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An Unconventional Urban Activist on Food, Employment, and Upward Mobility

An Unconventional Urban Activist on Food, Employment, and Upward Mobility

Mark Brand is a new kind of leader. He was once homeless and addicted to drugs. Now, he’s an entrepreneurial chef who runs a series of successful Vancouver-based businesses and projects that use food to open employment opportunities to diverse, vulnerable populations. What can Brand’s experience teach us about resilience, and the power of profit-driven social enterprises?
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: Mark Brand, who is coming up next, is a social entrepreneur, an activist, and a chef who has—who really went through a really tough time in his own life with drugs and homelessness and a lot of other stuff. In Vancouver, he’s created a whole ecosystem of companies, he’s now based in Queens. So he’s going to tell us how he sort of synthesizes his interest in food and his interest in helping vulnerable populations. And then after he talks for a few minutes, my colleague from Technonomy, Steve Gray, is going to join him on stage and spend a little time talking to him.
So, Mark, join us please. Oh, the video first.
Mark Brand: I believe that food is a conduit to love and show people that we really deeply care about them and their success. And that every time we do the opposite, it is the opposite, it’s disrespecting people. When you live that, even if it’s briefly, it affects you forever because when you are in that, it’s the loneliest place in the world but also you feel like everybody thinks you’re garbage. I want to be that person that’s there for somebody else when this comes into that place, I want to build an entire structure that’s ready to help people.
When I was looking at traditional meal programs that were being served by government and by other folks all across North America, I was nothing short of disgusted. It was really upsetting because the metric of success is how many people you can feed, not how many people you can feed well.
Somebody says, “Hey, can I have some money because I’m hungry,” which happens all day, every day, in every city that we know. Most people ignore them, most people won’t talk to them. So, instead of pretending that that’s not a thing, that people don’t ignore and they don’t give money, I just asked everybody why they don’t give money. And they said, “I don’t give money because I don’t trust people with it, that I think they’ll use for drugs or alcohol.” Now, that bias sucks but it’s real so we have to address it as real.
Just a sandwich, it’s only redeemable for a sandwich, you can’t trade it for cash, it’s not worth any drugs. What I was most excited about is that you would hand it to somebody. So yes I’m excited that you’re going to get a sandwich, great. You’re hungry, you have a place of inclusion you can go to, that’s really cool. I’m way more excited that you’re going to talk to somebody who is feeling super isolated in the street entrenched.
When I had done my second bout where I was unhoused, I was living with my best friend at the time in East Vancouver, I fell into addiction to drugs and alcohol. And in that time, I used to go to a place called Save On Meats that had been there since 1957 and I’d sit at the counter and eat a burger for like $3.50 and I’d get really full. But I ate there because I didn’t have a lot of resource and I also felt a lot of judgement at the time, as you do when you’re battling with addiction. And in that space were cops, cons, everybody in-between and it was one of those rare places where that occurs in this day and age.
We employ people that have physical disabilities, mental disabilities, traditional other barriers and that being a rap sheet. Somebody has made bad decisions in their life, I’ve made a bunch of them and I’ve worked my way out of them. We don’t look at any of that as a hinderance, we look at it as a diverse ability or something that you could actually bring to the job that’s more important.
Homelessness is a symptom; poverty is what I care about. We have more than enough resources times a hundred to fix all of these things, they’re just going to the wrong places. We just have to be smarter, we just have to.
I’m going to stand down here if that’s okay with everybody instead of on the stage, the stage makes me feel weird. I’d just like to thank two of my friends who are in the room right now, Eamonn Store, former CEO of “The Guardian” who runs a company called FairShare that made that video possible. And another gentleman named Marcus Glover who is one of the big cheeses at Defy Ventures that works on recidivism every single day. So, if we could give them a round of applause.
