In Conversation: Mark Hanis
22 May 2018 at 8:57 am
Mark Hanis is a serial social entrepreneur and a research fellow with Stanford University’s Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice.
In 2004, while he was still a student at Swarthmore College, Hanis, alongside fellow student Sam Bell, founded the Genocide Intervention Network to empower citizens with the tools to advance initiatives that directly protected civilians from atrocities in Darfur.
They launched a campaign for 100 Days of Action on Darfur which raised $250,000 for civilian protection and was kicked-off with about 400 people advocating on Capitol Hill for a more robust response.
The organisation soon grew. By July 2011, it merged with Save Darfur Coalition to become United to End Genocide, an organisation building the largest activist organisation in America dedicated to preventing and ending genocide and mass atrocities worldwide.
Since graduating with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Public Policy, Hanis has helped found several other social impact organisations. These include the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, which engages global leaders to drive social change at scale, and the Organ Alliance (now Organize) which addresses unnecessary deaths due to a shortage of transplantable organs.
He was a 2006 Draper Richards Kaplan fellow, a 2006 Echoing Green fellow, a 2008 Ashoka fellow, a 2009 Prime Mover fellow and was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Hanis, who was raised in Quito, Ecuador, also served as a White House fellow working in the office of vice president Biden as the national security affairs special advisor for South America, Africa, and human rights.
He is in Australia as a guest of LaunchPad to participate as an international mentor for the 2018 LaunchPad Retreat.
Here he talks about being the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, his struggle to keep a work-life balance, and the banality of good.
You started your first organisation when you were still a student and you are now a serial entrepreneur. Where does your desire to change the world come from?
I often talk about my four grandparents being holocaust survivors. And I think being a Jew in a 99 per cent Roman Catholic country you are inevitably an outsider. I didn’t do the cross every time I played soccer, there wasn’t Jesus on every wall in my house or in the car, which it almost always was with everyone else. And so I think I was always like “who else is not being included?” and why and is that fair, is that not fair?
Sadly poverty was really bad in Ecuador, many stop lights would have naked children begging for money. And I would be on the inside of a bus or a car and here would be a kid around my age asking for money. I’d like to think it’s inevitable that a young person would say “why? What’s the difference between us?” So I think firstly it was just the awareness, it was pretty much in your face.
Secondly, in Judaism there is a phrase called “tikkun olam” which is about repairing the world. And then my school was very social justice minded. There was a landfill near my school and there was a community that just spent their lives on this landfill, mining for plastics and other things. We would come bring Christmas presents, we would invite their children to play on our soccer fields. I think that was always a big piece about my responsibility to, in part, share part of my privilege of the “ovarian lottery”, as Warren Buffett calls it.
How did you make the leap from feeling empathy and like you had a responsibility to make a difference to actually starting an organisation?
Well I don’t think it was an idea of coming up with an organisation. When we heard about the genocide in Darfur, my classmates and I were saying “We’ve got an idea of adopting peacekeepers”, sort of like how people adopt a child or a goat or a village. So we wanted to just write an article and get it published with what we thought was a novel idea. We rarely saw young people being published in the newspaper. And so we just spent time on Google, cold emailing more established people to just add their name to it. So I think [talking about “my drive”] feels like giving me too much credit than is deserved because we had this crazy idea that maybe naive, aspirational college students have, which I think many do. And then it was more baby steps that just lead to “oh no one is doing it”, someone is willing to take a risk helping us create a contract and then investing in us. It sort of happened to us in a way rather than us necessarily designing it from scratch.
You talk a lot about your grandparents. What role has their story had on shaping who you are and what you do?
I would like to think it is critical. I don’t know what the counterfactual is. My mother’s mother was an orphan when the Nazis took over Austria, and was able to get on this program called the Kindertransport where young Jews were allowed to get refuge in the United Kingdom. And just hearing how my grandmother, her brother was eight, I think she was either 11 or 13, they went as just young kids into foster care in Scotland. It’s pretty remarkable. Some challenges I never had to deal with. And so any time we were going to Scotland from Ecuador, I was like “tell me more about my grandmother”. She would tell us stories and that was all I knew.
