Skoll Foundations New President Marla Blow Wants To Change The World
June 3, 2021
Martha Blow has always put social impact front-and-center in her work, both as a corporate executive - as SVP of Social Impact at MasterCard, and as the founder of FS Card--a credit card venture designed to make traditional credit available to underserved consumers.

With her new position as President and COO of the Skoll Foundation, a not-for-profit that seeks out social innovators to change the world, she is putting every major issue we face, from climate change to racial injustice to democracy itself, front and center. Here, she shares the challenges of transitioning from working for herself to joining a large company, how she manages her impatience and how, despite the enormity of issues her job entails, she stays focused.

You went from SVP of Social Impact at MasterCard to becoming the President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, what was that transition like? I am in the beginning of week four, so it's still brand new. The reason I wanted to make this change was about moving fully into a place where impact is at the center of why the organization exists, which differs from MasterCard and the Center for Inclusive Growth at MasterCard, which is a philanthropic arm of the operating parent company. MasterCard exists for a very specific reason--to be the network that connects all the transactions in our lives. I really wanted to explore change and social impact; the opportunity to move into a space where all we do is impact was compelling. That was why I made the switch. I've spent my career overwhelmingly in the private sector, in the corporate space and the entrepreneurial space. I have come to impact as a result of my experiences in those arenas. Now for me, this is learning, engaging and looking at the ways that I can do the impact work that I want to do in the context where impact is at the center. That's been really engaging.

What are the key assets or strengths you took from your previous job that you use where you are now? I am not a career philanthropic professional, and looking at how private sector entities can make an impact was what I learned at MasterCard, and I bring that perspective with me in the following way. Skoll is a foundation and as such, the primary reason that it exists, as I just mentioned, is about impact and grant making and the program work of our grantees, and highlighting and elevating our grantees, enabling them to make the changes they want to in the world. The Skoll Foundation is also a commercial entity in the sense that we have a large endowment, and in the end, that endowment sits in various places in capital markets, so our decisions can also have economic and commercial ripple effects around them. Activating that commercial side for impact is part of the perspective gained by my experience of being in the private sector. That means there's opportunity to ensure there's impact on both sides. That's one of the perspectives that I'm very committed to exploring and advancing at Skoll.

The Skoll Foundation invests in social entrepreneurs and innovators. Why is it so important to you now? What effect do you think this broader awareness of these issues has on companies now? The need for innovative solutions and for creative problem solving has never been more acute. The need has always been there, but the moment of a pandemic, racial awakening and conflict and the kind of reckoning and reveal about the deep division and I would say, significant cracks in the foundation of our democracy, makes this a particularly acute moment. That really raises the stakes for where we go from here. For that reason, to me, engaging with these kinds of novel actors--social entrepreneur and innovators, who are approaching problems in different ways and are looking at systems and conjuring up ideas to intervene and drive lasting change, has the potential to meet this moment and the intersection of those three things I just named.

Looking at Skoll’s site, the topics you're trying to address are so vast and so broad. How do you take it all in and give attention where it's needed? How do you shift focus from one topic to the other? It is one of the hardest parts of doing this work. There are so many ways to look at climate change and engage in driving change around our climate. And we have to choose and look for ways that demonstrate potential and ripple effects. Those ripple effects will then drive broader systemic implications. We look for that kind of longer-tailed opportunity as we go about doing this work. And it makes us ever more focused on what the systemic structural pieces are on an incumbent basis. Right? What is the state of play today versus what are the opportunities to be able to influence and shift pieces of it, that will lead to change in that system as a whole.

I subscribe to the idea that we overestimate what we can accomplish in short periods of time, and get impatient and frustrated because we have not seen this thing change. Then we underestimate how significantly we can change things over long periods of time.

How can in some cases, seemingly relatively small changes, hopefully and ultimately be the butterfly that flaps its wings on one side of the planet and leads to a tidal wave on the other side? That’s what we endeavor to identify. It's why we believe that organizations led by individuals and organizations that are part of systemic change, have that potential.

But it's difficult to sift through one of the important pieces at Skoll, we don't choose an answer to the cases ourselves. We look for individuals who have done the thinking and are proximate to an issue, understand the systemic dynamics, and apply their own energy and talent and vision to the problem. Then we accelerate them where we see potential.

How would you describe your leadership style? How has it evolved? I would describe my leadership style as balancing the tension inherent in being a leader. I have all of the employees at the Skoll Foundation, I have our community of grantees who have received funding from the Skoll Foundation, we have a living donor in Jeff Skoll himself, we have a board of directors, and all of those stakeholders have a point of view. My approach to this is-- all of them should be a little bit uncomfortable. There is a natural tension between them all. The grantees want more, the board wants us to be able to do more, Jeff has a vision about what he wants to see in the world, and the employees have a vision for what they want to see in the world. My view is if any of them are too happy, it probably means somebody is getting shortchanged. There has to be a bit of load sharing, right? Everybody should be a little bit like, ”I'd love to do more”, but have enough that feeling of, 'I'm getting a lot of what I like and I'm really excited about what we're doing'. Balancing that tension is my job as the leader, it's a tough way to go; it’s easy to choose a group and decide I'm going to please my board, or I'm doing my job right if Jeff is happy. But it's much more complicated and nuanced to think about all of the asks and proceed in this way of driving balance and managing tension.