Okay, so, what it doesn’t say there is I’ve 13 different business, multiple cost centers. I’m a serial entrepreneur, also a masochist apparently because almost all of them are in food and it’s impossible to make any money. But I really care deeply about convening so this stuff matters to me and while we’re talking a lot about tech and digital and how it’s going to help us which I truly believe is a fact, I also care so much about the disappearing community spaces in our neighborhoods and how we don’t get to be with each other often enough.
So, just think of that as the backbone of this talk. And this is the most important thing that I’ve ever learned in my entire life which is we get out of this and I find myself being guilty of it all the time, so I’m going to ask you to trust me and just close your eyes with me for two seconds, mine are going to stay open so I’m going to know if you’re not and if you’re still looking at me that’s weird. Okay, and just take a full breath in and think about somebody who really inspires you and why. And then out. And then I’m going to get you to take that breath again and think about what time today you’re going to contact them and tell them how much you appreciate them. And then out. Okay, you can look at me again. That wasn’t that weird, right? I mean, it looked kind of weird from my standpoint but honor that. Honor the people in your life that inspire you and that show up for you and that you show up for. Like, we have these fleeting moments all the time, we don’t reach out enough. While we’re constantly connected, we’re the single most disconnected generation that has ever lived. Giving me a thumbs up on Facebook is not a phone call.
So I did a talk up north in Canada not that long ago and I’d had a super terrible business day. And on that day, I was walking down the street getting ready for a keynote the next day and ran into this gentleman, his name is Michael, he’s been street entrenched for about 14 years, he’s French Canadian, we didn’t hold that against him. And I stopped and was like, “Hey, dude, can I talk to you for a sec?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure.” And I just unloaded, I was like, “This sucks, this is going on for me today,” and just like rattled off for a solid 15 minutes and he was, like, “Yeah, oui, oui, oui.” And as we continued, I was like, “Hey, sorry, so that’s me. Do you want to get something to eat?” And he’s like, “Nah, I’ve already eaten. But I’ve got something for you.” And I was like, “Okay, cool,” and so he reached back into his cart and he pulled this out and it says, “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.”
Now, Michael is much like a fire hydrant to a lot of folks, they just walk by, it’s another part of the sidewalk. Michael is an empathetic, amazing human that has had some struggles with opioids. I know people who sit in C-suites who have those same struggles. Financial equity has put Michael here and thank God he was there because I walked on and I was like, “Damn, I feel great and I’m going to use this picture for all my keynotes, Michael, good looking out.” This thought continues to resonate with me consistently because when I come up to talk, I can talk about stuff and people that inspire me and that I care about but I just want everybody to hear their story and how do we do that and technology is going to be a great solution in that. We already see these stories going viral. That “Now This” video hit almost 11 million views. That’s crazy to me. I’m speaking to 150 people right now, we got to speak to 11 million and people lost their minds. They’re like, “How can we get involved?” I’m like, “Easy,” this stuff is easy to do if you just commit to it.
So, this is a guy who inspires me, his name is Michael Haggerty. That’s my neighborhood if anybody’s ever been to Vancouver, show of hands. Oh, hell, yeah, white tech. So this is Gastown, I opened my first restaurant named after my mom, also featured heavily here on my neck, Bonita, in 2006 before Gastown was revitalized. And I would see this guy every single day doing this and curiosity got the better of me. I was like, “Who pays this guy to clean up seven days a week, why is he out here doing this?” And yet that curiosity I couldn’t meet with an introduction because even though I had lived experience, I had put that and pushed it so far down and denied that that ever happened to me, that I was this business man now and I was scared to talk to him. And I think that we’re scared to talk to people who are marginalized or who we visualize as potentially having some sort of mental illness because of one thing and I don’t think it’s safety, I think it’s our ego. I think that we’re scared if somebody asks us for something we can’t give them that we’ll feel like shit, right? But the great thing about humans is if you don’t have something and they ask you, you’re just like, “I’m sorry, I don’t,” and they’re like, “Thank you for talking to me.”