And then going to synagogue, where everyone was either a survivor or descendants of survivors. So the older generation would roll up their sleeves in many services if they had the numbers tattooed from the camps, to sort of make sure that the younger generations knew that “never again”, meant never again for not just Jews but anyone. So I don’t know, sometimes people are like, “well, how would you think differently if you weren’t a woman?” And it’s like, “I don’t know, that’s all I know”. I think always knowing that I’m a grandson of Holocaust survivors it always meant knowing Jews have been oppressed and Jews have a strong social justice compass or charge, has always been part of my life.
You mentioned before that when you first had the idea for United to End Genocide, you wanted to write an article but you didn’t see young people being published. Do you think young people are supported enough to make a difference or is there still a sense that you make change when you’re older?
I think the latter. I talk a lot about in Washington DC, it’s a very ageist culture, which I think is fortunately the reverse in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. So almost it correlates very strongly age and power in DC. The older the senator or staff member, the more influence they have. So it is pretty rare to see a young person in a position of power, whereas in Silicon Valley you have a Mark Zuckerberg hiring a more seasoned entrepreneur like Sheryl Sandberg to help run a major corporation. That seems to be like a pretty common narrative.
So I think in Stanford University they don’t discourage their young people taking time off and I have some friends who were actually encouraged to take time off, to go start an entrepreneurial enterprise, a for profit or not for profit. I don’t think that’s the case often on the east coast, which is where I studied. I found it really hard to get funding if I didn’t fit the mould. I was trying to go to Sierra Leone to work in human rights, working for the war crimes tribunal and it was extremely hard to get funding during the academic year. They would only allow me during the summer and I thought that seemed kind of arbitrary.
At the same that it seems harder for younger people to get initial support and funding, a lot of well known social enterprises have been started by young people. How do you reconcile those two things?
Technology, I think is one of the most phenomenal tools, platforms, ecosystems to empower anyone. And I think we use phrases like digital natives, but millennials and generation Z are so comfortable using e-mail and Twitter and Facebook and are able to share their ideas and their voice.
I look at these high-schoolers related to the gun violence issue in Florida, these high-schoolers have now hundreds of thousands or millions of followers. So every tweet they send there are senior level people in every sector of society following what an 11-year-old girl thinks about gun violence and the intersection of gun violence, race and gender. Like how often would an 11 year old, 10 years ago, 20 years ago ever have an opportunity to have a senior producer at CNN hear directly what she thinks, like never. That is amazing.
What are the implications of this for the world we live in?
I think there is both pros and cons. I think my worry is that the feedback loop of technology is so powerful. I don’t use Instagram but I do use Facebook and Twitter. But to get likes or shares or retweets, it can happen within a matter of seconds and it’s a pretty phenomenal dopamine hit and accelerated expansion of your message.
But most social change, if it was that easy to solve the problem would have been solved. A lot of the stuff like sexism, racism, homophobia takes a bit more than a retweet. And I worry that the framework of the ecosystem of technology having an automatic feedback loop at a very low bar of hitting retweet or like, doesn’t necessarily apply to social justice. So that’s the worry, that there is not necessarily a natural connection. But being able to be a college senior and working to try to stop genocide in Darfur using Facebook and email and getting a million people on board on an issue would not be possible without technology. So I think it’s how do you mould it responsibly and effectively.
How were you able to take what you started as a college senior and build it into becoming the largest activist organisation in America dedicated to preventing and ending genocide?
Well there were lots of failures. But I think one is teamwork. I had classmates. Often I worry that when we hear success stories, in whatever platform, it’s often seen as “what did Steve Jobs do?” or “what did Bill Gates do?” when each of those had co-founders and most of the time a lot of the success was through teams. So I had that with a lot of my classmates.
Mentors played a critical role, my professors. There was a vice president at my college who was critical to the ability of us to generate money, legally they were able to help us make money. We didn’t know as college seniors how to do that. People from the fundraising office at the college taught me how to fundraise. So there was a huge mentorship component.
