A conversation with Mark Moeremans on wealth inequality and how Phoenix is a model for the future – Law Journal for Social Justice

Levi Bevis, associate editor for the Law Journal for Social Justice, sat down with The Journey Venture Studio co-founder Mark Moeremans to discuss wealth inequality, ways to resolve this issue, and how Phoenix is leading the way toward a more equitable future.

LISTEN: Levi Bevis, associate editor for LJSJ, interviewed Mark Moeremans, managing director and co-founder of The Journey Venture Studio.

Levi Bevis: Hello, Mark, and thank you so much for taking time to speak with me today. I am thrilled to speak with you today about the work you are doing at The Journey Venture Studio, your community work, and your public service work.

To start us off, would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself?

Mark Moeremans: Sure, thank you for having me. I’m excited to chat with you today. My name is Mark Moeremans, I’m the managing director of The Journey Venture Studio, I’m sure we’ll talk more about that in a moment, but The Journey is a mission-driven venture studio that partners with aspiring entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds to take their concepts from ideation to incorporation.

Our mission is to close the racial and gender opportunity gap in venture, so we are exclusively partnering with women and underrepresented founders to close the racial and gender opportunity gap in the venture capital world. Prior to that work, I was working at the state level in the economic development world at the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA). I was there for just under four years leading a lot of the state’s efforts and initiatives around tech and startup economic development, working with entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, to create an economic that gains access to that innovation piece that has been missing in Arizona for a while.

LB: That’s fantastic, and how long have you been with The Journey Venture Studio?

MM: So, this is a new concept that we have launched from scratch. My partner and I, Justin Bailess, first met in 2022, and we started ideated around what could be in the summer that year with a formal launch on Jan. 1, 2023, let’s say. So, it’s brand new, a year in, but we have been working on it for a long time. I’m really proud of the progress we have made with it so far.

LB: Absolutely, that’s so exciting to be on the cutting edge there, and to be really, you know, jumping into a space and building out that space more. Could you tell me a little bit more about the work you all do at The Journey Venture Studio and what all that encompasses?

MM: Yeah, so our flagship program is our Founder in Residence program. It’s an eight-month, $110,000 fellowship where we are really trying to provide the training, resources, tools, playbooks, to increase the likelihood of success for historically underserved and underrepresented entrepreneurs, all while providing the financial safety net for them to really have the opportunity to go for the fences.

So let me go back and kind of start from the beginning with the problem we are trying to solve. Today, less than 2% of all venture capital dollars goes toward women entrepreneurs, and less than 2% of all venture capital dollars goes towards Black and Brown founders. And while we have bene having this conversation about equity in investment for a long time, the trends are actually getting worse. 2022 was the worst year since 2016, and Q3 of 2023 was one of the worst years on record for Black investment.

And so, we are trying to bring more entrepreneurs into the pipeline generally because some of the most talented individuals are choosing safer paths whether it is in Fortune 500 companies, consulting, banking, and those talents should be used elsewhere. But a lot of people are opting out because they don’t have the safety net, they don’t have the resources, or the believe they won’t get the funding because the data shows they historically haven’t.

So, in that context, we invite them into our program while we are creating a safe space for them to explore entrepreneurship and really build a concept. You always hear the stories about Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, that got that friends-and-family check, just a small investment of $300,000. Bill Gates, his mom was on the board of the company that said, “You should be the first customer of my son’s company.”

A lot of people from marginalized and underserved communities don’t have that same safety net. They don’t have those resources, they don’t have a family that will say, here, have a few hundred thousand dollars. Instead, what they end up having to do is leveraging their future. They will take a second mortgage on their home if they are lucky enough to have one. They will take money out of their 401K.

Really, it’s about risk adversity. And how do we reduce the barriers of entry to the field of entrepreneurship in our nation? By lowering the risk appetite required. I always tell people, a lot of individuals literally can’t afford to become an entrepreneur because its expensive, so you hear of people having five or six side hustles, sleeping on couches, and that’s not a path a lot of people want to take.

Our $110,000 fellowship is really aimed at removing those financial barriers. We provide a salary, we provide access to healthcare, a furnished one-bedroom apartment, access to transportation, a venture building budget, so you can test your ideas whether it’s a prototype or targeted marketing or attending conferences, to really give yourself the tools necessary to explore that venture space during the eight-month program.

At the same time, there is a playbook on how to build a startup. They teach it at Harvard, they teach it at Stanford, they teach it at white collar 500 startups, but unfortunately that information hasn’t fully been democratized, and only people with access to those elite institutions and elite hallways are gaining those playbooks and gaining those best practices. So, we try to take that playbook, distill it, and share it with the population that has historically been locked out of those rooms.