So we’ve got moments and we should take them. Mine didn’t happen until I saw Michael laid across the street from the place I was living, like this covered in snow. And I had never spoken to him and I was like, “Oh, God, is he dead?” And I ran across the street and I went down, as I went down to kneel, he looked up at me and I was like, “Oh, thank God, he’s not dead.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, what do I say?” As I came in, “Are you okay?” He looked straight at me and went, “No.” I was like, “Yeah, I knew that, that’s why I came over here,” and I was like, “My name is Mark,” and he’s like, “I know, I see you every day.” I was like, “Cool, do you want a coffee, it’s like 9:00 a.m., do you want to come in and get a coffee and get warm?” He’s like, “Do you have beer?” And we became really fast friends, that’s when I still drank.
Now, if I told you that 70% of the population of North America, creeping on 80%, is one paycheck away from the street, that sucks, right? But it’s real. If I tell you about Michael, are you more emotionally invested? You are because he’s handsome and you know about him now. So, data really needs story. If I tell you about that 80%, you might go to a bartender that you know or one of your sons or daughters that’s attending university and you’re constantly topping up their bank account, these are real numbers.
And they look like this, I work with a company called Domo. Domo is a data company based out of Utah. And Eamonn graciously put us together, I’ve been working on a digital platform for five years to really visualize what this story looks like because I can only be in so many rooms. And while I was doing that, he’s like, “I’ve got one client right now,” and I was like, “Who is it?” And he’s like, “Domo, they do data and they visualize it. They do exactly what you need.” So, he put me together with them and they really quickly aggregated all the homeless statistics from the pit counts, or the point in time counts, scraped them, and showed me this. I was like, “This is beautiful. I can show this to people who don’t care about story as much.” Mike’s also a part-time model, do you resonate more with this or with this? What about both? What if I could show you Mike’s journey, which is what we’re working on. Data needs story to build the empathy, otherwise it’s not useful. And we use them siloed all the time but we get desensitized really quickly because we’re visual learners for the most part.
Mike started to work for me the next day. He had been kicked out of his housing, he was living in a single room occupancy or what’s known as a SRO, otherwise known as an 8x10 essential jail cell outside of jail, no services, no bathroom, no nothing. Just because you have a roof over your head doesn’t mean your life doesn’t suck. And Mike has advanced Asperger’s, OCD, ADHD. He had been medicating for 30 years when he wasn’t incarcerated with methamphetamines and heroin. So, he had gone back to his room, the room is infested with bedbugs, “I’m outta here,” obviously, because of his conditions. And when he went back to collect his stuff, it was gone. What happens after a certain timeline is they incinerate all your stuff, otherwise they’d be keeping a lot of stuff, right? So, fair enough, that’s a federal policy. So, he and I are sitting, he’s having a beer, I’m having a coffee, okay, maybe the coffee has whiskey in it, not important to the story. And I say to him, “But it’s just stuff, we can get you stuff. There’s a place across the street, I can get you a jacket, get you boots, get you pants, whatever you need. Also I know people at shelters because we donate gift cards all the time, they’ll help me out. I’m inside the system.” He’s like, “Great,” but was still upset. And I said, “What’s really bothering you,” like, we’re in this moment, and he’s like, “I lost all the pictures of my family.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, okay.” And that was a moment for me. It’s a real moment that I can sort of point to it and go, “That’s what happened to my journey, that’s when things started to change.” We’re Canadian, we’re supposed to be better at this.
This is Mike with his grandson that he reconnected with three years after starting to work with me, well, his daughter. And he gets to be a really incredible part of his family because he was afraid that the narrative around his addiction and his homelessness would be embarrassing. I was scared of that same thing. Until somebody else believed in me enough to say it and vice-versa. So, story needs data. Great, “Well, how do we get Mike up with my buddy?” Everybody can’t invest nine years into an individual, or can they? I think they can. So, it’s data, really the story needs it to build the trust. What I can tell you is that 58% of our employees come from serious barriers to employment, that’s a number from today. When I tell you that 2,138,417 meals have gone out of Save On Meats kitchen as of today, that’s data. That’s powerful. I can show you the meals and you get hungry but when I tell you what’s possible from a small business, that’s what matters.
