8 Questions with Matt Mahan | Net Impact

8 Questions with Matt Mahan

This ongoing Q&A series profiles a few of the speakers we're looking forward to seeing at this year's Net Impact Conference. Matt is the CEO of Brigade Media and will be speaking in our Nonprofit & Public Sector Innovation track.

If you could spend 15 minutes with one impact hero past or present, who would it be and why?

Abraham Lincoln. I think Lincoln was the ultimate heroic leader. I admire that he had such strong vision and conviction, and yet was able to lead because he was practical and humble. It’s well known that after his election he surrounded himself with political rivals because they were the best people for the various cabinet roles (and he needed broad-based support for his policies, of course).

think startups operate according to a similar mentality—we strive to pull together the most talented people, evaluate our opportunities and risks without ego, and work together toward ambitious goals.

What’s one surprising stat or emerging trend anyone looking to make an impact in your field should know?

No matter what data you turn to, the current state of American democracy isn’t pretty. I’ll take some liberties and offer a few stats as evidence.

First, voter turnout has declined as the cost of elections has soared. Only about 40% of the eligible population votes during midterm elections, and that's just for the office at the top of the ballot. Moving down-ballot, even for an important office like mayor, average turnout drops to around 25%. Meanwhile, politicians spend roughly half of their time during the legislative cycle engaged in fundraising in order to be viable in the next cycle.

Second, American’s trust in elected officials and government institutions is historically low. Only 7% percent of Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress and two-thirds of Americans say the government is run for a “few big interests” vs. one-third who say it is run “for the people.” These ratios were inverted in the 1960s.

Third, our awareness of civic issues is lacking. There are more than 500,000 elected officials in this country, and the average American is represented by 50. But how many can each of us name? Not many.

These are disturbing statistics, but they are only symptoms of a more fundamental breakdown in our civic life: When people don’t show up to vote, have lost faith in their government, and lack civic awareness, there are deeper forces at play. These are cultural forces of apathy and cynicism that call for a paradigm shift of the kind that I believe only new technologies can spark.

What do you love about your work?

I’m passionate about the problem Brigade is tackling, and I love working with our incredibly talented team. You can’t ask for more than that. We’re currently in stealth mode, working hard to launch a product that aims to re-energize public participation in our democracy. It’s a big vision, but that’s the only kind of vision that is worth completely devoting oneself to. Lately, I’ve had an opportunity to meet with technologists, academics, political strategists, and others who encourage civic participation from different angles and for different purposes, and I’ve been incredibly inspired by those conversations. There are so many smart, well-intentioned people out there trying to make the world a better place.

What's the single biggest challenge in your work?

See above. We think there’s a huge opportunity to leverage technology to tackle the problem of declining civic engagement, but to do that we need to build a consumer-centric product that is scalable and sustainable. Thinking through that issue with our design, engineering, and product leads is a massive and sometimes all-encompassing challenge. Fortunately, we have world-class people working within and across teams at Brigade to ensure that we’re building something that will have a great shot at fulfilling our mission. Another big challenge is setting expectations that what we develop will evolve and improve over time. That’s particularly important to remember when you read headlines about how Brigade seeks to “fix politics.” That’s a tall order, and it’s certainly not something an individual tech startup can do solo.

What's your best advice for someone who wants to create positive change through their career?

This is counterintuitive, but I encourage idealistic young people to consider opportunities beyond the traditional “social good” jobs in the nonprofit and corporate social responsibility sectors, and instead think about creating change through products and companies that touch a lot of people’s lives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working at a nonprofit (I’ve spent a lot of time working with and for nonprofits through the years), but traditional industries need socially minded people to transform their products for a new era.

When have you found yourself breaking boundaries in your work? (Breaking boundaries is this year’s conference theme.)

Our leadership team recently engaged a professional coach to help us work together more effectively. We’ve used this opportunity to define our leadership values and openly evaluate our respective strengths and gaps as leaders. This may not sound like major boundary-breaking stuff, but I think the hardest work is often the work you have to do within yourself in order to achieve your wildest dreams outside yourself. It’s been a real privilege to step back and work on our leadership skills at this early stage in the company. I think it will prove to be a wise investment for all of us and the company.

How has being part of the Net Impact community or attending the conference in the past made a difference in your work?

I’ve had the good fortune of attending and speaking at Net Impact events many times over the past six or seven years now. I always find that I come away with new relationships and inspiration that are unpredictably wonderful—I’ve made new friends and gotten business deals done thanks to Net Impact. It’s a fantastic community.

What’s your best advice for first-time conference attendees?

Most importantly, walk up to people and start conversations. You’ll be surprised by the range of experiences and talents in the room, and what may come out of those conversations. Also, and I don’t mean to undermine myself or my fellow panelists here, but I typically find that the best moments take place after a panel, in the lobby or otherwise outside of the formal program. Be sure to show up for that part of the conference as well!

About Matt

Matt is responsible for the strategic and operational leadership of Brigade, a technology company launched in 2014 to tackle the problem of declining citizen power and engagement in democracy. He previously served as CEO of Causes, the world’s largest online campaigning platform, with 186 million registered users in 156 countries. Matt has been featured as a panelist and speaker at leading conferences, including the United Nations Economic and Social Council Youth Forum, Social Capital (SOCAP), Net Impact, Nexus Global Youth Summit, Stanford’s Social Media On Purpose, and Social Media Day. He is a frequent presenter on college campuses, including Harvard, Wharton, Boston College, and Duke. Before working in tech, Matt taught in San Jose, CA through Teach for America and was the recipient of Harvard’s Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial fellowship. He's speaking at this year's conference at Driving Change Digitally: Impact at Our Fingertips.

Want more? 

This year's conference is over, but you can also catch up with video of several sessions on our site. Watch now!