The last piece is really around leadership development. So, our program is unique in that we provide biweekly mental health coaching and resilience support with licensed psychologists and psychiatrists. Really, when working with our communities and these populations, there is a lot of work you need to do around self-sabotage, self-limiting beliefs, empowered thinking, while at the same time coaching and providing skills that are not only going to help them become founders of successful startups, but CEOs of scaling enterprises. Whether that’s managing difficult conversations, thinking about hiring, thinking about culture building, it’s not enough to have an idea then bring it to market. You then have to scale it, which means working with other people, which means digging into your own leadership skillset.

We provide all of this in our studio space over a programmatic timeline in hopes that, by graduation day, they are pitching in front of a room full of investors that we have sort of syndicated and invited with a commitment to invest in companies coming out of our program so that they can’t use the excuse, “No one wants to fund us, there are no funders, we don’t have the network, we don’t have access.” They can take all the tools we have given them, the introductions, the resources, the training, and deliver that compelling pitch to incorporate their business.

LB: That’s incredible. It sounds like you all are really filling an important need and huge gap that exists in the venture market. Have you seen other organizations like this doing similar work across the country?

MM: So, we are fairly unique. Because we are filling some pretty cool gaps in a unique way. Venture studios are becoming more common. I tell people, they are like the lesser-known sibling of incubators and accelerators. You are still working in startup space, but other venture studios are pretty similar to a venture capital fund where you are raising a large amount of money, maybe $20 million, $100 million, and are using that money to build companies. Because of that, you have to take a larger stake in those companies to provide that return to your LPs, your investors, it has to go back to them.

The Journey is unique in several ways. First and foremost, we are a nonprofit. Like I said, we are mission driven, we are all about closing that racial and gender opportunity gap, which means that we have not raised a fund. We are philanthropically supported by individuals, corporate sponsors, foundations. What that also means is that we are allowed to provide more ownership and equity to the founders that go through the program.

Typically, in a venture studio, the studio will take anywhere between 60 and 80 percent equity, and founders are brought in at the product market fit stage, where they really take between 20 and 40 percent. We are the only studio that I have encountered where we are offering majority stake in the company to our founders from Day 1, and we also are the only group in any venture context that I have heard of that has agreed to disproportionately dilute ourselves first.

The whole point of wanting to close the opportunity gap is to really try to close the wealth gap. The wealth economy has been a huge wealth generator for people from a lot of different backgrounds, but because so little investment has gone towards Black and Brown communities, such little investment has gone towards female entrepreneurs, they haven’t been able to participate in the upside. We don’t have to create something that’s predatory. We want to make sure they have economic incentive at the end of all of this, so it’s really important that we preserve their equity stake and create an environment that gives them the tools and support without taking away economic opportunity.

LB: Absolutely. That sounds fantastic, and I’m curious, why did you choose to set out on this line of work with The Journey, and what do you find most impactful about the work you do there?

MM: I heard something when I was in school that like life is something 90% preparation and 10% opportunity, and I think I was sort of preparing for this role for a long time, maybe without realizing it. I have always been interested in the social impact space, social entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity to get my MBA from Stanford, which is an awesome program in Silicon Valley, that really teaches the things around leadership and entrepreneurship.

For the last four years, I was basically leading an accelerator program, startup competitions, venture capital conferences, so I feel like I’ve had a lot of insider access to the rules, the playbooks, the best practices. Because of my long-term passion and interest in social justice, I had an interest in applying the learning and that access to solve problems that I care about—inequalities that I see every day.

Even in my programs at the state level, you would see the same patterns play out on who was getting funded, who was coming into the pipeline. When I met my partner, Justin, who has a shared commitment and passion at the intersection of diversity, healthcare, and entrepreneurship, we started talking about what could be, and this creation came forth.

It really has been a marriage of a lot of different experiences that I’ve had, where I think it is a real opportunity to move the needle from sort of a nonprofit, private perspective in areas of justice, racial equity, and gender equity that I care about, but using the tools of business and entrepreneurship and startup life that I’ve been able to acquire over my career.

LB: Absolutely, that’s awesome. And how has the community responded to your work with the venture studio?

MM: It’s been pretty exciting and really gratifying. I think the highest complete is one that you just gave me, which is that people haven’t seen something like this before. You end up accidentally creating something innovative when you’re really just trying to solve problem.

We were trying to solve a lot of the barriers and challenges we saw that kept coming up, and as a result, we have to get creative with our structure—the nonprofit piece, the equity piece. To create something so different is really cool, and we keep hearing that from people. I am a huge lover of Phoenix, the metro region, and Arizona, and so doing this here is really gratifying for me because I wanted to highlight what a great tech community and ecosystem we have. I always say, in startup land, it takes a village, and the village of the Arizona ecosystem has been very supportive.

