The Next Generation of Leadership with Governor Wes Moore

a16z editorial

In this fireside chat from the a16z American Dynamism Summit, Maryland Governor Wes Moore discusses, with a16z General Partner Ben Horowitz, his inspiring journey to the statehouse and how his experiences have shaped his leadership. He also shares his thoughts on how embracing technology, education, and a sense of civic duty can improve the quality of life in Maryland and beyond.

Here is a transcript of their conversation:

Ben Horowitz: All right. Well, I’m so excited for this conversation.

Governor Wes Moore: Me too, man.

Ben: It’s so good to see you.

Governor Moore: Me too. It’s good to see you.

Ben: So why don’t we start with your story? Because your story is really interesting in that you’re kind of one generation removed from immigrants. So you understand that story, which is also big in the news these days. And then you were kind of a bad kid, like the other Wes Moore. And then you got sent to military school. And then that completely changed your life, and you went on this very amazing trajectory. So maybe you could take us through that because that kind of informs a lot of how you think about governing Maryland.

Governor Moore: It sure does. And for real, Ben, it’s a pleasure to be with you, man. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you all for having me here. I mean, it’s true, because I’m probably the most improbable governor in this country. There’s not a whole lot about my either personal nor professional background that kind of set a stage for being Maryland’s chief executive. I’m a kid who was raised by an immigrant single mom. I watched my dad die in front of me when I was 3 years old. And my mother didn’t get her first job that gave her benefits until I was 14.

Ben: Wow.

Governor Moore: And the reason I bring that up is because this is a woman who went on to earn a master’s degree. So, when we’re working on policies that are addressing things like pay disparities between men and women, or the wealth gap between people of color and non… I say this is not an academic exercise to me. You know, there’s no white paper that can explain it to me, because I’ve seen this. I’m a kid who had handcuffs on my wrist by the time I was 11, because we grew up in communities that were overpoliced, and we knew it. And that was the way things were always dealt with. I was sent to military school when I was 13 years old because of some things that I got caught up in, and joined the Army when I was 17. I wasn’t even old enough to sign the paperwork when I joined the Army. My mother had to sign the paperwork for me. But after my teenage years, she would sign whatever paperwork that the Army put in front of her. And a person who, frankly, had no political experience. I don’t come from a political family. I don’t come from a political lineage. I say that I had to convince many members of my family to vote for me. And it wasn’t because… I mean, me and my family are very cool. It’s not the issue. It’s that many members of my family had never voted. So we don’t come from that as a lineage.

Ben: Yeah, voting is cultural.

Governor Moore: Voting is cultural, right? That part of democracy is a cultural part of democracy, right? That’s not something that’s a given. And I think that’s part of the reason when people look at things like voter rolls and percentage of voting, and people think it’s about apathy. It’s not necessarily about apathy. Oftentimes, it’s about muscle memory, right? And so I try to take that same type of approach in the way that I think about my governing. I don’t… There was no party. There was no political machine that put me into office. So I don’t respond to that. The thing that I do is I know I was…you know, I led soldiers in combat. I ran a startup that we had a successful exit in ’17. I ran one of the largest poverty-fighting organizations in this country. And that’s the mentality that we try to bring to our work. And so…

Ben: Get stuff done.

Governor Moore: And just get stuff done. And where you can literally look at it, I think there’s a couple things and a couple gauges that I try to make when it comes to decisions, show me the data, and does this make common sense? Right? If those two things don’t apply, if you’re telling me something that, “Oh, this…” But I’m like, “But what does the data say?” We can’t get into this habit of just making these emotive splurges.

Ben: We are in that habit, policy-wise.

Governor Moore: That’s exactly right. Policy, oftentimes, is just like emotive splurges. Show me the data. And does this make common sense? And if the things fall into that category, then I think you’re in the right kind of sweet spot of the decisions that you want to try to make in terms of how you’re actually going to benefit the people that put you there in the first place.

Ben: Yeah. No, very interesting. So, you know, a lot of your background ends up, as you’ve discussed, kind of informing how you see the world. And also, you’re hyper-interested. You’re probably as interested in the development of young people as anybody holding office that I’ve ever met. And a lot of that comes from your youth, your military background, what it means to serve, and so forth. But we’ve kind of had a problem in the country lately with people enlisting. Like, just fewer people have wanted to enlist. And then there’s been…  racially, it’s been very dramatic in that I was reading in, speaking of data. So, I feel like that was a pretty good source for this data.

