Changemaker: Mark Thomas NYCEDC
At Start Within, we want to learn from the changemakers that are innovating in their company, nonprofit, government agency, or organization.
This week we talked to Mark Thomas, Senior Vice President of Partnerships at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. A true renaissance man, Mark has been a publisher, a poet, and professionally has led innovation within nonprofits, for-profits, and government agencies.
Learn more from Mark about the way he bridges people and ideas across the public and private sector and the mindsets to being a changemaker and innovator.
Introduction: Start Within + Mark Thomas
Karen: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I want to start by giving you a little context of what we’re trying to talk about here. At Start Within, we’re working on a project to inspire and enable a community of high-performing professionals as innovators to rise within their organization, whether that’s launching new products, services or solutions, public, private sector.
We really want these efforts to provide the companies and government agencies and the nonprofits with opportunities to grow and scale their purpose-driven initiatives.
So here we are talking to the likes of you. I’m going to give a little background on you, Mark Thomas, quite the renaissance man, with an impressive, enriched background. I won’t be able to cover it all because you’ve done so much great work. I know you’re currently serving as a senior vice president of partnerships for New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and there you identify and implement initiatives and investments to promote economic growth across the city’s anchor and emerging industries. I know you lead the team that initiated and manages corporate, academic, and international economic partnerships across multiple industry sectors and that you drive strategic business development for the city of New York.
Prior to this role, you’ve helped shape and develop private and public sectors from managing a portfolio of economic, philanthropic, and environmental health initiatives with Georgia Pacific Corporation to later serving as executive director of the Manhattan-based think tank Center for Urban Future, where you developed the business model and led civic institutions, foundations, and e-commerce companies.
And where I had the opportunity to meet you in 2014, was when you served as a FUSE Corps executive fellow with the city of Los Angeles, serving as a senior advisor and later appointed as a director of the Mayor’s Operations Innovation Team.
You led a public-private partnership with the LA Coalition for the Economy and Jobs. There I know you reformed the city’s procurement assessment, management, and workers compensation operations. And while I didn’t get to cover it all, suffice to say, you’re an Innovator, that you’re going in and changing things in places where it’s really hard and truly making a difference in the world. So thank you for all that you do.
Let’s, let’s dig right in. Before we get started, did I leave anything out important to your biography, background that you want to make sure to highlight?
Mark: No, I think that’s good. That gives us a lot to speak from.
Role with New York City’s Economic Development Corporation
Mark: I think it’s helpful to give a little context of EDC’s mandate by the city of New York, which was to create jobs in New York, leverage all the tools we have in our kit, which include real estate, our capacity to build infrastructure and identify where we can further economic growth. And so we have 500 people who work and manage a lot of different projects.
Where my role interfaces with all 500 of those employees when we need industry buy-in or some type of private sector engagement, that is really strategic in nature to really push the initiative forward. And so my team really has spent a lot of time establishing relationships, making sure people understand our double bottom-line approach and then how we can collectively work together.
Mark: How I think about my days is working closely with our leadership team here with the Mayor’s office of New York, with companies, venture capitalists, the industry leaders who all want to make something exciting happen in New York.
I think in everything we do, there’s a push to make it inclusive, to really think through how to create jobs and opportunities for New Yorkers, by bringing the best of where the economy is headed in the world, to the City. And that is not a dull activity. It’s not an easy task, but a pretty exciting one.
Karen: Absolutely! I would think in designing new initiatives like this, one of the benefits is the constraints that you’re working within. Some people might see that as a barrier – as difficult or bureaucratic, but maybe highlighting an example or a time where the constraints that you face in this role is actually to the benefit and helps move things forward.
Perceived Constraints Can Be Beneficial and Not a Barrier
Public-private partnerships, by default, are designed to really optimize every dollar in a way that creates more dollars from the one that you invest.
Our model includes putting out an RFP (request for proposal), identifying the best private operator to work in conjunction with all of our initiatives.
For example, we just announced a $500 million investment in life sciences and biotech is one of the largest investments that the city has ever made for an industry. We feel as if we have the right ingredients to have a pretty robust structure where companies that want to set up shop, or founders that want to create a life sciences company in New York, that they have the right environment to be successful.
As a part of that, we launched an internship program that we piloted to get a sense of what curriculum is needed for us to ensure that students at the university system and part of our public schools here actually have the right tools they need to work within the sector. As they scale, as it moved from pilot to fully operating initiative, it has been great to work with the private operator on how do we build that out and maximize our capacity to convene employers and convene life sciences companies so that they actually can build out an effective pipeline for the city.