We’ve grown so much over the last five, six, seven years both in venture funding and new startup creations. I think the community still senses opportunity and need to continue that momentum and growth. One area where we all are sort of collectively in agreement on is just that we need more. We need more founders; we need more startups. A venture studio provides an opportunity to add new talent to the mix, to create new businesses, and for the business community, they have problems that they are looking at entrepreneurs and startups to help them solve.

I have been able to invite different business leaders from healthcare backgrounds like Valleywise [Health] and Banner and United Healthcare that are talking about what they are seeing in their markets, and they have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise. We see local investors that are saying, “This is amazing; we want to add to diversity in the entrepreneur and venture spaces.” They are providing these amazing founders and equipping them with the tools to success. They want to invest in them. So, I think the response has been really positive, we’re excited to continue exploring and building deep partnerships with like-minded, values-driven leaders across the state.

Any time you do something unique and different, you’re going to have detractors. We haven’t faced that head on, but I’m sure people are looking at us and waiting to see—are they going to be successful, will this work, is it possible? Especially in today’s cultural and political environment, I’m sure there are people looking at an organization that is carrying the banner for economic justice in the venture space and saying, “Well, I don’t like that.” We were very fortunate to be able to ignore any detractors in that way, and there is such a receptive community that is it much easier to look at the bright side.

LB: Absolutely. Well, I am very glad to hear that the community response has been very good, very well received, to all of the fantastic work you all are doing. Since you all are doing so many amazing things, I was curious, is there a certain project you are most proud of with the studio?

MM: So, there are a few different pieces. I think one is our founders. So much of the success of being able to launch great companies is being able to find great entrepreneurs, and something that always kills me when I was starting this up with Justin was that people would ask us, “Where are you going to find these individuals?” It was kind of this idea that it would be difficult to find really talented, diverse people who wanted to launch startups.

We know that talent is equally distributed across racial populations, across genders; it’s just that opportunity is not. So, we have been able to identify, source, attract, really top-tier, high caliber individuals who are raising their hands and saying, “We want to be entrepreneurs.” Having them associate with us and represent us is a huge source of pride to me.

Another project is, we are in the process of a major adaptive reuse project for our headquarters, our studio home. It’s going to be at the side of the original Bailess healthcare clinic. So, Justin, my partner, he exited his healthcare company a few years ago, and we’re using the site of his original business to be the home of this new space. Not only is that going to be a huge milestone for us, but we are excited for it to be a new space for the community. So, opening soon with a grand opening scheduled for January, we want to invite groups in and start conversations with community members like the Boys and Girls Club of Arizona, “Hey, you should host entrepreneurial events for your youths here. How can be one more collaborative hotspot or space for other individuals.”

We are going to be located in Central Phoenix, and to continue with the transformation of the Phoenix community, as we move towards a more high-tech, innovation driven economy, to put a stake in the sand at that beautiful building and open that up to supporters and community members is something I am really excited for and a responsibility I’m really proud to hold.

One other project that has yet to happen, and the last piece I’ll mention, is that sort of, waiting and building, right? Our graduation, we’re going to run a cohort from September to the end of April, and they end in a Demo Day. In that time, they have to build a compelling vision, concept, and we are inviting people from all over the country to have the chance to invest in those concepts. So that’s a project whose ending is not written yet, we need to wait and see what those businesses look like, and are they ready to be invested in. This is one that I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and looking forward to.

LB: That’s incredible. I love the emphasis on community that your organization is undertaking, and really building out entrepreneurs at every level across every background. I think that is crucial work, and the work that you are doing is absolutely amazing, so thank you for that. To switch gears slightly, I’d love to ask you a little fun question so that folks can get to know you a little better. When you’re not working on these amazing projects and with your amazing entrepreneurs, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time, and what is your favorite part of living here in Phoenix?

MM: So, I had to answer the Phoenix question recently, and I’m really bad at it because I actually love so many pieces of living here. One of the overlaps between what I do for fun and what I love about living here is just the access to the outdoors. I’m a huge hiker, I can’t believe how lucky we are to have Piestewa and Camelback right smack dab in the middle of town, and we have access to the McDowell Mountains to the north, South Mountain to the south, and you know, drive 30 minutes to an hour in any direction and you’re surrounded by natural beauty. So, that’s something I do to recenter myself, and it is one of my favorite parts about living here. That could even be the Desert Botanical Garden, which I think everyone should check out if they have not yet. It’s amazing.

