Alumni Spotlight: James Lynch '72, Financier and Explorer

The Graded Gazette

Intrepid explorer and financier James Lynch ’72 is a "Graded lifer" whose passion for adventure and the outdoors developed in early childhood. James earned a BBA in Finance and Marketing from Texas Tech University and an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management. After 20 years at Chase Bank, where he rose the ranks to vice president, James founded Phoenix Strategic Financial Advisors, where he currently serves as managing director. 

In this month’s Alumni Spotlight, James discusses his Amazonian expeditions, which have been featured in both The New Yorker and Travel Channel documentary

As a "Graded lifer" and former Graded parent and grandparent, what do you think are some of the things that make Graded so special? 

My American parents moved to Brazil for business before I was born. They initially planned on staying temporarily, but they loved São Paulo so much that three years became three decades. Brazil completely changed their lives.

My family has always had a very close relationship with Graded. I started school on the Morumbi campus as a member of the inaugural kindergarten class. At the time, my father was a board member and was involved in the landscaping of the new campus. Whenever I visit the school, I still recognize some of the trees that were planted at that time. 

Graded is a unique place that offers an exceptional education and countless opportunities to excel in different ways. The best thing about Graded is its diversity. Students from myriad nationalities and with disparate interests and talents come together for a few years in their youth and then, after graduation, spread out again across the globe. That means that wherever you go in the world, there will be other Graded alumni nearby who will be eager to meet up and help out in any way possible. 

That diversity actually shaped my life. Because of my experience at Graded, I decided to study international business. 

How did you develop such a passion for adventure and exploration? 

I grew up in Vila Mariana in a house with a big backyard. I was fascinated by nature and had many pets, including dogs, snakes, a hawk, a falcon, homing pigeons, and even an ocelot. I trained my pigeons for racing and practiced a bit of falconry with the birds of prey. I was also very involved in scouting and eventually became an Eagle Scout. (Our scouting activities were held in this old hut on the school campus, so my taste for adventure was also somewhat forged by Graded.)

I went to Texas Tech for college and initially wanted to become an architect. I quickly realized that I had a greater aptitude for business, so I changed my major and went on to pursue an MBA at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. During those years, I worked as a flying instructor to make some money. (I had always loved flying and got a pilot’s license at 17.)

After years of working in finance, I still had an itch for adventure and was eager to spend more time outdoors. I signed up for the Camel Trophy, an international off-road 4x4 vehicle competition across challenging terrain—usually a tropical jungle. I participated in the qualifying rounds and was one of the runners-up for the Brazilian team. During this tournament, I met René Delmotte. We became fast friends and began organizing expeditions into the Brazilian wilderness. 

James Lynch and other participants during the 1987 Camel Trophy

In 1996, while on an expedition into the Amazon in search of answers regarding the fate of legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, you were kidnapped by members of a native tribe. Tell us about that experience.  

In the mid-1990s, René and I were approached by Hermés Leal, a journalist who was writing a biography of Colonel Fawcett. Leal asked us to organize an expedition into the Xingu region, where Fawcett had disappeared in 1925 while searching for "Z," an ancient city in the Amazon. 

We embarked on the expedition and spent a few days with members of the Kuikuro tribe in the Xingu Indigenous Park in Mato Grosso. (The Kuikuros were among the last people to see Fawcett before he disappeared.) Suddenly, we were surrounded by members of other tribes wielding bows and arrows and guns. They falsely claimed that we had no permission to be in the area and took us as their prisoners. I was particularly terrified because my son, who was 16 at the time, was with us. 

They loaded us into their boats and took us to a site downriver. There, they held us captive for three days until we arranged to give them about $30,000 worth of equipment in exchange for our freedom. 

Whatever happened to Fawcett? 

Before the expedition, I worked with Orlando Villas-Boas. The Kalapalo natives had given Villas-Boas a set of bones they claimed were Fawcett’s. However, after the bones were analyzed, it became clear that they did not belong to the explorer but rather to a member of the Kalapalo tribe. 

Since then, there have been several theories regarding the fate of Fawcett and his party. Some people speculate that they were killed by hostile natives on their journey. I speculate that they perished due to the jungle’s inhospitable environment. We already know that both Raleigh and Jack (Fawcett’s young companions) were struggling with some injuries. After many strenuous days, they may have become incapacitated, which would have made them especially vulnerable in their surroundings. Fawcett was more experienced and better prepared, but he would never have left them behind—even if it meant dying with them. 


What aspects of exploration do you most enjoy? 

I love getting to know the people and cultures I come across and I appreciate how much I learn on my expeditions. My curiosity is what drives me, so I usually plan my expeditions around a mystery or a challenge, and I do a lot of research beforehand to set myself up for success. For instance, after I heard about a plane that had disappeared in 1937 after crashing into the Peruvian Andes, I spent months poring over old newspaper clippings reporting the incident. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the newspapers had misidentified the crash site, and I identified an area where the plane was likely to have gone down. I then organized an expedition to that location, where my team and I found some fragments of the plane. 

Why do so many of your expeditions lead you into the jungle? What fascinates you so much about that environment?

I’m not sure what draws me to the jungle. I just know that lying in a hammock strung up between two trees in the middle of the Amazon during a thunderstorm is the coolest thing on Earth. There’s nothing else like it. 

I love the jungle, but I’m terrified of it, too. I always get cold feet about a week before I set off on an expedition. But once I’m out there, I am grateful for my fears because they keep me safe and because facing them is exhilarating. So I’m also drawn to the jungle because of how much it scares me. 

What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned from all your adventures? 

I have learned that many of my preconceived beliefs about other ways of life have been completely misguided. For example, many tribes of the Upper Xingu are governed by sophisticated and democratic processes. And a tribe of former cannibals I spent some time with proved to be very welcoming and friendly. 

I have also learned to be more accepting of differences among people and cultures. 

In what ways do your experiences in finance and in the wilderness complement one another? 

I like to say I live two parallel lives. Many people think finance and exploration are incompatible, but I find they work very well together. One blunt way to put it is that my work pays for my adventures. Most people find something they are passionate about, but that passion is rarely what makes them money. It’s great to have a job that you enjoy and that allows you to explore the things in life that you truly love. 

I like my job for some of the same reasons I love exploration: I meet many interesting people, and I am constantly challenged. But my work sometimes drains me. When that happens, I turn to adventure, because my escapades into the jungle recharge me. That’s why balancing finance and exploration is so important to me.