Q&A: Mark Richardson leaves the Urban League to start his own business | THE CAP TIMES | September 22, 2013
Mark Richardson wants to know what sticks out most on his new business card. We’re sitting in his new office, located at the top of a spiral staircase in a nook of his near east side house. Next to his name on the card — where Ph.D., MBA or other credentials are often found — is an unfamiliar abbreviation: Rw.E.
“Real World Experience,” says Richardson, 45, with a grin. “We place such a value on our credentials, degrees, certifications and in this market that’s to our own detriment sometimes. But I want people to ask about that. The answer is, I might not have the three letters you have, but I have these three letters. And a lot of people have these three letters.”
Richardson recently left his post as vice president of Economic & Workplace Development at the Urban League of Greater Madison to start his own company, Unfinished Business, where he is part job coach, part head hunter. He seeks to use his experience in the private sector (Charter Communications), state government (Departments of Tourism and Commerce under former Gov. Jim Doyle) and the nonprofit world (Urban League) to connect people looking for a career change with companies seeking talent.
It’s a natural step for Richardson, who sits on the boards of Downtown Madison Inc. and Monona Terrace along with the Dane County Economic Development Commission.
“Mark is a star,” says John Roach, who sits on the Urban League board. “He plays with every community. He’s really part of the new face of Madison.”
The Capital Times: When you left the Urban League and started Unfinished Business, did you jump right in or take a little while to separate?
Mark Richardson: I jumped right in. Friends and colleagues I used to work with would call and say, I’m thinking about leaving the department of whatever or I’m thinking about going from a big corporation to a nonprofit. I know you’ve worked in each of these places, what do you think? So I’d spend a couple minutes on the phone, give them some dos and don’ts. I thought, this is sort of happening anyway, but just in passing. Why not build a business around it?
Possibly due to the discussions around Madison Prep, the Urban League has a heightened profile in the eyes of many around Madison. Was it hard to step away from that?
It was and it wasn’t. It was because every day I worked with colleagues who were working to build capacity in people and help people better their job situations. My work there enabled me to see gaps and see that many times the hiring process is inefficient. It’s quantitative, not qualitative and many times people get lost in the shuffle. Maybe it comes down to what it has always come down to, which is who you know, not what you know.
But at the same time the timing was right because of the work we had done. We just completed our third Workplace Diversity and Leadership Summit, so we were pushing the market in this direction, which is to say all professionals should be valued regardless of your background, culture, color or ethnicity. You should look at diversity at all levels of your organization as a competitive advantage. We worked really hard at the League to push the market that way and we will continue to, but it seemed a good time to help organizations find talent.
Through the summits, the Urban League learned that it wasn’t so much an issue of human resources managers not wanting to improve diversity, but that they didn’t have the tools to reach out and do so. Have you seen progress in that area?
Absolutely. HR managers were saying, we want to become a more diverse staff. We look to hire folks with different backgrounds, we just keep getting the same candidate pool. And I don’t think that’s a cop-out or an excuse. If you were to ask an HR manager how they’ve hired over the last couple of years, chances are it’s someone in the company who knows someone. So let’s create an event that takes professional networks and slams them together and creates relationships with executives, mid-level managers, HR professionals so we can start having one conversation about it and everyone can benefit from everyone else’s best practices.
Are there examples that this is actually working?
We had a CEO host the Madison Network of Black Professionals luncheon, which happens monthly. He had great interactions with the professionals who were there. One individual was actually interested in working for him and they spun off and had a conversation and he ended up hiring her.
He’s actually talking to someone else now about coming aboard. As a market, we’d be foolish to think this kind of thing will happen organically, because if that was the case it would already be happening. I think we have to find pressure points and opportunities to push and say let’s find folks who are going to get behind this and let’s support them, give them the tools and then let them go.
People in Madison talk a lot about “brain drain.” How much of that has to do with diversity, even as it pertains to young white professionals who are leaving Madison or never getting here?
Anecdotally, without question it’s affecting young professionals and their decision to leave. It’s not just me saying that, the university will tell you that. They’ve got Fortune 500 companies telling them they don’t come here to recruit because they don’t see the diversity on campus they expect. And are the folks they’d recruit from here prepared to work in a diverse work environment?
The younger you are, the more diversity you want to see in a workplace and environment. So you’d be crazy to think it doesn’t impact someone’s decision to stay. If you’re looking around and you don’t see opportunity — and this doesn’t just go for diverse individuals — if you don’t see yourself or the environment in which you’d want to work, that contributes to your decision to leave the market. Minneapolis is not a great place to be in the winter, but we lose people to that market all the time because that market speaks to them.
You just signed a deal to work with the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP, formerly Thrive). What was your pitch?
Timing was everything. One of the five strategies they’re pursuing was to do something about young and diverse emerging leaders in this area so that we put them in position to make a difference and we stop losing them to other markets. As we were fleshing that out, it happened to coincide with my stepping away from the Urban League. I mentioned to Paul Jadin (MadREP president), I would love to help you lay the tracks for that strategy and bridge some of the work I’ve done with the Urban League so that you’re not starting from zero and we can keep the momentum.
At the same time I stepped away from the League, Kaleem (Caire, Urban League president) said we’d love you to help us continue to build the summit. So I’ve got myself in position to have the work of both organizations be leveraged against each other to have better effectiveness.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask you this: Have you ever thought about running for office?
You’re the first person in the media to ask. No, I have not. It seems that once you decide to run for office, particularly these days, it’s more about drawing lines instead of erasing them. And I’m not about drawing them. Until that changes, I don’t see it happening.