So, these guys at Domo are really helping us actualize this dashboard to show other people what it is that we do and we care about. And that’s how you can get involved, regardless of the company that you work at or for or whatever your passion project is. People often say, “It’s not a fit,” there’s lots of fits. And this is why and especially to this room, isolation is the single biggest cause of addiction and instability, people are lonely as hell. Anybody here ever experience loneliness? To feel slightly embarrassed to put your hand up is a normal thing but sometimes I get lonely in a room full of people.
To connect us all, I want to put an application in everybody’s hand and before we immediately go to the data concern, the data would be owned by the individuals, equity of the application would be owned by the individuals. And we’ve been working on what this looks like. And it looks a little bit like this. So if Mike and another one of the people in my organization who are both experiencing homelessness want to connect, why am I in the way. I’m going to get the hell out of the way and let them work with each other.
So why do I do all this? I care about community and this will be last little sprint here. Creating it is really important to me. One of the women I work with at Domo gravitated towards this project, she didn’t say why. Her name is Andrea, she has five kids that aren’t hers and she said, “My kids and I really care about this because we’ve experienced it.” I was like, “Wow, can your kids build me a deck?” She was like, “They can.” And so her kids made these slides for us and the one here is, “Kids experiencing homelessness are normal kids just like me.” I use this to say that we train this out of ourselves. We have this care, we have this love, we are these people and somewhere along the way we get distracted. But we need to be more connected. This is me at Sonic the Hedgehog, pretty accurate depiction I think.
So, let me just jump over to the end here. And I think what’s important in this moment is to honor how we feel. So, I’m going to grab Steven who is also going to moderate for me, if we can make him feel really comfortable. With applause.
Steven Gray: Thanks, man.
Brand: All right, and this is something that I do in every single room and it’s really important to me. So, I’m going to say something to Steven and then he’s going to say it back to me. Is your mike on?
Gray: Is it on?
Brand: It is. Fantastic. So Steven doesn’t know this is happening. Is anyone in here worried? The same thing about being lonely, don’t be embarrassed. We need you, lots of you. Okay, so, this is a social contract that will be honored between Steven and I, every time we see each other we’re going to check in on it. I promise to leave the world a better place than I found it.
Gray: I’ll do the same.
Brand: Cool, all right. Now, this is the last part. Everybody else stand up.
Gray: Oh, dear.
Brand: And turn to somebody you don’t know and exchange those same words. Because Steven and I are now your witnesses.
Brand: Okay, eyes back up here for a sec. This is my favorite quote that’s ever been said in the world ever, ever, ever, and you can replace the word food with anything that you want but it reads, “Bad food is made without pride by cooks who have no pride, no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent or trying to be everything to everyone, who are trying to please everyone. Bad food is fake food, food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern and to make decisions about their lives.” That was said by this incredible man, also this incredible man. One of four people suffer some type of mental illness, that’s what that means. When things darkest, we’ve got to be our brightest, we’ve got to love our hardest. Thank you so much.
Gray: Thank you, sir. So we don’t have lots of time so I’m going to jump right into the human element of what you’re doing. You’ve made a very important, bold commitment to hiring vulnerable folks we can define as homeless people or formerly homeless people, people who are recovering from addiction, in some cases folks who are formerly incarcerated. What’s the business case for hiring this vulnerable population and how are you making it work?
Brand: I love that question. First of all, 13% of North Americans have at one time been, by definition, homeless. That could be living in car, living in shelter, living on couch, and very at risk. So, there’s a larger population, I think we define homelessness as the guy on the corner with the cigarette stained beard and the dog and the cardboard sign, tip of the iceberg, like a huge, huge thing. The business case for hiring people who formally have barriers is they just give a shit, is number one. And number two, 80% of people in service industry turn over per annum. I was with Maria Cuomo Cole last week from Help and—
Gray: And she is…?
