Memphian to Meet: Mark Wender

Posted on January 25, 2014


By Julia Fawal

mark_wender_photo_(1)Very few parking lots have the ability to automatically improve your mood, but Soulsville Charter has it figured out. With Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” blasting through the outdoor speakers and clumps of high school children walking with their instructors or singing to themselves, it is no wonder Mark Wender loves coming to work each morning. As the Chief Executive Officer of the Soulsville Foundation, Wender sits in an office adorned with black and white stills of Blues greats such as Buddy Guy and Albert King. His window overlooks the entrance of the school, and as soon as kids start spilling out by 2:30 pm, there are faintly intelligible sounds of cheerful chatter. The view serves as a daily reminder of why Wender does his job, and it captures his essence as a true Memphian through and through – a real “soul man,” himself.


JF: Have you always lived in Memphis?

MW: I was born in Memphis, and I’ve lived here most of my life. I left to study business at Boston University.

JF: When I was up North, people were very skeptical of Memphis. What did you like about growing up here?

MW: I liked the authenticity of Memphis. The people are real. They’re sincere. It’s a very warm and welcoming
environment, and it was a great place to grow up. I had family in different parts of Memphis, so I was exposed
to different neighborhoods and that was a phenomenal thing. I grew up in East Memphis near Harding Academy.
My grandparents lived near Rhodes College, and I spent a lot of time with them, particularly on weekends. I had
exposure to those places and many others, so I really came to know the different areas of Memphis for many years.

JF: How do you think that influences you now?

MW: I think many people living in Memphis can live in a bubble, and they don’t really see what goes on outside of
their bubble. Having been exposed to different neighborhoods, I was able to see that there’s a kaleidoscope of
different cultures and different classes of people from an economic point of view. It was an eye opening experience,
and I appreciated it.

JF: Then is that what drew you to Stax?

MW: No, Stax was never even a thought in my mind. Of course, growing up I loved the music. I knew the words by
heart to many of the songs, but never did I dream that I would have the opportunity to actually work at this
location. I actually work for Soulsville Foundation, and the Soulsville Foundation operates the Stax Museum of
American Soul Music, the Stax Music Academy, and the Soulsville Charter School. Each one of those entities is
special, but they all go together. We don’t actually own Stax Records. Stax Records is an entity of its own, but
we are at the location of Stax Records. We continue its legacy here by inclusion, by giving all people an opportunity.
We are at the forefront now of music education. We are at the forefront of neighborhood revitalization and
education reform.


JF: How did you end up in this position?

MW: I think that I was suited for it because I did a lot of non-profit work as a volunteer prior to this. I had a
business background. I think all my experiences throughout life prepared me for this opportunity. I had the
great pleasure of starting at the same time as our artist in residence, Kirk Whalum, who is a phenomenal human
being and also one heck of a musician. He’s a world-renowned Grammy award winner. Working with him every day
has made this job a real joy.

JF: So what is his role as an in-house artist?

MW: He mentors and tutors the students. He’s a resource that the Foundation uses to gain support throughout the
community, the entire country and even the world, really. He’s a traveling musician, and he has such an excellent reputation that people know he represents Stax, which is a great thing for us.

JF: That’s great simply for marketing purposes, because the Soulsville Foundation has received a lot of national recognition in the past few years.

MW: We get a lot of recognition. Some of our entities have been featured in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and we’ve been featured on the Today Show on NBC, CBS Sunday Morning, and other print and digital media, too. Stax is a worldwide brand, and as a result of that we get exposure from many countries. This past year, I believe, we’ve had articles written about us in France, Germany, Belgium, and many others.


JF: Do you think a music-based education helps students become better citizens?

MW: It teaches discipline. Many studies show that there’s a correlation between math and science and being able to read music. So yes, I believe it is an excellent tool.

JF: I’m not sure about the causation, but aren’t there studies showing that having a musical background growing up correlates to higher college attendance rates?

MW: It’s true, and I’m glad you mentioned that because since 2008, every senior in the Stax Music Academy has been accepted to college, and the first two graduating classes of the Soulsville Charter School had 100% of the students accepted to college. So we have students throughout the country, and we believe that one day they’ll come back and be the leaders in our community. If it’s music, that would be great. A lot of them are going to run corporations, run their own business, become physicians, attorneys – anything.

JF: And these are kids who might not have had these opportunities otherwise?

MW: Primarily our target is students you would characterize as the under-served population. At the Stax Music Academy, over 90% of the students are on scholarship. The overwhelming majority of the students that we serve do not have the financial resources to have the type of opportunities that we’re able to provide.

JF: You said you view yourself as someone leading an organization, and you obviously have a strong business perspective. Do you have a creatively-oriented perspective, as well?

MW: I think it definitely takes some of both. We’ve been able to create a lot of new programs here that have really galvanized the Soulsville community. For example, we have a festival each April called Stax to the Max. Last year we had almost 10,000 people attend, and the arts community was strongly represented. We have two stages, great music, vendors. In addition to everything I mentioned, we’re at the forefront of education reform so we feel an obligation to be pillars in the community. I believe residents in this community look towards the organization as a catalyst for positive change in the neighborhood.


JF: Is there any advice you’d give someone looking to get into the business industry or even Stax?
MW: What I would say is that Memphis has the most incredible nonprofits of any community I’ve ever lived in or heard about. There are lots of opportunities for people to get involved and make a difference. You can’t say that about all communities. In Memphis, you can make an impact pretty quickly. That’s another thing I love about this city. We need a lot of young energy, and, like I said, there are so many great non-profits here. Whatever your tastes are, there’s something here for you to do and make a difference.

JF: Is that what keeps you in Memphis?

MW: I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and that recharges my battery. No question about it.

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