I’m a big media consumer, so going to the movies, video games, concerts. One of the cool things about Phoenix is that we’re the fifth largest city [in the nation], but we feel like a small town, and so every major name is going to come through here, but getting tickets to those big concerts isn’t as insane as it might be if you lived in New York or L.A. But I think my favorite thing about living here, which I always try and distill, is that Phoenix is such a new city that anyone is invited to participate in it.

I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve lived in Boston, and some of those more established cities have a real hierarchy issue, which I don’t think Phoenix suffers from. If you’re hard working, motivated, talented, and bought into what our city and our community, our metro, is trying to build, have a seat at the table. It’s very welcoming, it’s very open minded.

Mayor Gallego, who has done a great job with the city, is not originally from here. She fell in love with it and said I’m going to roll up my sleeves and contribute to it, and I think that invitation is open to anyone. In a world that can sometimes feel less and less meritocratic, it’s nice to be in a city, the fifth largest city, the fastest growing city, that is still so open to new ideas, to new people.

My dad is originally from Argentina, [I’m] sort of [a] first-generation U.S. citizen on that side, that’s important to me because I don’t have that last name, that background that says, “How long have you been here? Where did you go to high school?” And there are a lot of places that are still like that.

LB: Absolutely. Yeah, and that is something, too, that I really appreciate about Phoenix. It’s that sense of newness, that sense of always redefining itself and creating a new space for every person regardless of where they are from. I am so glad to hear that that has been such a positive experience for you as well.

MM: I’ll just add to that, which goes into some of my fun hobbies, downtown Phoenix is awesome. What’s happening in the Roosevelt Arts District is so cool. I love exploring new restaurants, new cocktail bars, because that really gives it that city vibe. I’m a big urbanist, let’s say, and I think that cities are sort of living, breathing organisms and they all have their own trajectories upwards and downwards.

The cool thing about cities is that, very rarely, do they ever die a full death, and so, if you look at the landscape of American cities right now, Phoenix’s star is very much on the rise and to be somewhere that is so dynamic and growing so quickly and changing—trust me, there are a lot of other cities across the country that are not in that position, who, for now, their best days might be behind them for the next decade or two while they kind of figure out some things.

So, that’s not an opportunity to take lightly, because if you are in the right place at the right time, economically, politically, financially, a lot is possible just by being in such a dynamic environment. I’ve bene in the city for just under six years now, especially if you’ve been in places that are not on the ascent. It makes a big psychological difference.

LB: Absolutely, and that’s actually a perfect segue over to our next section. So switching gears slightly, I’d like to talk about your public service experience. You have an extensive amount of experience working with public organizations, running for office, and being involved in your community. So, to start us off, what inspired you to go on this route with your career, and what keeps you in this field?

MM: Service has always been important to be. That’s a value system that I grew up with, and the education system reinforced those values. I have looked at, I’ve always tried to straddle the line between the public sector, the private sector and the nonprofit sector, and even the social sector, if you will, so for the last four years at the [Arizona] Commerce Authority, which was really fun because it’s a public-private entity. It’s unique in that sense and a great model for other organizations across the country.

That was so fun because, I believe in policy, there’s a lot that government can do when it works effectively, and I think that, if more smart people and hardworking people wanted to go into that, we would all be shocked at what government could accomplish. So, you know, I’m a big believer in the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and so I wish more people would combine ambition with service.

The ACA was a great opportunity to do that because it played such a central role. One of the most dynamic parts about Arizona’s economy as we introduce more advanced manufacturing, more high-tech companies, is that more people move here and that ACA is a huge driver of that, a huge facilitator of that, and now, reacting to all that, continues to evolve and develop in cool ways.

As someone who has that desire for service and social impact, and too, isn’t afraid of government, I’ve always looked at public office as a great tool or avenue or pathway, to effect change. So, when I thought about it, in my life and in my career, I always knew I wanted to try to run for office. Working for the state for four years, I bought a home here, in Phoenix, so I knew this is where I wanted to do it.

In 2022, I ran for Phoenix City Council. City Council has eight seats and one mayor, who’s the kind of equal voting power, so nine members make up the Board. It is geographically driven, so some communities have city council members at large, ours are district based. A lot of people don’t realize but Phoenix has some of the largest districts in the country, like only L.A. is larger than us, so almost as many individuals, it felt like anyways running, were in a city council district as are in a congressional district. If you think about it as the fifth largest city with a nine-person council, one of those being the mayor, there is a lot of outsized influence and impact you can have, and for a city that is growing and changing so quickly, I definitely wanted to have a seat at the table and see what those changes and what that growth might look like.