Brand: She is the director of HELP. And HELP, the organization, has been in New York for 30 years and runs shelters and SROs and really important transitional housing for people. And she’s just a very special person. I was sharing with her the statistics and she said, “It costs us $5,000 dollars in New York to train an employee that’s in service.” So, if you’ve got a medium business, 20, 30 people and you’re losing 80% per annum, there’s a reason you’re suffering. People who have barriers, less than 30% in my experience, in 10 years, less than 5% turnover.
Gray: Explain why the turnover is so low among vulnerable populations. I think that’s kind of counter to what most people think.
Brand: Depth of appreciation for job is one, but I don’t want to come from like a place of power in that statement. It’s more of they’re not hunting all the time to be at that next job. You hire a millennial dishwasher right now, they think they should be executive chef. I’m not joking. You bring in somebody who has a physical or mental diverse-ability, is what we like to say, they’re grateful for the job but they also understand being part of a community and they make that community more robust every single day. So, my traditional staff stay longer because they know why they’re there. They’re in service, in step.
Gray: When we spoke by phone last week in a prep call, you mentioned that companies that have a deliberate strategy to hire vulnerable populations have two times greater financial returns than firms that don’t. Explain that.
Brand: Yes, absolutely. You’re not losing that $5,000 per person. So, it’s really that straightforward and I think that people have this anxiety about failing in hiring somebody with a barrier, don’t, just try it. And there’s organizations all over the place that support it so you’ve got somebody to call if you’re having a moment and that you’re worried about it. But also you’re going to fail. I also fail with regular employees all the time, what’s the difference? Maybe they haven’t defined their mental illness but they’re struggling. I had a chef, an executive, who told me about four months into hiring him the reason he came to work was his dual diagnosis, so, he’s paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar, he’s heavily medicated. He’s an amazing chef. He stayed with us for years. I don’t care. That wasn’t a stigma, “Man, I would have hired you 2x if I had known that.” So, I think that we just need to change the narrative.
Gray: And when you talk to companies and different organizations about the case for hiring vulnerable folks, what sort of response do you get?
Brand: Terror. People are scared because you’re looking them in the eye and being like, “You need to be a better person.” But that’s not actually the conversation, that’s just the way they’re receiving it. So, when I’m saying that, my energy isn’t, “We have to do this,” it’s, “Do you want to make money? Because if you do, that’s cool and you can be a good person.” Like, the “and” is being a good person, not the other way around. So if we could just change that, think about the amount of people who are in poverty, also the amount we spend on HR, also, also, also, right? Our kitchens across North America are running too lean, where six, seven days a week, people are burnt out, addiction is on the rise, suicide is out of control, because we don’t have the right staff. Well, we do, we’re just not looking in the right place.
Gray: Sure. Talk for a bit, our time is running short, talk for a bit about one key takeaway that you think folks in the room who are in a position to hire and build and shape teams--what can we do to basically build a strategy to hire vulnerable folks?
Brand: I want this answer to be longer but it’s not going to be, trust your instincts. Like, we’re built into that breath, into our bodies to know what the right thing is and societal norms have pushed us away from them. Just push yourself back.
Gray: But are there questions that you have sort of barred folks on your own team from asking applicants?
Brand: Oh definitely not.
Gray: Okay.
Brand: No, I mean, the conversations have to be very real, right? Because otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you don’t uncover exactly what concerns are on both sides in that early process, you’re going to fail, right? So, to be like, “Hey, how are you identified? How would you like to be?” Like, we have a massive trans community around us as well, we do a drag show in my diner now every two weeks, on the bar.
Gray: That’s a lot of fun, I’m sure.
Brand: Oh, it’s amazing. But it came out of a group that worked for us being like, “We would love to—this is our home and our community, can we identify even louder?” And we were like, “Please do,” right? Like, tell us what you care about because you are the business. This top-down shit is over. It’s like we’re shoulder to shoulder with everybody saying, “We don’t know the best way out, you tell me.” I live in my own little gas bubble too, right? Like, “What’s happening and what’s important?” So, if you start at the application place of, “This is a place of radical inclusion and radical hospitality and we expect that you’ll do both,” the rest is just procedure.
