Mark Greene arrived in Madison in 2009 to attend law school after flying over 170 combat missions in U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, as chairman of the city’s Economic Development Committee, he’s working to make his new hometown a better place to do business.
A native of Seattle, Greene earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He graduated from flight school in September 2001, just days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and spent much of the next seven years overseas.
While serving in the Middle East, Greene began pondering a career in law. So when Congress began closing military bases in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, Greene saw his chance to exit active duty. He applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, in part because it was close enough to Detroit where he continues to serve in the Air National Guard.
As a student, Greene focused on corporate law, business structures contracts and estate law along with individual and corporate taxation. He also served as vice president of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society and as student attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project where he worked to exonerate falsely convicted prisoners.
After graduating from law school in 2012, Greene took as a job as a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch where he assists mainly business clients.
Greene joined the EDC in June 2013 on a referral from Ald. Scott Resnick and entrepreneur Matt Younkle, who both also serve on the panel. He was elected chairman in August replacing local attorney Joe Boucher in that role.
In addition to his city work, Greene is a Madison Fellow with the New Leaders Council, the D.C.-based nonprofit that works to recruit and promote progressive-minded political entrepreneurs. He recently wrote a report titled “A Multi-Generational, Community-Focused Approach to Confronting Wisconsin’s Racial Disparity Challenges.”
Greene, 37, is single and lives in the Bassett Neighborhood, which allows him to walk the six blocks to the Merrill Lynch office on the Capitol Square.
The Capital Times: You’ve got quite a background. How did you end up going from combat pilot to economic development advocate?
Mark Greene: When I first started working downtown I spent a lot of time just walking, getting a feel for the city. That is where I met Scott Resnick and Matt Younkle, two people who were doing these really exciting things. But I also realized there was an issue with these new businesses because they were all having a difficult time getting capital.
That access to early stage capital is certainly not a new problem in Madison. I was writing about it 15 years ago.
Yeah, but there is also a lot more going on today. Look at all the stuff on East Washington, the Constellation, the Galaxie and the interest in StartingBlock. So as all this stuff keeps going there will be a lot more institutional interest. Right now it’s still a lot of local money.
What about Madison’s reputation as being unfriendly to business? Is that holding back investment?
Business is always looking for a little bit of certainty but it’s a challenge getting folks to realize this is not just this ultra-liberal place that likes to protest everything. It’s starting to change but it’s still the perception. The rest of Wisconsin also needs to do a better job of marketing Madison rather than putting it down. You look at the numbers and Madison is the economic engine of the state but nobody seems to realize it.
As a relative newcomer, what have you noticed about Madison?
The community is very energetic and people are very engaged in the issues that affect their neighborhood. But I think there is lack of awareness of what goes on outside your own social circle. That is symptom of the comfort that I see with a lot of people here. We need to look around and ask ourselves, “Who is not at the table?”
It’s not just a racial thing or even an economic thing. For example, there are lots of people who work at Epic living in my neighborhood but you go the neighborhood meetings and there is nobody from Epic. It’s incumbent that we find a way to bring more of these people to the table.
You mentioned race. There has been a lot of discussion over the racial divide in Madison. What is your take on that?
I lived briefly in Milwaukee and my guard unit is in Detroit but when I moved to Madison I realized how segregated it really was. I grew up on the West Coast and it was never like that. My friend groups were a mix of everybody but in the Midwest it is much less so. It’s not just that it’s segregated, but the fact that it is widely accepted and nobody even questions it.
There was even a racial component to the debate over a Madison public market. Didn’t EDC just discuss that issue?
We voted to keep it as it was, with the recommendation of East Wash as the primary location but also looking at all three sites (including the north side and south side). When you’re investing that kind of money there is a lot of things that can go wrong so it needs to be executed well. On Park Street, if you look at the map, that is some of the best real estate in the city. I mean it has great highway access and tremendous potential. I just think the downtown is a lot farther along but we would be remiss if we didn’t look at Park Street.
It also seems like every city today is trying to sell itself as a “technology hub.” How can Madison continue to compete in that space?
A lot of people still don’t know much about Madison. They may have driven past it on the interstate but don’t know much about it. But we have all the ingredients in place, a great citizenry of educated folks coming from the university looking for some place to innovate. So I think we need to continue what we’re doing and people will keep coming here. I don’t think it necessarily means handouts to business. Companies want to be in a place where they can thrive and find enough talent to keep them going into the future.
And just fostering what we have in a way that is welcoming. I think that is a big part of it, just making people feel welcome. There are lots of folks — and I see this in my own neighborhood — that are afraid of change. It’s almost very conservative in that way. But the city is changing and if more people embraced that we might be surprised. We might find ourselves a little more agile.