Martin Muoto: “To be a hero means putting others ahead of oneself”

…we launched what we called the COVID-19 Retraining & Recovery Scholarship Fund (CORE) that will offer 200+ scholarships to South LA residents who are furloughed or laid-off due to COVID-19 to enable them to retrain for fields that are likely to be high-demand in a post-COVID economy — particularly in healthcare and technology. We are super excited […]

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…we launched what we called the COVID-19 Retraining & Recovery Scholarship Fund (CORE) that will offer 200+ scholarships to South LA residents who are furloughed or laid-off due to COVID-19 to enable them to retrain for fields that are likely to be high-demand in a post-COVID economy — particularly in healthcare and technology. We are super excited to have raised over 1 million dollars from incredible philanthropists such as Oprah Winfrey and Jimmy Iovine, among others.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Muoto is the Founder and Managing Partner of the “SoLa Impact” family of social impact real estate funds. SoLa Impact’s funds are the largest purchaser of real estate in South LA and are focused on achieving market-rate returns while delivering on the mission of “Doing Well by Doing Good” and improving the lives of hundreds of residents in some of LA’s toughest neighborhoods. A professional investor and entrepreneur for over 20 years, Martin has been successful at leveraging private capital to drive positive social change. Martin began investing in multifamily real estate in South Central Los Angeles, Compton, Watts, and other neglected communities a decade before these areas became designated Opportunity Zones. SoLa Impact’s 100 million dollars Opportunity Zone (OZ) Fund is one of the few OZ Funds that has already been actively deploying capital in LA’s OZs. Martin was previously an operating executive at several technology companies and a venture capital partner at Accretive Partners and General Atlantic Partners in New York. Martin immigrated from West Africa and graduated with Honors from the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in West Africa and came to the US about 30 years ago with 440 dollars in my pocket and a return ticket home. I was fortunate to get a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which changed my life. But before that, I was equally lucky to grow up with loving parents, who despite very limited resources, realized that their children’s education was likely our only pathway to economic security and a better life.

What I saw in Northern Nigeria, where I grew up, was hundreds of young men became part of what is now known as “Boko Harm.” What it singed into my mind is not that dissimilar to what we are seeing today: the lack of hope, the lack of an opportunity, the lack of resources combined together to produce very bad outcomes.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of the more influential books I’ve read is Po Bronson What Should I Do with My Life? Po Bronson’s told the story of a dozen or so people on their quest to find their “true calling” and it really got me thinking a lot harder about finding ”purpose” in one’s career versus outside one’s professional life. Over the years, I developed my own framework which I term the four Ps — Passion, Profit, Pragmatism, and Purpose. This helps evaluate 1) What am I good at? (Pragmatism) 2) What do I love to do (Passion); 3) What does the most for others and society (Purpose) with 4) What do I do that can make money (Profit). While it is very hard to combine all four. I feel I’ve been very fortunate to lead a company, SoLa Impact, that combines all of these P’s.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

It was from my father. When I was a student at Penn, I had no money and worked 20 hours a week in the university’s cafeteria, washing dishes. It was hard, grimy work, that I thought, at the time, was humiliating as I was cleaning my classmates’ plates. I would come to my dorm room late at night, and when I could afford it, phone my dad who had gone to medical school in Poland from Nigeria.

He took one year of Polish language — one of the hardest languages to learn — and did seven years of medical school, all in Polish, and then returned to Nigeria. “Martin,” he would say with a thick Nigerian accent, “I was a black man in Soviet Poland, in the 60s, going to medical school in Polish. And I graduated from the top of my class”. His point was “Suffering and struggle are always relative.” Achieving anything important requires a struggle, but it is always relative.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Thank you. That really is such an important topic. SoLa Impact is a real-estate fund that focused on South LA, a predominantly low-income, black, and brown community. We realized very early that the COVID-19 pandemic would disproportionately impact our community, not only from a health perspective but also economically.

Our 8-person social impact team immediately started getting up to speed on every federal, state, and local form of financial assistance and helping our tenants apply for these. They became a virtual encyclopedia and call center for COVID-19 related financial, small business, and health and food assistance and we have helped hundreds of tenants whether this storm.

We’ve hand-delivered over 1,500 care baskets of food, representing a weeks’ worth of food in every delivery to those who are elderly and homebound tenants with pre-existing conditions.

Our tenants told us their kids did not have adequate technology to keep up with school from home. And this is a community already without equal access to education. So we started a Go-Fund me Campaign and raised almost 40k dollars in a few weeks and have purchased 200 Chromebooks, which we donated to families in the community so they can continue their education.

Finally, we launched what we called the COVID-19 Retraining & Recovery Scholarship Fund (CORE) that will offer 200+ scholarships to South LA residents who are furloughed or laid-off due to COVID-19 to enable them to retrain for fields that are likely to be high-demand in a post-COVID economy — particularly in healthcare and technology. We are super excited to have raised over 1 million dollars from incredible philanthropists such as Oprah Winfrey and Jimmy Iovine, among others.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

To be a hero means putting others ahead of oneself. The definition is very simple — doing it is much harder; but I think in times like this people really step up and we realize there are dozens of heroes — big and small.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

It really is difficult to boil it down to five characteristics, but I would say it would be