The third was luck, which I think is often underrated. And so we got a cold call from Pam Omidyar, the wife of the founder of eBay who initially gave us $44,000 and ended up giving us over a million dollars, to scale. I didn’t know who she was when she first called and I could have had five degrees, 20 degrees of separation to her. She called us. And that’s pretty lucky.
You talk about the luck you had and that you had a lot of failures. Do you think in the social enterprise space failures are celebrated enough?
The reason I came to Australia was for this amazing retreat called Launchpad and they specifically organised an evening called Fuckup Night. And I think they got the idea from another convening of social entrepreneurs talking about failure. And it’s great to see that they built into the agenda an opportunity for multiple people to talk about failure. So at least my Australian trip, it’s been great talking about failure but I don’t think we talk enough about it.
There’s a great podcast that I’m trying to elevate where like Reid Hoffman or others are asking people to talk about their biggest failure. People feel uncomfortable talking about failure. But I worry that we’re not there yet, we’re not ready enough to talk about failure. And part of that is, I found, now having had more of a track record which I didn’t have at all as a college student, that it’s incredibly hard to get seed funding for either for profits or nonprofits. People claim to want to be early seed investors, angel investors, in taking risk capital, there’s all these new words that people use and yet I have found it to be still quite difficult to have people absorb some type of risk, even though it could be responsible and with due diligence. I don’t think we’re where I would like the ideal to be.
How do we get there?
One is, I think we just need to talk about it, like saying we all fail, “oh that person is very successful and they have failed many times”. I know Hillary Clinton was talking here, and inevitably I suspect they will talk about the last election cycle, and even the previous election cycle where she was unsuccessful. And yet she is one of the most successful people in her space. And so I think that combination of having a prominent person talk about what went wrong and what was learnt from it, where possible you should have that conversation.
Two, I think it’s an all or nothing mentality which is terrible. And so I think it is about saying you can still mitigate the risk. So does that person have a budget? Do they have a solid team? What else have they done? Who else is advising them? And that’s why we tried to do as college students, we had Samantha Power, who then became U.S. ambassador to the UN. She was on our advisory board. So when the wife of the founder of eBay saw that she was on our advisory board it mitigated the risk of her making a seven figure gift. And so I think more people need to be able to say, “you’re starting something new, let’s sort of figure out how we can manage that risk responsibly and now I’m willing to invest in you”. It’s weird, but my largest investors in one of the startups I am working at now is a new investor. None of my other investors were willing to take that seed risk which to me is really interesting.
What has been your biggest failure?
The easiest one is while I was a college student I was neglectful of my schoolwork because I was so overwhelmed with the activism and I failed to do any of my schoolwork until the very end. In order to graduate I had to submit a significant number of papers and other projects and so I just consumed as much coffee and soda as I could, to stay up for as many days straight as possible. And I ended up losing consciousness and had a seizure. So people talk about burning the midnight oil, but I physically broke down and clearly did not have any work-life balance .
Did you learn from that? How did you instil a work-life balance afterwards?
Not well! I think it reminds me, when I do feel exhausted, like I was up till two for phone calls in the east coast with the time difference and I was falling asleep. And so I think knowing that there’s a natural break point versus oh just push a little bit more. I could be like you know maybe I should stop doing a two o’clock phone calls. So I think I’m just more aware. I still don’t think I’m near a healthy or responsible balance yet.
Looking at the work you have done towards stopping genocide, how much progress has been made?
I think we failed in the ultimate outcome. The genocide is still ongoing, albeit not as bad as now Burma or Syria. But I think it’s also a matter of where the bar is and so Rwanda is like a common bar people will look to. And in that case the US withdrew peacekeepers and humanitarian aid for a good while. And in Darfur we deployed the largest peacekeeping mission and the largest humanitarian aid mission. So in those categories I would say success. And so I think we made people live longer. But I don’t know if we saved them from the perpetrators.
If you were a student now, what do you think would be the issue that you would feel you really need to try and do something about?