You transitioned from founder to corporate executive. What do founders bring to the corporate environment? What are tips for navigating corporate culture? It is very difficult to go from being a founder and CEO into a corporate structure primarily because as a founder, all of the structures and all the approaches are outgrowths of what I built as an entrepreneur. I have found that trying to fit yourself into somebody else's system requires a large adjustment. Before I became an entrepreneur, I had been in the corporate sector for 25 years so it wasn't new, I just quickly lost the capacity to conform in some of those ways. I would say to others contemplating a switch, it's doable, but recognize that there's probably a two or three year adjustment period where it still feels it feels binding and constraining in ways. Being an entrepreneur is an exercise in how many times you can get back up after having taken body shot after body shot, after body shot. Right? Grit and persistence and being just flat out relentless are needed, and there is not a company where there is not an entrepreneur. There's nothing that exists, non-profits or anything else that doesn't have that backbone and that backstory somewhere in its legacy. Somewhere, someone's gritted it out, and that willingness to play through pain is something I carry with me now. It’s an important reveal, because when you are in a corporate structure a lot of that is invisible.

Your work requires somebody to be impatient, because every issue is so critical, but also very patient because change takes so long. Which are you more--impatient or patient? I think the truth is I have to manage my impatience. I generally subscribe to the idea that we overestimate what we can accomplish in short periods of time, and get impatient and frustrated, because we have not seen this thing change. Then we underestimate how significantly we can change things over long periods of time. I remind myself when I'm in my periods of feeling most impatient and most challenged on 'why is this such a persistent issue?' or 'why can't this change?', that I will eventually come out of that and be able to gain perspective. I can look back, see how far we may have come and remind myself that with a bit of belief in the process, there will be the bigger change that I aspire to. But I coach myself through impatience over and over and over again.

Favorite part of your job? Without question, tackling these problems with these grantees - these are absolutely unbelievable people. They are out there on the frontlines day-to-day plugging away with maximum focus on solving really deeply entrenched problems. My hat is off to them. That we can offer a little bit more fuel for that mission is the most gratifying thing in the world.

When is it of an advantage to be a woman in your business? When isn't it an advantage to be a woman in this business? Philanthropy is informed by the fact that there are a lot of women in this in this arena. I'm going to say this and I hope it doesn't sound too overly generalized, but being supportive of others, I think does fit nicely with a female perspective. I'm stumbling over the answer but something like that is what rings true for me. Philanthropy has added metrics and measures in an effort to be more ”hard and science driven” and that has had some positive dimensions to it. But broadly speaking, giving is a soft action. I do think that inclination fits well with the way that women are socialized and engage with the world. So, I think it's fairly well-oriented toward women, although like almost everything else, at the very top, philanthropy tends to be very male.

Career highlights: I'm in such a great position to say that there have been many. I think the career highlight is getting FS card to a place where we were issuing credits to underserved consumers, and giving them an opportunity to reintegrate into the mainstream credit world. Having created an entity that did not exist, until I made it exist, is something I will never forget. There were plenty of days where it was going well, and plenty of days where it was not. But when it was going well, it was the most intoxicating feeling I've ever had in my professional life.

What is a business mistake you made? What did you learn from it? As if there's only one?! I'll give a category of mistakes that is consistent with what I mentioned earlier about my own impatience. When I have felt that I wasn't able to grow as rapidly as I would have liked or make as much progress as I would have liked, I got impatient and occasionally that impatience would be a disservice. Either I would change directions, probably too quickly, without having given any particular approach enough room to run to see if it would work. Or I would switch into a different role either within an organization or by leaving an organization without recognizing that part of being successful professionally is that persistence. Early on, that impatience led me to shortchange some things I think actually may have had real potential I did not get to fully realize.

Advice to giving and receiving feedback: I am a believer in ripping off the band aid, I hope to build the relationships ahead of time that allow for honest exchange. Even in difficult moments, there is positive intent. And sometimes what feels like an outcome that both that the parties don't want can still lead to really great long-term outcomes on both sides.

Women on your radar. The first person that came to mind is a woman named Stacie Whisonat who has built a company in the student loan space and is doing some work right now with the Department of Education. She brings that level of creativity and energy and that same kind grit I was talking about before. I love watching her make decisions, navigate, take on challenges and really commit to this problem that I think she would say is one of the biggest problems for her generation--how are we financing education? How are we putting ourselves in a position to be functional in the future? And how what role can finance play in in changing that? I love it.

What motivates you? Hope. That by continuing to trust in this process, by continuing to work in the ways I'm working on things, and applying the skills, knowledge and experiences that I amassed, that there will be a peaceful and prosperous world for all. That fundamental, kind of internalizing of that, is what keeps me going.



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