In the process, we had nine candidates in the race for one seat, and while ultimately, I was unsuccessful in the race, it was an incredible experience. I knocked on over 9,000 doors, I raised over $200,000, we had volunteers, consultants, I’ve really gotten to know what it is like being in every part of our community. I think everyone suffers from bubble syndrome, it’s just all of our bubbles look different, but let me tell you, when you run for office, you break into every bubble that there is. You are going to union halls, you are going to chambers of commerce, you’re knocking on individuals’ doors, talking to school boards. So, you hopefully get to see so many different pieces of a place that, hopefully, you love if you’re running for office in that location.

And you get to meet so many different people. I am a huge proponent of younger people running for office. I think so much of what’s being decided on today affects us so directly, and a lot of times, our voices are not being heard. I think we have a lot of perspective to offer in running for office, a lot of energy to bring to the roll, and if you look at the stats, especially at the congressional level, we’re basically a gerontocracy. We’ve got the oldest Congress that we’ve ever had, and the next Congress will probably be even older, and so if you are considering it, I highly encourage it, and there are a lot of tools and resources out there to go for it.

What I told everyone when I was running, and it has certainly been the case after that fact is that, if you hold yourself with credibility and values and carry yourself with respect and dignity, and you put real effort into it and you have a real plan and vision, you’re going to open doors for yourself that you don’t even know exist. I met my business partner during the campaign. I got to meet so many people who are either close friends of mine or business opportunities through the campaign. That’s not why I set out to do it, but if you are willing to take the risk of putting yourself out there and putting in the work, people will see that. And the response to that has been incredible, to have new opportunities pop up, especially opportunities to continue serving.

After the election, the mayor appointed me to the IDA Board. The IDA is the Industrial Development Authority, and it’s a great economic development agency that makes investments in communities and nonprofits and creates housing bonds and is a really important entity across the country. A lot of municipalities have IDAs. I didn’t know that I would get to serve on that, and it was only because I raised by hand and put myself out there and that people started to see me as someone who did want to put in the work, who had those values and that mission, and a lot has come from it.

LB: Absolutely, and I mean, that sounds like such an incredible experience to not only meet so many more people and to also get to know your community even better, but to really give back and inspire hope in people. If you were to take one takeaway from your campaign experience, what would you say would be the biggest takeaway or the most impactful component of running [for office]?

MM: So, I’ll give a generalized happy one and then a tip for people trying to run for office. My one takeaway is that things are not as dire as they always seem. There is a lot more we have in common with each other than we don’t. There’s still a lot of passion and commitment towards our civic life, and there’s a lot of admirable and appreciate for people who are willing to go for it. I think we have this image of a deteriorating social fabric and politicians are overly ambitious, gross individuals, and I don’t think that’s the reality, especially in a municipal race.

My takeaway for people who might be thinking about running is that the campaign starts a lot earlier than you think it does. If you think you want to run for something three years from now, four years from now, seven years from now, your work starts now. Start attending your LDs, your Legislative District, meetings. Start getting to know people who are in the space, who are working at the city level or the state level.

There are so many relationships that drive the outcome of elections. It can be really hard to develop those relationships in one cycle. So, start building those now. Become a known quantity, a known entity now. Don’t be afraid to let your intentions be known. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you want. And I think a lot of young, ambitious people are waiting for someone to ask them to run. “I’m smart, I’m successful, I’m involved.”

People aren’t going to ask you to run until you sort of raise your hand and say, “At some point, I think I’d like to run.” And you sort of have to be in those rooms where the conversations happen. You have to put yourself in those rooms. That hard part is those things take time and effort. We are all busy, especially young, ambitious people who are building their careers or trying to have fun with their friends, so really think about what those trade off means. If that’s something you want, you need to be in those rooms.

LB: Absolutely, that is very good advice, and thank you so much too for sharing about your experience running, about your experience working at the ACA, and with all of your insight into these areas of public service.

You are very clearly dedicated to building community and empowering marginalized people in all of your work, and we often hear a lot nowadays about the importance of social justice and uplifting marginalized communities, so I’d love to ask you a little bit about that. I’ll start with a very broad question. What does social justice mean to you?

MM: So, this one is probably constantly changing on what it means to me, but I think morality, right and wrong, fairness, justice, is a constant theme in my life and, I think, probably something we all have an intuition for of what’s improper. Social justice, I think, is looking at those inequities, inequalities, unfairness factors, across our social fabric, whether its socioeconomic, racial, gender.

I think a lot of us have this sense, in the U.S. as Americans, that fairness is really build into what we created here, what we aspire to, at least, and I think that there is a really, frankly, growing gap between the goal, the vision, the direction, and the reality of today. I think that gap is social justice. I think it’s: How do we live up to the values and aspirations that we set for ourselves by making sure that we are creating equitable environments for people who have been historically left out?

