Celebrating Empathy in Action: An Interview with Marisa Renee Lee

An Interview with Marisa Renee Lee

By Val Walker


No matter how difficult her day might have been, Marisa’s best bet for beating the blues is to read stories of people helping others. She loves to learn how people turned empathy into action with kindness, thoughtfulness and resourcefulness. Following her passion, Marisa and her friend, Jackie Scharnick, launched a website in 2018 called Supportal which is dedicated to publishing first-hand accounts of friends helping friends who are experiencing life-changing challenges. Supportal is devoted to celebrating the infinitely possible ways that empathy calls us into action--as caregivers, as comforters and as wonderful friends. In short, as Supportal’s tagline says, “Being there starts here.”

About Marisa

Marisa Renee Lee is a graduate of Harvard College and an avid Green Bay Packers fan. She resides in Falls Church, Virginia with her husband Matt and their dog Sadie.

In 2007, Marisa founded The Pink Agenda, a breast cancer non-profit, in honor of her mother Lisa. Almost a decade later, The Pink Agenda is now a national organization of young professionals committed to raising money for breast cancer research and direct care service programs in partnership with The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. 

Today Marisa is a cross-sector leader dedicated to engaging the private sector to help solve public problems. In addition to her work on Supportal, Marisa runs a social impact firm that allows her to support a variety of institutions on organizational design and development, public-private partnership strategies, change management, and stakeholder engagement. Until 2017 Marisa served as the Managing Director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance (MBK Alliance), a nonprofit born out of President Obama's call to action to address the barriers to success that boys and young men of color (BYMOC) disproportionately face along the life path. Through her work with MBK Alliance, Marisa leads a collaborative, cross-sectoral movement that unites business, philanthropy, nonprofit, and community leaders, to increase pathways of opportunity for BYMOC.

 Photo: Marisa with her mother

About Supportal 

Supportal’s mission is to show people how to turn empathy into action. Marisa learned much about the wisdom of empathy at a young age as her mother’s primary caregiver as she struggled with multiple sclerosis and eventually succumbed to breast cancer. She and her friend, Jackie Scharmick, a survivor of leukemia, founded Supportal to help others cope with demanding ordeals where we find ourselves strapped, isolated and overwhelmed. Marisa and Jackie are committed to ensuring that “no one will have to go it alone.

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A Conversation with Marisa

Val: What brings you joy in your work with Supportal?

Marisa: Supportal’s mission gives me joy: Helping people help others. I love reading people's stories of kindness, thoughtfulness, and comfort. Supportal gathers stories of people helping others who are going through hard times. It brings me joy to know that good things are happening out there, and that people are really showing up, not just making vague promises. People need encouragement, but they also need to celebrate the action that has been taken—the difference it has made in their lives. We need to celebrate empathy in action.

Val: How do you see the internet and social media helping to bring people together around difficult issues such as illness, grief, loneliness, or other losses?

Marisa: One simple example: My friend from years ago shared his story on Facebook Messenger about losing his father. I hadn’t heard from him for so very long, and I didn’t know he’d lost his father, the only living parent he had in his life. It was great to hear from him that all of my sharing about grief and loss made him feel less alone in his own grief. It reminded me that the online spaces—Supportal, social media, etc., can be a great way for people to find connection with others going through similar experiences. No one needs to be alone.

Val: Do you think the internet and social media can cause social isolation?

Marisa: If young people, especially children and teens, are onscreen too much of the time, I think it can be damaging for their social development and limits their social skills—just being able to have conversations. Also, social media can set us up to believe in unrealistic expectations--standards that we can never live up to. It's isolating to feel that we aren't living the way we think we are "supposed" to be living. That’s why I think it’s important for us to share real stories online like the ones found on Supportal. So, yes, there can be a downside to social media, but at the same time it can play an important role in bringing people together. It really is all a balancing act.

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Val: What is in store for Supportal?

Marisa: I'm developing Supportal to be a one-stop-shop for what to do when something bad happens to someone you care about. If someone we love suffers from a divorce, a miscarriage, a job loss, or a death, what can we say and do? How can we help? Supportal provides readers with first-hand accounts of people who have been through a life-changing challenge and share what helped them most. We provide ideas for gifts, goods, services, and practical tips for how to show up for those in need.

Val: It’s heartening that Supportal teaches us through stories that show us how to support people in distress. There’s nothing like real-life experience for how to comfort others!

Marisa: Right. Stories are wonderful for giving examples of empathy in action, how to respond to our friends and loved ones who are in difficult circumstances. Stories have a way of showing us what to do. Stories are about challenges and how we face them—but we don’t have to be alone facing those challenges-- let’s celebrate the ways we are supported by others! That’s why I co-created Supportal. We don’t have to do it all alone.

Val: Thanks for sharing your time with us! 

Marisa: Thank you--this was fun!

More about Marisa

Marisa’s background is remarkably extensive, and I would like to share more here

In 2010, Marisa joined the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) as an appointee in the Obama Administration. During that time, she was able to begin to combine her passion for service with her finance and small business background. At the SBA, Marisa focused on entrepreneurship and access to capital in underserved communities. Marisa supported the Agency’s program offices on outreach, restructuring and creating new lending programs, and the formulation and implementation of policies to promote entrepreneurship. Marisa also coordinated minority business engagement activities across the Obama Administration. Additionally, Marisa spearheaded a series of Urban Economic Forums co-hosted by the White House and the SBA. These forums connected thousands of urban entrepreneurs to public, non-profit, and private sector business development resources.

In 2013, Marisa accepted a position with the White House Domestic Policy Council as a Senior Policy Advisor for Urban Affairs and Economic Mobility. Marisa directed all engagement efforts for the President’s Ladders of Opportunity and Promise Zones initiatives. Marisa later served as Deputy Director of Private Sector Engagement at the White House where she oversaw public-private partnerships and relationships with the business community on behalf of President Obama.

In 2016, Marisa was recognized in the Chronicle of Philanthropy 40 Under 40 as a “Rabble Rouser for Obama.” In 2017 she was named a member of the Ebony Power 100 amongst other Community Crusaders she greatly admires. In 2018 she was a contributing author to the book Modern Loss, a series of candid stories and illustrations on grief. In addition, she has been a featured speaker at several forums including SXSW. Marisa has also written op-eds on race, opportunity, and economic mobility for CNN, Philanthropy News Digest, News One, and other outlets.



My Brother’s Keeper Alli

The Pink Agenda


Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin/Random House, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Her next book, 400 Friends and No One to Call: Breaking Through Isolation and Building Community will be released in March 2020 by Central Recovery Press.

Keep up with Val at www.HearteningResources.com