As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Horoszowski.
Mark Horoszowski is the CEO at MovingWorlds, a social enterprise that helps companies scale their social impact programs by educating and engaging employees through its S-GRID Corporate Platform. Mark is an RSA Fellow and is a founding adjunct faculty member and lecturer on Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m the son of two Eastern European immigrants. My dad escaped communism in Poland and my mom was a political refugee from Yugoslavia. My dad tells this story: In his first week in America he was housed in the projects, was mugged, and saw a policemen beating an old black gentleman. His quote to summarize his feelings, “the streets paved of gold, this is the biggest bullshit I was ever told in my life” (It’s sad, but if you say it with a thick Polish accent it definitely gets a laugh). Growing up, I never felt that we were living the American dream, but rather, we knew that it was everybody’s responsibility to support the community, learn as much as possible, and work hard to try and make things better. We spent a lot of time in nature, and my mom would always be picking up trash along the way. My dad was active, too. He was involved with the Polish Home Association (a Polish cultural center) in Seattle. It was their community-mindedness that got involved in Boy Scouts, and later, as a national volunteer with the American Cancer Society. I did so much volunteering at one point that my parents had an “intervention” with me to make sure I was not hurting my own future and prospects while trying to help others. Looking back it was that vast experience volunteering that helped me learn about the world and build my skills so that, when I entered the workforce, it was like I had already spent a decade in consulting and program management. I graduated college with a Master’s in Accounting, but after one busy season I decided it wasn’t for me. I ended up at a small healthcare marketing agency that was more aligned with my values and quickly transitioned from accounting to client management, and then to launching a new digital strategy subsidiary right at the time when social media and SEO were being recognized as potentially viable channels. Our agency survived the great recession, and while working through it, I wanted us to take a more active role in supporting the nonprofit sector which was totally decimated. The owner and I had a different vision for growth, and so I decided to hire my replacement and spent a year traveling the world to volunteer my skills with social businesses to answer a question: what makes social businesses flourish? From Nepal to Indonesia to Malaysia and then Argentina I saw the power of these entities, and the common thread that made them prosper: effective leaders, high-performing teams, and lots of connections. In Argentina, I met Derk Norde who had previously founded a global impact investing organization and we shared the same belief that there is too much focus on trying to scale by raising capital, and that there are ways to support more social enterprises by supporting them with human capital. MovingWorlds was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We built the first prototype for MovingWorlds on a google sheet and shared it out to some people. Instead of charging people online, we tried to schedule a call and conduct our first experiments to better understand our users. We then would close the call asking people to pay for the service we were providing… it was like $25. I remember being so nervous the very first time I asked someone for $25 to pay for our service, and then person said yes… I was ecstatic! I told a friend of mine and peer CEO that my first experiment went great and that someone paid. He asked how much and then looked at me like an idiot after I shared the amount. He then outlined all the ways we were adding value, and asked me to confirm if he understood it correctly. I confirmed, and he looked at me and said, “so let me get this straight… you are going to spend hundreds of dollars on this person, and you’re happy that you’re going to lose just a little less money?”. The reality was, I was so nervous about asking people for money I discounted our value so much that I devalued the brand. It was a really important moment for me to realize that people have problems and they actually want to pay to solve them. In fact, they are usually ready to spend a lot of money if you really solve a problem better than anyone else. I learned the importance of doing customer development from that one moment better than any other moment.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
This might come across as boring, but “The Effective Executive” by Peter Drucker stands out to me. I think that, especially in the social impact space, there is an echo-chamber of creating positive impact and mission above all else. This is important, but we forge to learn from the organizations that are the most expertly run: businesses. If organizations do not operate effectively, they will never reach their potential. Management reading might not be the most exciting, but for an industry plagued by poor management, I think it is vital, and this particular book is foundational.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
9 out of 10 purpose driven businesses are not going to make it. The 10% that will are the exciting ones that draw all the big name investors and awards, but we want to support the 9 out of 10 that are in the “Pioneer Gap” — that place where startups and innovators get stuck once they encounter the challenges of moving from an idea to a scalable business. Capital will never flow in big enough volume to risky, early-stage ventures, but humans will. Our vision was to help democratize access to human capital and connections to help the majority of social enterprises make it through this gap.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Stay principled and focus on the long-term — humans are what make every business work, and they deserve a leader that is committed to long-term impact and growth, and that it will be achieved in an authentic and principled way.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