Governor Moore: They’re good. They’re good.

Ben: Forty-four thousand white enlistees in 2018, and 25,000 in 2023, with the biggest drop-off coming between 2022 and 2023. So I guess, kind of what’s happened? And then how can we encourage all young people to consider serving the country, consider military duty, these kinds of things? Like, what’s happened, and what do we need to do to change it?

Governor Moore: So I think a few things have happened, which have caused those trend lines. And I think that actually has a direct correlation in terms of what we need to do. First, I think we need to change this narrative, where I think that we have developed this narrative around whether it is military, police, first responders, etc., that there has and continues to develop to be this negative connotation for people who are signing up for these roles. And we’ve gotta stop that. You know, we’ve got to remind people that these are public servants. These are people who are raising their hand when the vast majority of our population won’t, right? And whether you’re talking about military, or whether you’re talking about law enforcement and you’re like, we can actually have a military.

Ben: Well, so many law enforcement are ex-military.

Governor Moore: Are ex-military.

Ben: Almost all of them.

Governor Moore: That’s right.

Ben: There’s so many. The best ones are.

Governor Moore: That’s right. And you look at the idea that we can actually have both military forces and policing forces that move with appropriate intensity, and absolute integrity, and full accountability, right? That’s the goal that we have for both military forces, for policing forces. We can create that. And we need to be able to create that in our society. But part of that means we have to be able to change a dynamic and change a narrative. And so I know in our time, and I’ve been very deliberate about this idea of saying, I want Maryland to be the state that serves. And that includes our military. That includes law enforcement. That includes firefighters, first responders, etc. That it’s service that will save us. And that’s also one of the reasons why we did things like, now Maryland is the first state in the country that has a service year option for all of our high school graduates. Because we want more people involved in that. The second thing, though, that we have to do is you look at the amount of people that get knocked off because of physical requirements, obesity, all this type of thing. How we can get our young people more engaged, healthier, so you have a larger pool of people that you can select from. And I think the third piece is we have oftentimes these disqualifiers that we are really trying to address. For a long time, the people who were a disqualifier were things like a cannabis conviction.

Ben: Well, these days, that would rule out all the youth.

Governor Moore: Well, it’s right. But it’s one of the reasons why, you know… And again, show me the data. And does this make common sense? It’s one of the reasons that we’ve been aggressive on the idea of addressing things like, how do we continue to have a new burgeoning multi-billions of dollars industry that’s being created, and people who still can’t get employment because of convictions from 15 years ago? Like, this is silly. And so it’s this type of thing where, if we need to change a narrative, we need to make sure people are actually eligible. And that’s how we think about credentialing and how we think about health. And then how are we removing these arbitrary barriers that continue to create unnecessary ruptures between people and opportunities, and especially in spaces and places that we need them in?

Ben: Actually, I’m gonna segue because this is a question that just turns out to be very problematic, is that you talk about people who serve whatever time in prison and come out. But they are not, in any way, citizens and that they can’t vote, join the military, etc.

Governor Moore: Public housing.

Ben: Public housing.

Governor Moore: Getting money for higher education.

Ben: Get a job.

Governor Moore: It’s crazy.

Ben: And so then we have a very high recidivism rate as well, like, very high, you know, over 70%. How do we get past that at the same time when we’ve really degraded public safety in general with the Defund the Police movement and these kinds of initiatives with no data, with just some emotion? How do we reconcile those two things? Prior to the kind of surge in crime and just people’s feelings about public safety, there was a move towards prison reform, but seems to have lost a lot of momentum. So how do we kind of track those things back on?