And by the way, who gets left out might also be shifting constantly. I mean, if you look at racial identity in the U.S., there was a time when Italians and Irish immigrants were the social and marginalized groups, and so social justice is a constant in terms of, are people being treated with humanity and dignity and judged on the content of their character. It seems like every decade, there’s a different group that is not, and what work needs to be done to lift those people up and make sure they are having the human experience they deserve, because they are human.

LB: Absolutely. I love the emphasis you put on the evolving nature of social justice and how it changes so much. Very often, even in a week it feels like sometimes, things change three or four times, and I think that is an important component to keep in mind and I really like that approach. Could you share a bit about your educational background and how your education helped you in the pursuit of social justice work?

MM: Yeah, so I did my undergrad at Boston College, which is a Catholic Jesuit university, and their motto is the Jesuit motto, which is “Men and women for others.” Part of the required curriculum in the liberal arts experience were classes on philosophy, you had to do sort of mandatory service requirements.

There were a ton of service volunteer trips. I was working with Habitat for Humanity; I was spending spring break in Appalachia. And I thought I wanted to do international economic development. I almost, I went through the process of joining the Peace Corps, and that was very much a lot of the culture of Boston College. I think I was drawn to that, and that just reinforced a lot of things just because of my upbringing

Like I mentioned, my dad was an immigrant to the U.S., a Latino from Argentina, and so having more of an in-tune experience to the racially diverse experience, not just for myself, but my public high school was a majority-minority school with over 2,200 students, so you were given exposure to a lot of different walks of life. Exposure leads to empathy, and so, that was really important.

As an LGBT individual, I identify as gay, that was, you know, something about myself that made me more in-tune or sensitive towards differences in other people that drove empathy and being able to show and share compassion with other people. I think that’s a superpower that a lot of LGBT individuals possess, is that ability to put yourself in others’ shoes in solidarity or camaraderie that comes with people who also struggle.

And so, while at Boston College, I actually switched my major to philosophy because of those required intro courses and spent a lot of my courses digging into the philosophy of social justice—what does it mean to be human, what is dignity, what is the human experience, what is right versus wrong, what is justice. Which led me towards questions around feminism, the criminal justice system, social inequality and economic inequality. Those are categories that have always stuck with me, because, to me, what else matters?

When those questions are on the line, and this is not a judgment of other people, it’s sort of hard to prioritize massive wealth when you’ve become aware that some people live on less than a dollar a day. If I have one life and I want to spend my time, I think more and more millennials and Gen Z are attracted to that impact space, because it is a matter of, there’s knowledge of that, you want to change it, you want to leave your mark, to move the needle, you want to leave an impact, you want to be part of that impact.

So, I applied for grad school hoping to be a social entrepreneur. This is one of those things where life comes full circle. In my first job out of undergrad before grad school, I worked with groups like My Brother’s Keeper, an Obama-era organization to connect young Black men with professional opportunities. I worked in foreign countries like Kenya and Ghana and Bosnia, to help develop their economic and provide access to clean water. It’s just something I always come back to, and so business school was, how do I gain the tools of the private sector, the language of the private sector, to empower me, to give me access to networks and resources to make changes to peoples’ lives.

Sometimes, you make decisions not knowing what the outcome will be. I didn’t think I would be working in economic development in Arizona. I didn’t think I’d be launching a mission-driven venture studio. But I think when you set a target or have values and kind of chase that, it’s fun to see that the dots were connecting all along, even if, you know, currently sitting in law school you don’t see it, I promise you the dots, if you continue to have that North Star, the dots will eventually connect.

LB: Yeah, absolutely. I’m always so interested with how many folks start on one path and find themselves somewhere completely different, you know, down the road. But, how along the way, you know, you are absolutely right, the stars do kind of connect along the way and follow that similar arc. I think that is great advice to law students and to people generally, just to let the process work out sometimes, because you end up where you need to be.

It’s very clear too that you and the folks at The Journey Venture Studio are clearly very committed to social justice and providing access to business opportunities that are often denied to marginalized communities. How do you envision this work evolving in the future, and what is the ultimate goal you and the folks at The Journey would like to see in the Phoenix area?

MM: Yeah, so I would like to see, you know, among many goals, I want Phoenix to be synonymous with an innovative, tech city where diverse entrepreneurs thrive. When I first met Justin, I joked that Phoenix could be the Atlanta of the West Coast, if we wanted it to be. Instead of Black Hollywood, maybe we become Black Silicon Valley. And I think that opportunity to here.

