In the C-Suite: Matt Meyer, New Castle County Executive
If you read Matt Meyer’s biography, it may seem like some kind of cooked-up fairy tale.
An Ivy League grad who moved to Africa to create a company that benefited locals, served as a U.S. diplomat in Iraq amid an active warzone, taught in Wilmington and Washington, D.C., inner city schools to aid children in need, and even earned a law degree and practiced at a high-profile business firm.
In 2016, he ran against three-term incumbent New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon and won, despite few believing he could. He spent his first four years in office cutting expenses, diversifying its administrative staff, making the government more responsive to citizens and businesses, and promoting innovative solutions. In November, voters overwhelmingly re-elected him to a second term.
And Meyer isn’t even 50 yet.
He said that a commitment to service and making a difference has guided his adventurous career arc.
“Since I was a kid, my parents really ingrained in me that you can make a difference in this world that you can leave this world differently than you found it,” he said, noting that belief has only strengthened in his travels.
Meyer is the amalgamation of an attorney father who worked at Wilmington powerhouse firm Richards, Layton & Finger and a mother who dreamed of opening her wings. She was accepted into one of the first classes of the U.S. Peace Corps and was set to serve overseas before her parents refused to sign off on the plan, Meyer recalled.
“I think that ingrained in her a desire to have her children, to some degree, live out those dreams and opportunities that she was not able to,” he said.
His interest in politics was also planted early, as he worked on then U.S. Sen. Joe Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1988 while in high school at the Wilmington Friends School.
“I was ahead of the curve; the right candidate just a little bit too early,” he said with a laugh.
It was his experience working on the 1990 upstart gubernatorial campaign of Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun while attending Brown University that led him away from politics for many years though.
“As an idealistic 20-year-old, there was a brighter path for me working in direct service,” he recalled.
Meyer ended up working in the District of Columbia Public Schools system through Teach for America and later took an opportunity to go to Kenya, despite not knowing a word of the native language, Swahili.
“I had an opportunity to go work with Oracle, which at the time was maybe a notch just below Microsoft, and I decided instead to go make sandals in Kenya. And a lot of people thought I was nuts, but it was probably the best career decision I ever made,” he said.
Meyer founded Ecosandals in Kenya, which employed workers to stitch sandals made from used tires for sale online worldwide. He said that experience gave him insight into both the challenges of being a small business owner and also an immigrant.
“I often felt like I was not really completely understood. When I was angry or upset, I felt like people didn’t really understand that. They would laugh at me like, ‘Oh there’s that funny American guy,’” he said. “I think to some extent that helped me understand the immigrant experience here.”
Meyer would come back to America and earn a law degree from the University of Michigan while running Ecosandals. He went to work at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, a high-power New York City law firm, and later in private equity management, but felt compelled to serve amid the Iraq War.
Meyer ended up becoming a U.S. State Department senior economic adviser on the ground in Mosul, Iraq, working with military and economic aid leaders to assist the Iraqi people. While he thought he would learn about Iraq, Meyer said he learned more about Americans and military leadership style after living on a base for about a year with 10,000 soldiers.
After returning back to Wilmington and beginning his work at Prestige Academy Charter School, Meyer said that he felt a calling to politics when he saw the disparity between his experience in Iraq and his life here at home. In 2012, 16-year-old Alexander Kamara Jr. was killed in a shooting at Eden Park while he was playing in a soccer tournament.
“I remember reading about it in the newspaper and thinking, ‘I was trying to teach Iraqis how to do it right and this is how we’re doing it here,’” he said, noting he began seeing more stories of such senseless violence and he wanted to try to make a difference in the social and economic circumstances that often drive crime.
His 2016 campaign was founded by door-knocking on 10,000 homes to hear the thoughts of county residents up-close, Meyer said. The message he received from nearly all of them was that the county government needed to be more “honest, transparent and efficient,” and that’s how he’s steered his administration, he said.
After he was confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic and with limited public health information about the virus’s spread, Meyer found himself thinking about his time in Iraq.
“The late Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal would tell us all the time on the base in Mosul, ‘It’s almost impossible to find an invisible enemy. The first thing we have to do is make our enemy visible,’” he said. “So that’s one reason I jumped very early on testing. We have to test and test like crazy, or use whatever other mechanisms we can, like our sewers, to identify where it is so that we can potentially get it out of our community earlier than in other places.”
By Jacob Owens