Governor Moore: You know, I think part of it is just reminding people that… You know, when you look at the prison population right now, 95% of people incarcerated are coming home. So, actually, the best thing we can do when it comes to measurements of public safety is making sure that we’re better preparing individuals for their return back home and better preparing society for their return back home. Because you’re right, I mean, the recidivism rate, and I look at the high levels of recidivism that we have, not just in Maryland, but also around the country, there’s a structural failure when that takes place. Now granted, I’m very clear, you know, there are some people, and you look at sentencing, and, you know, some people have shown, particularly some of these repeat violent offenders, they have shown they have to be separated. Period. Full stop. But the vast majority of people who are going to be coming back home, we have to be focused on, yes, there needs to be measurements of accountability, and there has to be measurements of rehabilitation. Because it’s not going to benefit society at all when we continue to have this measurement of revolving doors. And so I do think that… You know, you look at, unfortunately, the structure we have, and it’s not just on the state level with jails but also from the federal side, where we are making every sentence a life sentence by continuing to add these arbitrary barriers for people. And you mentioned some of them. How you think about higher education, how we think about housing and public housing, all these things. We really have to rethink this. And what does it mean to create a safer society where we are holding measurements of accountability, and particularly for, again, the repeated violent offenders, and at the same time making sure that rehabilitation can actually be real? Because it’s just incredibly expensive for us to continue funding programs, platforms, and policies that have no measurement of efficacy, and the data can show that that thing can be real. And I think about it, for example, in our state, where when I first took office, I took office 12 months ago, Maryland, for the past 8 years, had watched its homicide rate nearly double. In the eight years prior, Maryland watched its non-fatal shooting rate double. Baltimore had had eight straight years of 300-plus homicides in the city of Baltimore. And we just decided to take a very different approach about how we were using resources, using all of the above approach when it came to public safety. And in our first year, you know, homicide rates, down, non-fatal shooting rates, down. Baltimore City, for the first time in nine years, did not see 300 homicides and didn’t come close. And we’re just getting started. And so I think there has to be a way that actually drives data, uses technology to better make communities safe, while also giving people opportunities as they are coming back home to make second chances, actually have a chance to mean something.

Ben: Right, right. All right. 100% agree. Actually, you know, one of the things that… I’ll give you an interesting anecdote, so my friend Shaka, who was in prison for 19 years, I said, “What was the most surprising thing about prison?” He said, “Ben, almost everybody there, easy 90% of them, are betas.” I said, “What do you mean betas?” He’s like, “They’re just guys who literally were following their idiot friend, committed a crime, and ended up in jail for a long time.” And so they’re very shapeable people. They’re not, you know…

Governor Moore: It’s a great point.

Ben: It’s not full of psychopaths. It’s full of people who followed psychopaths. And so there’s real hope for a program like that in that sense.

Governor Moore: Yeah, that’s right.

Ben: Yeah. Sorry to go off the track on you like that. Kind of switching back to this conference, as governor, what can you do at the state level to foster innovation for these ideas, apply technology to public safety, to kind of getting young people a chance, even young people who are incarcerated? How do you think about that?

Governor Moore: It’s crazy, Ben, because I remember someone once…when I told them I was thinking about running for office, they said, “What made you wanna get into politics?” And I said, “I don’t. I wanna be the governor.” Because governor’s such a unique role. Governor’s such a unique role in the fact that you really are the chief executive of the state. And so you, via budgetary powers, via executive orders, via legislation, you can actually change the destiny for how things are moving and set a different course. And we were just very intentional. Like, Maryland’s going to compete. And Maryland’s going to win. And Maryland needs to be more competitive. And so, when we think about things like innovation, now I’ve always said about our state, we have some of the best assets in the state of Maryland that I want all of you to have your businesses in the state of Maryland as well. But if you think about the assets of the state of Maryland, we have one of the largest and most effective ports. We have one of the fastest-growing international airports. We’re literally the home of the NSA. We’re the home of APL, the Applied Physics Lab. We’re the home of U.S. Cyber Command. We’re the future home of the FBI, which is going to be coming to the state of Maryland. We have top universities of higher education, Johns Hopkins University. We have four top HBCUs. I will put our assets against anyone else in the entire country. The challenge is, as a state, we’ve been asset-rich and strategy-poor, right, where we’ve let a lot of those assets just atrophy because we’re not actually forging measures of cooperation. And so really, we came up with an entire platform where…

Ben: And has it just been, no strategy or a bad strategy?