In America I think campaign finance reform is one of the biggest problems of politicians being more focused on fundraising and less focused on critical policies. And I think it also creates a more hyper partisan environment when they’re just trying to cater to the base of people who want them to be more extreme. So maybe that.
Some of the work that your organisation has done has focused on portraying shocking stories to show people what is happening. Do you think showing the extreme side is the best tactic to deal with some of these issues and generate support?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m like an effective curator of storytelling. I guess I’d say two parts. One is I think the extreme parts help shock our conscious into action. But I also think, at least when I talk about genocide, which is a pretty shocking topic of people being exterminated for who they are in large numbers, is not forgetting the banality of it. So people talk about the banality of evil, like if we keep saying “oh it’s only Hitler and the senior leadership”. It required the average doctor and carpenter and plumber to be complicit and complacent and we tend to forget that injustice requires the masses to be complicit or complacent, that banality. And I’d like to think on the do-good side if we keep, which in America they often do, talking about Martin Luther King and Gandhi as examples of social change leaders, they’re such remarkable unique people that I don’t think it’s as empowering as if you talk about the banality of good.
How do you get people’s attention in world where we are all very exposed to shocking stories?
Well I’m an avid reader of the New York Times. And so one thing I’ve seen them do which is really great, particularly with the current administration, the Trump administration, there’s an onslaught of bad, in my partisan way, decision-making that it feels overwhelming. And so they’ve launched a series of like “what is going well”. They have this great column called Fixes, where they highlight what they call bright spots and see how we can scale those. So I think hearing positive stories is a good way to do it. And a well known platform like the New York Times helps get a lot of readers.
I’ve thought about the banality of good a lot. There are so many shootings in America, but there was one recently where a mentally unstable young man walked into a waffle house naked and shot, and there was another patron of the waffle house who just tried to fight him and took the gun. He wasn’t Martin Luther King, but he helped save lives, and he was just saying it is the right thing to do. And so I would like to think that we try to elevate those stories as much.
One thing when I was working on genocide, at the time we did a campaign called Genocide is News. We tried to compare the news coverage of Darfur versus the “runaway bride” and I think it was Michael Jackson’s [trial] perhaps. And the runaway bride, this woman who no one knows her name got like two times, three times, I can’t remember the number now, more coverage than genocide. And so we did a campaign where we asked Americans to contact the media outlets and say “I want to see more news coverage of Darfur” and they responded. So one way is engage the media outlets to say “I’m a viewer, I’d like to see more of x, y, z”.
Tell me about the projects you are working on currently.
So two things, one is a charity to try to increase diversity and inclusion in the federal government in the United States. So the president of the United States can hire 7,000 people in the executive branch and no one tracks any category of diversity gender, age, sexual orientation and so on and anyone who does focus on diversity and inclusion in government focuses on the legislative branch, trying to get more women to run for Senate, people of colour and so on. So we’re trying to fill that gap of the executive branch and we’re trying to create a baseline to look at what the problem is and how bad it is. Because it’s pretty bad. And then help by creating slates of qualified, non straight white guys, for each position to eliminate the excuse, which is often an excuse, of why they hired a young straight white guy. That is called Inclusive America.
And then the other project is a for-profit social enterprise. And what we’re doing is we’re harnessing the power of affiliate marketing with web browser extensions. So with affiliate marketing, 99 per cent of vendors will give a referral fee, a commission, by getting customers. So anytime you book a airplane ticket through Skyscanner or Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, the airlines will pay them a small slice baked into the price of the ticket, for bringing them a customer. So it’s marketing based on performance and everyone does it. Any time they ask for a promo code or discount code that’s how the vendor knows who to pay the 4 per cent on average to. So we’re going to harness that and use it as a way to generate donations for charities. So every time you’re shopping, you can force these merchants to direct 4 per cent to charity. So it’s a cool way to passively raise money, because a lot of people are capitalist consumers. So that’s one thing, we’re also going to inject other opportunistic actions, so you can RSVP for an event, call your policymaker to get them to do the right thing on the cuts, and we’re injecting conscious consumption so we can check which vendors you’re shopping on and whether they are in line with the values of the charity that you support.