Karen: Wow, that’s really fantastic. There’s a lot that you could unpack there. I really liked at the end there talking about the student internship program, how you’re bringing in the human-centeredness to the group that you’re building for, and hoping that they’re evolving and growing with New York City. From the early stages asking, “what kind of resources do you need and how do we build this for you?” Having them be part of that is key. And you probably do that in other areas within this role as well.
Mark: Yeah. And then there was the reformer that I definitely think comes alive in everything I do. It’s not as built into the title of my work, but anytime you’re launching something new that has stuff that already exists, that is worth really trying to understand how can we push the platform to be more aligned to what a sector or an economic need may be. It’s pretty cool that part of me that still likes breaking things and rebuilding it is definitely not underserved.
Karen: The getting to iterate as you go forward, taking something that exists, but refining it and letting it evolve. That’s good stuff.
I think that’s part of the fun of starting new things within an existing organization is that you have a template that you can go and break, in the right and most appropriate ways.
Moving forward and thinking about your role, how, how did this role come to fruition and how has it evolved from when you started day one?
How did this role come to fruition and how has it evolved?
Mark: Well, it’s a brand new position and about 12 years ago, the New York City Economic Development Corporation created the division that I work within that is really focused on building the future economy for the city.
It really happened after as the economic recession was really taking a toll on the city’s economy, on Michael Bloomberg and they want to think through how do we reinvent all the New York sectors.
You fast forward to 2016 and to really effectively do that work, it means you have to engage with a lot of different sector leaders. What was happening was that the administration would change, when staff would turn over, there was really no team that was tasked with maintaining and institutionalizing those relationships. Out of that need, my title and my team and my role were born.
I will definitely say what has changed over the year or so I’ve been here, is people actually understand the value of why having a team that you can just point to and say, they are a lead to figure out how do we collaborate with you. They are the team that can determine who within the private sector should be engaged in what we do or they’re the team that we need to make sure creates a seat at the table for the right people.
And nearly everything we will roll out at some point will be a public announcement. And the last thing you want is for that type of work to not be fully inclusive, to be fully socialized and fully encompassing of the problem you’re trying to fix. And so I take that personal and make sure that we do our best job of having the right input in everything that we do.
Karen: I really believe that one of the key foundations to getting to innovate is getting the buy-in, communicating all along throughout the process and really starting to recognize where there could be hiccups in advance so that you can prepare for them.
Talk to me about some of the mindsets that you adopt that really helped you in leading the communications, the cross-sector buy in, getting all the stakeholders aligned.
Mindsets for Getting Buy-in and Alignment
Mark: There’s a part of me that has to at some extent interest when people trust me and people actually think I’m thoughtful in what we’re engaging people on. I spend a lot of time having “hallway conversations” with people, even if they’re on the phone, to really make them comfortable around what we’re asking their support for or what we’re planning to announce. As I said earlier, what problem we’re trying to fix and why.
To some extent, you have to establish an unwritten endorsement with people before you can actually get them to say “this is something good” or “this is something I don’t understand, but actually trust their approach.”
I think during my time in Los Angeles, I really learned how to do that pretty effectively. Here now, when we announce something is a $30 million initiative or that a major corporate attraction has been successful or is an X million dollar investment that will do something for New York,
It’s important that my team really takes the lead and ensures that things don’t fall apart after they become a public thing. And to do that requires what I think are core people skills, core communication skills and a consistency and how you build and maintain trust.
Karen: Absolutely. I also see in you and know from getting to work with you, that you really don’t have ego behind your ideas and that you’re very much humble and have humility about the work you’re doing. Your idea-focused and you lead the charge, but you also are persuadable. You’re willing to take another idea and tweak them as they go along.
This is a place to speak to your work in LA or specifically still your work here. Talk to me about coming in, day one and the research that you do. You don’t even know what you don’t know. You don’t know what you’re going to do. You don’t know what it’s going to become. How do you get started?
What Do You Do Day One? How Do You Get Started?
Mark: I’m used to an approach of how do you find doers that are hidden and it can be quicksand sometimes in the public space. I think of the last 10 years of work we’ve done. When I worked in media, a lot of the work I did then, felt is if we were charting territory where no one really knew what sustainability looked like, and in a new journalism world.
In Los Angeles, since that was a few years, everything I did was about reforming broken systems. You have to allocate time to say, let me understand how things work and why they don’t work. And then try to understand how things could work that could be effective. Then studying best practices and saying where the organization you work with aligns within those best practices.