Governor Moore: It’s just been allowing everyone to create their own, where I feel like so much of this stuff… You know, the analogy, so much of this stuff is like 5-year-old soccer, right? There are no plays. Every kid just runs to the ball, right? So the state’s job is to create the ball. And that’s what I want everyone to run towards. So, for example, I was the first time in 10 years that a governor…actually, a workforce developed a governor’s workforce, a workforce development group. And for the first time in 10 years, I actually came and attended and shared this meeting. And I told them, I said, “Let’s be clear, from now on, the ball is how we think about everything from healthcare and tech,” right? That’s the ball. And so that means moving and actually pushing together executive orders. We have an executive order where we actually created for the first time the state’s first chief technology officer. We have a new governor’s senior advisor for AI. We created an entire executive order around usage of AI and around growth of an industry that I want us to win in, that we’re able to say, I want Maryland to be the cyber capital of this country. When you have the NSA and you have U.S. Cyber Command and you have the Naval Academy and you have the FBI, there is no reason for you not to be the cyber capital of this country. I want defense tech companies to come to the state of Maryland. We are putting together legislation that’s introducing and expanding the uses of data centers, of doing permitting regulation because there’s no reason for it to take three years for a company to get their permits to be able to grow in our state. These are the type of common-sense things that we’re just showing. I am and will continue to be a very pro-business governor because I want the jobs in my state. And I will focus on making sure that our entrepreneurs know that this is the place they should come and grow and scale. And there’s no better place to do it than the state of Maryland.

Ben: Oh, well, that’s good for me to know. I’ve got some companies. That’s such a good answer. It answers some of my questions. So let’s end on something that I know you think about a lot, which is education. If you read the stats on, not just Maryland, but so many of the places in the country, a lot of our high school students can’t even read. So, you know, we have this idea that’s kind of popular in my part of the world to say, “Oh, everybody should just study STEM.” But if you can’t read, like what are you going to do with those high school kids? And how do we put them in a position where they can contribute to society, to their families and succeed, given this is where we are? I mean, facts are facts, data is data.

Governor Moore: I mean, I think about our state, where, again, we have some of the best institutions of higher education inside the entire country. When you consider that, it’s embarrassing when you look at how many of our students who are in the K-12 system are still falling behind. And what that barbell actually looks like. So, you know, I think about… We have a new school superintendent we’re very excited about, who was actually, you know, the author of something which is kind of nationally known as the Mississippi Miracle. And how, you know, she really helped to turn Mississippi into the best-performing school district in the entire country, which is also ironically one of the school districts of one of the highest impoverished and showing that there is not and should not have to be a direct correlation between where you are economically and how your students are doing as long as you’re actually focusing on the science of reading, which is something that we’re focusing on here in the state of Maryland. That we are making sure that for our students, that you’re actually making it applicable to them early. And that means that for some of our students, you know, that a four-year college destiny might not be their answer. And that’s fine. But you have to create pathways for work, wages, and wealth for all of our students, regardless of where their academic interests might actually proceed and lie. And we have to do a better job of actually coming up with curriculum in K-12 that is being informed by the private sector. The private sector, you all know what you’re looking for. The problem is that we have the…

Ben: Nobody asks us.

Governor Moore: And no one asks, right? And we have a K-12 system that has this measurement of rote and repetition that oftentimes does not correlate to the needs of a 21st-century economy.

Ben: We do have the internet.

Governor Moore: We do have the internet, right?

Ben: We can look things up.

Governor Moore: And so, if we can actually come up with… And one thing we’re focusing on and being very aggressive on in Maryland is, I want a school system that teaches our children how not just to be employees, but how to be employers. I want a school system that is actually communicating with the private sector and saying, what is it that you’re looking for? Because we can then adjust curriculum to make sure that our students are getting the baseline understanding so that when they finish high school, they are prepared for college, careers, or entrepreneurial endeavors. But the answer cannot be none of the above. And so that’s how I think education and really being able to come up with a more coordinated system around that is something that we’re leading on. I’m proud of the leadership that Maryland’s doing on it, but I know that we are going to continue to move fast on this because, in order to win this next decade, it means that we have to have an educational system that’s preparing us to do that.

Ben: All right. Well, I’m inspired. Please join me in thanking Governor Wes Moore.

Governor Moore: Thanks, Ben.

Ben: Thank you.

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