Gray: Cool. One or two questions from the audience, we’ve got a little bit of time. Any questions for Mark? There’s a microphone coming. Can you introduce yourself too?
Audience 1: Sure, [INDISCERNIBLE], SAP, so, what can we do to help you here in New York? What do you need from us?
Brand: That’s an excellent question. Not a plant. So, I’ve got a dinner June 7th that will be happening at the brand new Essex Street Market where we were present for the cutting of the ribbon. Essex Street Market is incredible. So, nine years ago they started the markets to push all the carts inside, some of those survived, some of them are five, six generations. The new development is one of the truest answers to gentrification issues that I’ve ever seen in practice. We are working with them and I’ve got a dinner there on the 7th, I’m buying the tickets, so, if you guys want to drop me a note and want to learn more about what you could do, come to that dinner. We’d be honored to have you. There’s room for everybody. So, yes, I’m just [email protected] and so if you drop an email there, we’ll put you on the guest list, come hang out and we can show you a little bit more about what we have planned. I think that would be the best, dinner party at my house? I’m down.
Kirkpatrick: What are you going to do in New York, that’s what I want to know.
Brand: What am I going to do in New York, I mean—so, this is—you can see the crease lines here, I’ve been a Nicks fan for thirty years and a Yankees fan for thirty years, I’m outing myself. But, my inspiration for most of the businesses that I’ve created, came a lot from the community in this city. I’ve been going through a bit of a tough personal time. There is a question from back here, by the way, I’m not just pointing at a curtain.
Gray: It’s David.
Brand: It’s David. And, I lost—we lost a dear friend of ours and a leader a couple of months ago and then I had a family member try to take their own life a couple of weeks ago. And so it’s very resonant for me and as I stepped in the streets of New York today, I got my gas tank refilled just by the humans in this city who are just so about it. Just, like, eye contact, “Hey, how you doing?” I’m like, “I’m great.” Stopped to talk with two people who are unhoused, incredibly full and just every service person. And so what we want to bring here is all of the archetypes and methodologies that we’ve created over the last 10 years that work. I prototyped in the largest open-air drug market in North America, arguably the world, the densest part of mental illness and homelessness, we know they work. So, they’re bankable so we want to do that. We want to bring food service, we want to bring places to convene, and places to talk about the issues.
Gray: Great. Is there one more question for Mark before we go? In the back. Can you introduce yourself too, please?
Brand: This has been really fun, by the way.
Smith: Adam Smith from Local Group. First of all, fight on. Second of all, just curious between both the nonprofits that you’re part of and also the social enterprise, what’s the biggest pros and cons from a nonprofit and social enterprise in terms of running it?
Brand: The narrative. And thank you for the USC nod, I teach at Innovation there to the doctoral and social work program. The narrative around it, right? So, there’s this thought about charity and it’s kind of like, what’s left over that we have to, like, then throw this way versus the idea of social enterprise and social impact business. Of course, this is a converted room, but in the outdoors, it’s you have these big corporates who come along and they’re like, “Man, can’t wait to help you,” and then when you show them what the work is actually like, they’re like, “Hmm, maybe I’ll take a table for four.” Like, “No, how about 20 years,” like, what does it look like to generally care and then engage and like ask your staff what they want to be engaged with. That’s our biggest problem, where you have people on the ground level, like, here today and they’ll be like, “Hey, our organization will get behind this,” and it gets up to C and they’re like, “Hmm, too risky.” So, real buy-in requires conduits who really care and will really fight for it and, for us, we just need stability, right? If we have stability of people just coming through our doors all the time, that’s all we need to do the work, to fight on.
Gray: Great. Thanks, man.
Brand: Yes, pleasure. And thank you.
Kirkpatrick: That was something. Thank you so much.
Brand: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.
Kirkpatrick: It’s a high standard to follow that.


Steven Gray

Head of Content, Tech Communications Director, Meta

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