If it’s something new and innovative, you won’t see a template of where you can find those (best) practices so you have to understand are there comparable things that you can benchmark what you’re trying to fix, a problem you’re trying to solve against. And if you take that approach, you have a better roadmap towards how you adopt there’s something new or how you execute some type of change reform that can lead to better outcomes.
Karen: Exactly. What I hear is, when making a change, there is the change you’re trying to do and then there might even be a change in the process to get to that thing. And sometimes you have to navigate both and just kind of have the ability to see what rises up.
How you look at that approach and maybe tweak it, but then get back to focusing on the thing. When you’re trying to get buy-in at both levels, I would think that’s challenging and maybe more of a marathon versus, the sprints of launching the thing.
You can’t be a change agent and not be a student at the same time.
You really have to allocate time, that you can’t always do within a work day, to really study an issue on understanding what people are saying around a specific subject, to thoroughly understand the context of the change you are trying to drive.
When I think of my last role in LA, I wasn’t an expert in procurement or real estate asset management, but I spent a lot of time understanding what success was defined by. And then it just became something I was totally fascinated with. And over time I could really speak to the jargon and felt like I was the owner of reforms. That’s when things really become exciting.
Karen: Absolutely. Owning the approach, the process gets you halfway there to trying to solve the problem. That’s really insightful. Tell me about some of the people that you lean on for support, whether that’s mentors or advisor? Where do you find inspiration? What books are you reading?
Where Do You Find Inspiration?
Mark: Definitely books. I have a creative background, a lot of literature. I’m a student of the civil rights leaders and so I study a lot of their approaches to change and persistence.
On a day-to-day, I’m inspired by people who work for me, people who I’m friends with who are tackling other kinds of major things. There is this weird peace when you’re around other people who have a lot of pressure and you can kind of all chill together. So that’s exciting.
And then I have a lot of mentors who have been people I can call and help me think through what’s best for my own life and how I can stay focused and disciplined and persistent. I have a good grounding in things that keep me inspired.
Karen: To the point of discipline, I do think energizing yourself and recharging by reaching out to the people that can help you grow can sometimes get put on the back-burner. Instead of, “I just need to get this done, I’ll make time for that later.” It’s really something that you have to proactively make time for and make sure that you’re scheduling it and getting that opportunity to reflect.
What roadblocks even in the recent past, or are you looking at right now, are you tackling? And how are you tackling them?
What Are Recent Roadblocks and How Are You Tackling Them?
Mark: Roadblocks? I don’t know if I would consider myself tackling roadblocks. I think if anything I keep rewriting how far I can take my life.
When I actually think about where I was…I went to my high school classroom reunion about four months ago. I think what was powerful about revisiting life 20 years ago, it reminded me of the vision I had when I was a teenager for what I thought I could be, and who I thought I could be, the type of career I thought I could have.
When I look at where I am now, it is very different. I have a very different scope of what I believe is possible. And I want to keep pushing that and keep aspiring. Now I actually have a sense that what I see for myself is really only a preview of what’s even greater ahead. I want to keep chasing that feeling.
Karen: That answer really nicely packages what makes you so unique and enables you to do the work you do. It’s that there aren’t roadblocks, that they’re all opportunities. Even having the moment to look back, and there’s the exact moment of having your high school reunion, but reflecting and being introspective about what it all means and what it’s going to continue to lead to.
Mark: Yeah, thank you!
Karen: So we’re going to get off the phone. You’re going to get back to work. What’s next? What’s on your docket today? What are you going to do?
What does a day in the life look like?
Mark: Ah, l actually have a cool day. I’m meeting with one of the board members of the SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) to talk about what are some policy reforms that could help advance startup and entrepreneurship in the United States. So that will be fun.
And then I actually have a mentee within EDC, which is exciting. I don’t think we take ourselves that seriously, but I have had a few meetings this week where people will remind you of how your life and your success is inspiring to a lot of people and they’re actually studying your path, studying your road to see how they tailor make a path for themselves. So I’ll spend time with him.
And then I’m a big fan of just having casual drinks with people who I’m inspired by, who are my age friends. I’ll swing by in the early evening.
Karen: Nice. I am too far to join, but otherwise…
Karen: It’s so good to chat with you. Thank you so much for taking the time and I can’t wait to share what you’ve learned and what you’re doing.
Mark: I’m happy to help you create this platform and I think it’s important for us. Especially for people who are in positions where you’re pushing against. It’s tough, intense so it is great for us to learn from each other and really understand how we’re all staying focused and moving things forward.