CEO + Zebra Uniter Mara Zepeda sits down for an arty Q+A.
If you’re just entering the workforce or you’re expanding your professional community or you wanna be a better business owner or you’re eager to act on your entrepreneurial instincts, you want Mara Zepeda on your side. Sure, those “ifs” cover a lot of ground, but take our word for it. The Portland-based CEO and professional supersupporter is all about building connections, bridging gaps, sharing prosperity and leveling the playing field. She co-founded Switchboard, a software and services company, to help colleges and institutions grow alumni resources, find the right solutions to support their constituents, and develop more dynamic ways to serve their community members. Recognizing inequities in the funding world that gave preferential treatment to male founders, she worked with other like-minded individuals to launch XXcelerate, an entrepreneurship program and loan fund for women-led businesses. She’s the founding board president of Portland’s fastest growing chamber of commerce, centering issues like affordable housing, education and inclusive employment opportunities. She co-founded Zebras Unite—which doesn’t have anything to do with Africa’s incredibly diverse equids, and has a lot to do with course-correcting startup culture. Read more about it here and catch her in The New York Times while you’re at it.
And those are just some of her standout endeavors! The point is, Mara Zepeda has magic—the Glinda the Good Witch kind—and we’re so grateful she found the time to sprinkle some of her fairy dust on us in the form of this lovely 5+5. Peruse her art picks and Q+A below! – Jen Bekman + Team 20x200
5 Perfect Picks
1) All the Past and Futures by Valerie Roybal
Joseph Cornell was the first artist I ever fell in love with. The combination of collage, handwriting, and nature will always be near to my heart.
2) Earthrise, a 20x200 Space Edition
I recently read Fred Turner's remarkable book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Many people might not know that the digital world we now know (and probably dislike) was founded on the opposite principles by back-to-the-landers who believed it could make us better people and the tools could serve us. In it, Turner speaks of Stewart Brand's crusade to get an image of "the Blue marble." I remain so astonished that it was collective action that brought this remarkable image forth, and truly changed history. How lucky we are to be alive in this moment, and able to see it and have such a bigger perspective on ourselves and our place in the world!
3) Food—don't waste it, a 20x200 Vintage Edition
I used to be a food reporter. My beat to cover home cooking and local ingredients. I had a column called, "Supper Club" and I'd invite myself over to people's home. It was such a learning experience. As I've gotten older I've come to realize that when we eat out, we vote with our dollars. I'm trying to vote more in favor of local farmers and food systems which is why farm delivery companies like Milkrun and women-led food enterprises like The Nightwood Society excite me so much.
4) Snow Crystals by Wilson A. Bentley
I was on a road trip in rural Vermont and happened upon Bentley's snow crystal photograph collection at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. On a placard in the exhibit was a quote of his, which I love. "Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."
5) USE YOUR WORDS by Paper Jam Press
This year, I had the life-changing experience of reading Carl Jung's The Red Book in a group adult learning class. This quotation resonated so much, and this print reinforced the message: "With words you pull up the underworld. Words, the paltriest and the mightiest. In words the emptiness and the fullness flow together. Hence the word is an image of God. The word is the greatest and the smallest that man created, just as what is created through man is the greatest and the smallest." Every day we learn how much power words have, and the responsibility to use them wisely.
5 Q's + 5 A's
1) What's your favorite museum?
The glass plants and flowers exhibit at the Harvard Museum of National History (The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants). My first job after college was in Cambridge and I'd go there often on my lunch break. They continue to blow my mind.
2) What's your most coveted coffee table book?
This year it's Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern.
3) You've got $5m to spend on one piece of art. What would it be?
Any portrait by Amy Sherald.
4) Favorite color?
Neon in the wild makes me happy.
5) In your various enterprises, there's an emphasis on supporting for-profit companies with purpose—businesses that are as keen on solving problems for the community as they are focussed on their bottom line. If you could offer one piece of advice for like-minded business owners seeking long-term sustainability / trying to spread the good word about what they do, what would it be? Asking for a friend ;)
Find your community. The hardest part of this work is waking up every day and believing you are crazy, feeling alone, wishing for a community of support. (Which is why I'm so grateful to Joanne Wilson for bringing us together, Jen!) If you are a founder feeling alone, we'd love to welcome you at the Zebras Unite community.
The 411 on Mara Zepeda
I'm a systems entrepreneur. I re-design systems that are traditionally top down, exclusive, and with concentrated power to instead be bottom up, participatory, and multiply community power. What this looks like in practice is Switchboard, a software and services company that serves higher education to help students and alumni succeed by listening first to what they need and then helping schools to meet those needs. I also helped to start XXcelerate (a debt fund and entrepreneurship program for women founders), Business for a Better Portland (the city's fastest growing chamber of commerce) and Zebras Unite (an international movement of founders wishing to create an ethical and inclusive alternative to startup and venture capital culture). I’ve been blessed with extraordinary, visionary, and talented friends, collaborators, co-conspirators and teams that make this work possible. I am a calligrapher and a former NPR reporter. I graduated from Reed College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I was raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place as magical as everyone says.