I want Phoenix and the surrounding area to be known as a meritocracy of tech innovation, where Silicon Valley can sometimes feel like an old boy’s club of who has venture capital and who has the right degree. If you come here, and you’re hard working and you’re entrepreneurial, you can be successful here.

For The Journey, I really want to continue to work towards that mission of closing the opportunity gap. I mean, that 2% number is glaring. If you think about it, women are obviously 50% of the population, and are only getting 2% of VC [venture capital] funds, it’s insane. It’s jarring. We’ll know we are starting to move the needle, at least in our small way at The Journey, when we hit parity. You know, that doesn’t need to be 50-50 down to the dollar, but if you look at all of the metrics of how women are performing in high schools and undergrads, they are outperforming their male counterparts, which is a different challenge and you know, the evolving nature of social justice will need to examine that in the future.

And then to see the fall off in entrepreneurship should raise alarm bells. And so, how do we get closer to parity? The same goes in Black and Brown communities. They make up, combined, about 35% to seemingly more than 50% of the population as we see the Latino population growing, get less than 2% of venture funds, so that needs to change.

But I think we also talk a lot about how to scale our impact. Whether that’s making The Journey a national brand and organization, and Phoenix being our home and headquarters, but with satellite locations in different cities across the country. Our focus at The Journey, currently is to launch businesses in health care. There is a clear and direct connection between health disparities and innovation and funding and investment disparities. But you can make the same argument for climate tech, and which populations are more likely to suffer the consequences of climate change.

[There are] all sorts of innovations happening in SAS [software analytics platform] platforms and AR [augmented reality] and VR [virtual reality], and so, do we look at different verticals and different geographies and different programs. So, diverse founders are not the only gap. Diverse investors are a challenge, creating more of them, putting them in positions to make investment decisions. Getting more diverse individuals into C-suite positions.

So, we’ve also talked about our focus on health care. Entrepreneurship isn’t always backable. How do we create, especially in the health care profession, there is a number, a growing number, of women, Black and Brown doctors, who don’t own their own practice. How do we help encourage them to pursue entrepreneurship within their field so that they are setting themselves and their families and the future generation for that wealth instead of contributing, as a W-2 employee, to a large corporation hospital system?

I think there are a ton of different directions we can go in. I invite people to get involved, to help us. It’s going to take a lot of person power, it’s going to take a lot of work, but I think the mission is so clear of really starting to move the needle on that gap. And the talent is out there. So, it’s just about the patience to do the work and see the results.

LB: Definitely. And I think that goes hand in hand well with this next question as well. What is a social justice issue that you personally would like to see our local community here in Phoenix address more directly?

MM: So, slight pivot from The Journey because I’m already working on that one. Locally in our community, and this was a major part of my campaign platform, I think housing is a huge social justice issue and one that I continue to be passionate about and one that’s really pressing here in Phoenix right now. A large part of my campaign was just looking at the numbers and the trends.

More people are moving here, housing costs are going up, and if you look at every other West Coast city this has happened to, the writing is sort of on the wall of the challenges we are going to have. And we are already seeing it, you see it with the clearing out of the Zone, the increase in the homeless population, increased eviction rates after the pandemic. Some of the trailer park communities and mobile units that got purchased and those people became unhoused or were forced to relocate.

So those are all social justice issues, and what are going to do with people who are earning minimum wage that still deserve to have a roof over their head? It becomes more of a social justice issue when you layer on the racial inequalities and history of redlining and communities that have been literally bulldozed as we grow our city. So, there are communities that had access to housing that no longer do, which has made, has exacerbated the challenges that we are finding.

And then when you layer on one more piece, which is more of a generational inequality, where, as a young person talking to other young people, some of us don’t think we will ever buy homes. We’re going to be renter for life. If you think about what that means for wealth accumulation, for the last 60 years in the United States, probably longer, homeownership has been the most surefire path to wealth accumulation.

For a lot of people, housing is their retirement plan, so if you think about lifelong renters who become 65, 70 years old and don’t own their home, have to continue working to pay their rent because Social Security will either have run out by then or won’t be enough to cover rent costs, it is an aging crisis, it is an elderly homelessness crisis. And you already see it in people, decisions people are making around family planning. “I won’t have kids; I can’t afford it. I don’t have a sturdy roof to put over their head, I don’t have stability that a child would deserve.”

So, I think there is a lot tied up into that, and the hardest part about it might be that the second you become homeless, you become, in a lot of people’s eyes, you become dehumanized. The second you are dehumanized, the approach to solve it or the desire to solve it or the will to solve it changes. So, it’s something I’d love for us to get ahead of. Seeing all of the new apartments pop up in downtown Phoenix is encouraging because I believe we just need to increase the supply, among many other, you know, adjustments that we can make.

