From publishing to policy, via MIT Sloan

Mark Thomas, SF ’14, plans to build on his career success with new tools and an appreciation for system dynamics

November 1, 2013

Mark Thomas, SF ’14

Mark Thomas, SF ’14

An MBA is not a required credential for a journalist, but Mark Thomas, SF ’14, left his job as publisher of a nonprofit, investigative New York City-based news agency to attend the MIT Sloan School of Management because he knew he was missing something.

“I didn’t have a scientific approach to how business and technology and all those things work,” said Thomas, who served four years as director and publisher of City Limits, which publishes investigative and in-depth reporting on urban life and policy. “I wanted to learn more about management and the science of making decisions.”

Thomas led City Limits launch as an independent nonprofit civic media organization and guided its transition from print to online publication, but he did it without any background in business or operations. Now, almost halfway through the one-year MIT Sloan Fellows Program in Innovation and Global Leadership, Thomas said, “I wish I could go back five years with the same knowledge set because I’d be a lot more focused and better as a manager.”

In particular, he said MIT Sloan has given him a rich understanding of system dynamics—how many interconnected variables affect an organization’s success. “I think that’s the most powerful tool any business leader can have,” Thomas said. “I think that’s why [system dynamics is] one of the core classes in Sloan’s MBA program.”

Thomas has taken 15 courses in just six months and said the synergy among them has enabled him to build continually on what he’s learned. “You go from studying strategy to economics to capitalism … [yet] you can easily integrate tools and thinking from other classes so assignments feel a lot richer,” he said. “I feel I’m learning a tremendous amount.”

In addition to benefiting from classwork, Thomas is also learning from his cohort of 118 mid-career professionals from 36 countries. “That’s the power of being a Sloan Fellow—there is such a vast level of experience,” he said. “Everyone’s been very successful in their space so … [I’m] really trying to learn the tools their environments have given them to be successful.”

No stranger to success himself, Thomas dates his interest in media and public policy to his teenage years, when a column he wrote for his high school paper in Atlanta caught the attention of the local county commissioner, who called him to discuss the piece. “When you’re 16 and you realize if you write something you can have a voice in democracy, that’s a transformative experience,” he said.

He went on to become the first African-American editor-in-chief of his college paper at the University of Georgia—meriting a mention in Time magazine—and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. In 2008, he became deputy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a leading think-tank on urban policy, and soon saw an opportunity to revive its flagging magazine—City Limits—and make it more relevant to the New York City community. (For more on City Limits, watch Thomas’s TedX talk, “The Power of Civic Media”).

“I looked at the legacy and history of City Limits and realized if this was re-created and brought into the 21st century with technology and expanded for how people search for information, it could succeed,” he said.

His plan worked, and today City Limits is thriving—with funding from the Community Service Society of New York, numerous foundations, and individual contributions. It also has the respect of the journalism community, having received top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists in both 2010 and 2011.

The experience inspired Thomas to seek a more direct role in public policy. “I feel I became so versed in offering insight and expertise on how we fix some of the world’s most pressing problems that I want to become a practitioner,” he said.

Now Thomas is hoping to move into a role bringing national stakeholders together to spur innovation and stimulate new areas of employment. “I see this as a grand challenge where I can really have an impact,” he said. “MIT Sloan has given me the tools and confidence to stand strong and do that.”