If we are going to talk about the challenges beyond financial and health, I think you have to look at the mental toll this crisis is taking. More uncertainty leads to more stress, and less personal connections means more anxiety about a sense of belonging. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and reflecting on my own mental state, ran little experiments to identify ways to manage it with more grace, and spent more time asking for feedback from my team so that I can show up better to support them. As one additional tip, I have found a lot of inspiration for this by just getting out in nature: Sometimes on long-distance trail runs which is a new pastime of mine, but even just hanging out under a tree in a local park.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a scaling organization, one of the keys to success is staying focused on our users’ needs and continuing to practice design-thinking and customer development. In this era, you lose the opportunities of doing this in in-person settings where you can learn a lot more, and more quickly. To address it, we had to get uncomfortable asking more people for more time. I was worried we would be over asking potential partners, and while that was true sometimes, we also learned that many people appreciated being asked for their viewpoints and to contribute to helping build something.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I read a lot of this last year, and the book that stuck with me the most, at least as it relates to this topic, is “Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art”. Have you ever heard of “email apnea”? Even if not, I bet you have experience it… You know that realization after you send an email and let out a long breath? That is because you were so absorbed in your work that you forgot to breathe. Improper breathing is literally killing us. I now practice my breathing every day with the goal of spending a greater percentage of my day breathing softly through my nose, driven by my diaphragm, with 5 second inhales and 5 second exhales. I do it when I am writing (at least I try to remember to do it), I do it in meetings, I do it on walks, I do it eating… Try it for 30 seconds and you will get why it feels so good. It is small change, but this act of breathing is so valuable and is something I have been sharing with others probably more than anything else.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We just finished a big research project on this where we interviewed 75 leaders across businesses, corporate social responsibility teams, impact investors, and even the government. Environmental, social, and governance factors will be an increasing focus for leaders across all sectors. We are going to see a lot more activity in helping governments and companies achieve ESG targets, and I think that social businesses are going to see the biggest opportunity to scale not through the rise in impact investing (which I think is getting terribly green-washed), but rather through solving social and business problems in world-positive ways through the day-to-day operations of business activities. As a result, social business will be received more openly in business-to-business sales.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There are people that know a lot more about me on this and how it will change work environments and travel and even eating out… But, sadly, I think the biggest long-term impact is the growth in inequality during this time, which in term will create more political and social challenges. I hope this leads to an awakening for social businesses, but that will only be possible if key sector players — governments, multinational corporations, international NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations — prioritize social businesses.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are growing rapidly because of a rising interest in integrating more purpose, sustainability, and equality into the corporate sector. I expect this to continue, and we are investing more that ever before in our S-GRID Corporate Platform, which is a fully managed corporate social responsibility service for companies that helps them scale social impact and sustainability initiatives by engaging and educating employees.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Learn, spend time talking to potential customers, and try things… fast.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“That humans do not learn from the lessons of history, that is the most important lesson of history”. At the end of the great recession, there was a lot of talk about income equality and caring for the environment. It did not get prioritized and here we are again saying the same things. The same thing will happen in another decade or two unless we all truly internalize the danger that democracy, people, and the planet are facing, and ensure that our day-to-day work is truly doing something to benefit at least one of these stakeholders, if not them all at the same time.
How can our readers further follow your work?
LinkedIn is best: https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhoroszowski/
I’m also on Twitter at @markhoroszowski
Also, subscribe to the MovingWorlds Monthly Social Impact news roundup. I’m biased, but it’s awesome.
If you want to grow your career and integrate more impact, join the MovingWOrlds Institute Global Fellowship Program.
If you lead a social enterprise, our MovingWorlds S-GRID Social Enterprise Revenue Growth Accelerator will help you build corporate connections.