a full-timea student-athlete, Joe put himself to work in the Marquette community by renovating homes and apartments full time. He even helped out some of his professors on personal home projects!

“I actually built a sauna for one of my professors. I built a whole garage that we first designed in a 3D modeling program called SolidWorks. The building is still standing to this day! I also put a roof on a house for an associate of that professor and I remodeled the kitchen while I was here at the same time.”

One fun fact about Joe is that while a student at Northern Michigan University he lived directly above the iconic Marquette ice cream shop Frosty Treats. To make his living situation even sweeter, one of his teammates worked at Main Street Pizza right next door. Quite an ideal college living scenario I must say.

Joe found great success within the Industrial Technology program at Northern Michigan University, spending most of his time in the Jacobetti Center. During his senior year, Joe decided to not play football and instead focus on his academic and career interests.

“I decided that my senior year I would not come back and play football. I instead just went to school and really kicked butt through the end of my college career. I wound up right out of college getting a job as an industrial engineer in Harbor Springs, Michigan at the Northern Diecast Inc., which was an amazing transition. The education I received [at NMU] was fantastic. I took a lot of great classes that helped me early on in my career because I had some pretty challenging jobs right out of college. I was working in union environments with people twice my age and managing them. And to have the skills and ability to do that right out of school was great. The industrial technology program really prepared me for that.”


A quick LinkedIn search will reveal to you how great of an asset Joe is to the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in the Upper Peninsula. Over a 17 year long career, Joe has worked as an engineer, supervisor, sales executive, management executive, board member, serial entrepreneur, consultant, trainer, public speaker, coach, and mentor. These diverse experiences have forged Joe into a swiss army knife. He can truly do it all.

Prior to being hired by Innovate Marquette SmartZone, Joe spent a handful of years in his hometown, Traverse City. Having previously worked up to 90 hours per week, Joe describes this period as an opportunity to slow life down. Though, his definition of a slow-paced lifestyle may significantly differ from you and me.

Upon arriving in Traverse City, Joe began coaching a middle school football team. Having lost every single game in the previous season, Joe worked with his team every single weekend in the summertime.

“That was the first time I touched a football since I graduated. I was so bummed about not being able to pursue a professional career in football and all of the concussions that I had. I didn’t even watch football on TV. I finally took a step back and said, ‘I need to get myself healthy. And I need to start mentoring others.’”

Simultaneously, Joe took over the international student exchange program in the Traverse City Area Public School’s system, leveraging his vast business connections across Asia and bringing in 100+ international students.

Between coaching football and leading the international student program, Joe’s innovative mind produced an idea with the potential for global impact. After considering the safety of his students inside of the school building, Joe recognized the opportunity to use his experience in Bluetooth technology and LED lightning to develop an innovative product to help reduce the number of school shootings in America.

“I was sitting in my office and at the school and I saw this barricade device next to the door so a perpetrator can’t get in the room and harm students. In a previous project I worked on, I built a Bluetooth mesh network that incorporates LED technology. I coupled Bluetooth and LED technology with the barricade device and I developed the LockOut company, which is a school safety and security company that is located in Ann Arbor and Brighton, Michigan. It’s in hundreds of school districts around the state now. I went from a napkin drawing to a pretty massive company with my business partner and a whole bunch of additional talented people. We really developed an amazing company quickly.“

Learn more about LockOut USA here.


Joe’s time in Traverse City was well spent. He shared his passion for the sport of football with youth, developed a wildly successful international student exchange program, and launched a large cutting edge company committed to keeping students in the classroom safe. After experiencing immense success during his time spent in Traverse City, Joe felt he was ready to chase after a new challenge.

One evening while Joe and his team were in the process of selling LockOut USA, Joe received an email about Innovate Marquette SmarkZone’s nationwide search for their next CEO.

“This job came up and I looked at it, read it through, and knew this is exactly what I wanted to do. Thank you, universe, for putting this in front of me.”

Ecstatic about the potential to engage with Marquette’s vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, Joe immediately began applying. So immediately, he filled out the application on his cell phone.

“In the last 15 years, I never even applied for a job really. It was always a handshake or some company I was starting up and going to run myself. This was a new process for me. I literally went through the entire application process on my phone. I went through the whole entire thing, had some dinner, and kept on going until one o’clock in the morning. You know what? Literally, two days later I received a phone call and scheduled my interview with Innovate Marquette SmartZone.”

Due to the complexity of COVID-19 and the success of LockOut USA, Joe knew he needed time before he made a big life decision.

“I was back and forth due to my work with LockOut USA. I really loved the company and the people I was working with. They’re all amazing people. But I wanted to do something new. I knew I wanted to get back to Marquette. I knew I wanted to live here and I wanted to be part of the community and engage with it. I knew in my heart that it was the right thing. So I went after and came up for an interview. I was really blown away listening to everybody involved on the board here, and how it’s integrated into the community and Northern Michigan University.”

The humble college town of Marquette Joe had a sentimental connection to now offers new alluring opportunities. Marquette, rich with a balance of vibrant city life five minutes from jaw-dropping shoreline views now is rich with another natural resource, the talent of its innovative and determined people.

Economic development corporations such as InvestUP, Accelerate UP, Lake Superior Watershed, Northern Michigan University, Lake Superior Community Partnership, and others are hard at work enriching the Upper Peninsula’s entrepreneurial ecosystems, creating new opportunities to invest.


Remember when I asked you what comes to mind when you envision a CEO? To help myself better understand Joe’s vision for his new position, I asked Joe the same exact question.

Joe began by stating that he admittedly does not work well with titles. In his perspective, a rigid organizational hierarchy has the potential to create a toxic work environment for those at the “bottom”. Joe’s solution to this problem is to first observe the environment he enters in order to best understand the perspectives of each member of the team. Joe believes that part of being a good leader is in recognizing the advantage of collaboration. When we all succeed in our specialization towards a common goal, we can generate the greatest impact possible as an organization.

Joe stated, “A CEO to me is a visionary and a networking master. A CEO is somebody who can go into any environment and observe. They understand everyone’s perspective and feel that perspective coming from everyone within the organization. Then they maximize the growth and output of that organization. That’s what a good CEO does.“

“A CEO, or any person in this organization, has the goal to enrich the students here in the most professional profound way that they possibly can.”

Joe truly practices what he preaches. As a mentor and resource to the Invent@NMU student team, Joe is committed to enriching our undergraduate student experience. At all times he is only a phone call away from our students.


Whether you’re a student or community member, have a product or business idea, or are a business owner looking to innovate from within, we are here to help. The business professionals at Innovate Marquette SmartZone and the student team at Invent@NMU are here to be your trusted partner as you navigate entrepreneurship and innovation.

Get in touch with our teams below:



Connect with Joe here.

About Micah Carroll – Micah Carroll is a student at Northern Michigan University studying environmental public relations & design. He has been employed at Invent@NMU as a marketing assistant since his first year of college. In his free time Micah enjoys rock climbing, walking slacklines and capturing memories via photography.