The city has done a great job, they passed the ordinance to legalize accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in people’s backyards, which I am super happy with. But it’s a big problem, and if we continue growing as a city, that problem is not going to go away, and I think it’s a social justice problem. People deserve a roof over their head, and they are working hard to make that happen, and its being put out of reach by market factors outside their control, and I think that’s a justice issue.

LB: Absolutely, yeah. And I’ve certainly been encouraged to see more folks paying attention to this issue here in Phoenix, especially at the local and state levels, and really trying to address this, both in Phoenix and across the state, as we continue to grow as quickly as we have grown recently.

I have one last question for you here. What advice do you have for law students who are interested in pursuing social justice-related work following the completion of school?

MM: So, I would say, make it part of your personal mission and find opportunities that might be outside the strict definition of your job or role. And by that, I mean a lot of organizations, including Big Law, has extracurricular cases, clubs, activities, meet ups, volunteer for pro bono work. Sometimes it is going to take going the extra mile to keep it as a part of your life.

Volunteer on the side. I used to take vacation time when I worked in consulting, I would take three weeks of vacation at once, which was a little controversial, to go to Ghana and open up new water utility businesses. That was my personal time, that was a cost, because it certainly did not feel like vacation, but it kept me in it. It kept me doing it, and that fueled my battery.

What ends up happening if you do enough of those experiences and projects and pro bono cases, even if you are not working directly in it, you might be working in corporate law or contracts, you can still find ways to do it. It becomes part of your story, it becomes a part of your brand, it becomes a part of your resume. And then, you are able to connect the dots in really unique ways, because you might be the only person that understands that law and understands what it’s like to work with unhoused communities and understands how to navigate the nonprofit sector.

That makes you incredibly valuable so that when that one position comes up that’s in a social impact space for a general counsel for a homelessness nonprofit, you’re the person. So, you have to keep those tools sharp and don’t be afraid to find ways to integrate those in other aspects of your life besides your 9 to 5, your 8 to 6, whatever it might be.

Look for fellowships. Look for volunteer opportunities. [There are] programs. If you can find something programmatic that has a brand attached to it, the learnings might be bigger from that, or it might be easier to box it. I think employers are starting to queue in on the fact that this is something employees want. I think for Millennials, Gen Z, impact is a really important part of what they are looking for, and the hunt for talent is more intense that it’s ever been. So, they are trying to create flexibility or opportunities or connect you to the pieces that check that box for you to keep you happy, to attract you.

So, hold their feet to the fire on it. Say like, “Hey, I know this is something that’s important to me, I know I need to hit these metrics, but how can we find a way to integrate this into my work? How can we find experiences or exposures, especially if you end up staying in a community like Arizona, like Phoenix, the town is so connected?” It is so easy to say, “I’m trying to find this,” and the partner at the firm, the manager on your case will say “Oh I know this person, let me connect you. Oh, I’m going to a golf club, let me introduce you.”

And you know, this may be controversial also, but I’m talking to a bunch of future lawyers, I wish you all financial success. Sometimes, using your dollars to drive impact or be in spaces where impact is happening is a very real strategy. So, if you look at any political administration, at the presidency level, there’s a ton of appointees who are fundraising bundlers for those candidates. And when they won, they appointed them to some really cool office where they can have impact at a political, federal level.

I’m not saying you need to be a bundler, but I’m just saying whether its giving to nonprofits, buying tickets to fundraiser galas, that will put you in rooms with people who are doing those things, and that will get you brand recognition and awareness for your personal brand as someone who is involved in those spaces. So, some different ways. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Given time, it might feel like you strayed from the path, but the path is long, and there are ample opportunities to bring it back to what you care about. Just don’t forget that you care about those things.

LB: That is fantastic advice, and also a fantastic note on which to end our conversation. Thank you so much again, Mark, for taking time to share your insight and experience. It has been such a pleasure hearing about all the things you are doing, the incredible work folks at The Journey Venture Studio are doing, and I am very excited to see where your work takes you in the future. Thank you for all you do!

MM: Thank you for having me!

Levi (he/him) is currently a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2019 with a B.A. in Public Policy Leadership, and he also graduated with a M.A. in Emerging Media Studies from Boston University in 2022. Prior to law school, Levi has worked in government, politics, nonprofits, and the legal field across Alabama; Mississippi; Washington, D.C.; Maine, and Massachusetts. Outside of law school, Levi enjoys exploring new places around the Southwest and hiking with his partner, Chris, and his dog, Duke.

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