  1. Decisiveness,
  2. A proclivity to action
  3. The perseverance to follow through
  4. The courage to stay the course and
  5. The humility to share the rewards and recognition. In the interest of time, and not boring your readers, I would probably point the one example that embodied all five. Nelson Mandela, and his struggle to break apartheid in South Africa, probably is the single greatest hero in my lifetime and embodied all these characteristics. However, there are hundreds, no thousands, of heroes today that are risking their lives and putting others ahead of themselves to respond to the current pandemic and fight for justice and equality for people of color.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

Conviction. Increasingly, I think people realize that you must have conviction and be willing to act on your conviction. We are witnessing people speak up and become more vocal in response to the BlackLivesMatter movement. I think before they did feel scared, and they probably still do, but their conviction is moving them towards action.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

I would like to think that what we are doing is heroic, but I don’t know I’d have so much hubris. I don’t know if there was a specific moment. Some “heroism,” if you want to call it that, takes time. I started investing in real-estate before the 2008 crash. When I started investing in South LA over a decade ago, many people told me I was completely crazy. Brokers and other investors would tell me “You’ll have horrible tenants. They will destroy your buildings. You’ll have tons of evictions.” But I had the conviction that the vast majority of folks in South LA are good, hard-work people that want a safe place for their kids. And that’s proven true. If you give them a good product and treat them with respect, you will get the same back.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Clearly, today it is the doctors, nurses, and responders working to address this pandemic. But also there are protesters fighting against racial injustice and an end to police brutality. The staff at SoLa Impact continues to inspire me every day with their commitment to our mission and ensure our tenants are protected and do better. These are my heroes today.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

I think there are two things: One, people, in my opinion, are underestimating the severity of the pandemic in the US. We have been a bit too cavalier in our response and I believe it is showing up in a second, and possible, the third wave of COVID-19 spreading. Two, there is a tremendous amount of economic uncertainty in this pandemic. I don’t believe Wall Street reflects what is happening on Main Street. I worry that this disconnect will mean a lot of economic suffering for both.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?

We hope that the COVID-19 crisis has reminded us that we are all globally interconnected. Regardless of age, income, race, or even geography, we are all dependent upon each other, and the circumstances of even “the least among us” can affect the entire world. Finding intelligent and strategic ways to improve the human condition of those most vulnerable in society — through affordable housing, access to education, economic advancement, and improved health outcomes — has always been one of the driving reasons we started SoLa Impact. This is more critical today than ever before.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I think recent protests and BlackLivesMatter has shown us the best and the worst in people. The peaceful protests inspire me. The families of the victims — George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmand Arbery, Rayshard Brooks — I continue to be amazed by how grateful they have been despite their pain. I am actually truly impressed with how many large companies and corporate leaders have been vocal in their support of Black lives. I am having dozens of conservations with CEOs and business leaders that are white and are sincerely trying to listen and learn on this occasion. I hope their concern translates into action, and I believe some of it will.

While I acknowledge the pain and anger, I am disappointed in those that took advantage of the protest movement to loot and cause havoc. I am also disappointed in those that are using the small minority of disrupters to condemn the entire movement.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

While one of my greatest strengths is that I’m a pragmatist and a realist, I guess I still am somewhat of an idealist. We have known for some time that we live in a very unequal society — access to wealth and capital, access to quality education, access to healthcare and security, access to opportunity. These have always been unequal and more so to black and brown communities. The current crisis and the current protests, well, they have begun to rip the band-aids and duct tape off. They have laid bare what we have all known but sometimes failed to acknowledge. How can the richest country on earth, the most productive country and notionally the greatest country on earth still leave so many deserving young people behind and overlook the plight of so many that are homeless and almost helpless?

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I am hoping the current system of ruthless capitalism and profits above all else is adjusted. I still believe in the ideals of capitalism, entrepreneurship, and meritocracy; but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of others. I see some of the wheels of change beginning to creek and I hope we can dramatically adjust the system to allow for more equality. Some people refer to it as “compassionate capitalism” but I see it simply as “fair capitalism”

We have 50,000 people a night in Los Angeles that don’t have housing of any sort. They are living in tents and on the streets. That is unacceptable.

The truth is there are solutions to this problem, but it requires us to break apart and reconstruct many parts of the system and the government. For example, all the affordable housing that Los Angeles needs could be built for a fraction of the cost that developers are building if we applied common-sense approaches, eliminated bureaucracy and red-tape and cut through the politics.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

  1. Smart people working incredibly hard can make a material difference in societal problems, but it must be done intentionally. I think the changes will come primarily from social entrepreneurs in the private sector, not in the non-profit sector.
  2. Spend time with poor people. Don’t read books about it or read white papers or talk to “thought leaders”. Simply go and talk, interact, and learn from people that are poor in the US. Understand, as best you can, their journey and their life. You will learn everything you need to know about life, compassion, inequality, and you will start your journey to find solutions.
  3. Sacred cows make the best hamburger. Challenge the establishment and established ideas. Be a disruptor. Cut across the grain. It builds character and will lead to a much more interesting life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t know I’m a person of great influence and to be honest, you don’t have to be either. You simply have to live with purpose and integrity and rather than talk about what you want to do, just do it. I think that would be my movement. A movement towards action. In all things. I think we often don’t have all the answers, so we decide to do nothing. Do something.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

That is an easy answer. Trevor Noah. “Treva! DM, me.” I almost forgot I’m not on Instagram…which means I must not be a person of great influence. Trevor, find me on LinkedIn

How can our readers follow you online?

Only one way, LinkedIn. Unfortunately, I don’t Tweet and I don’t Insta. I am fascinated with TikTok though.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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