Donna Harris (MBA 1999) is an investor, technologist and serial entrepreneur whose work and investments have helped thousands of startups worldwide to grow and scale while solving some of our greatest challenges. She is currently serving as Founder and CEO of Builders and Backers, but also is a General Partner in 1776 Ventures, a venture capital fund she co-founded, which is investing in more than 30 countries on five continents, and she is also a Venture Partner at Praxis.
Ross School of Business believes that business can be a force for good in the world. In what ways are you living out that vision?
Businesses can be powerful constructs for bringing about good in the world. Especially right now as we have the challenge and the opportunity of how to respond to this entirely new digital age. It’s more than just platforms, apps and tools. This is the moment when we are literally creating the products, companies, organizations and structures that will lay foundations for our future. It’s up to us what we want those to look like. Our mantra is this: we can disrupt, or we can disrupt to democratize. More of us need to understand this moment (and that choice) and be taking part in building and creating the future. I get up every day working to make that happen — through inspiring and equipping people, helping them put their ideas into action, and funding the ones that show promise (especially for things that can lead to a more democratic and prosperous society).
As a venture capitalist and backer, you make entrepreneurs’ dreams come true. What is the most rewarding part of that work?
It’s a wonderful privilege to work with entrepreneurs, and there is so much I love about being around them and working with them. Nowhere in society will you find a more optimistic and hopeful group of people. But it’s their counter-cultural nature I love the most. They don’t just accept the world the way it is. They question it. And, instead of simply pointing out what’s broken, they take action, they imagine entirely new things — often when the rest of the world doesn’t understand them, agree with them, or see what is in their mind’s-eye. They march forward, day after day, in the face of risk, uncertainty and challenges that would make most of us fold. It’s just an incredible thing to play a small part in helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life.
What is the most important difference between 1776 and Builders and Backers?
Since the great recession, communities have been on a quest to jumpstart their entrepreneurial engines to create jobs. But, after spending billions of dollars building ecosystems and infrastructure to support startups, startup formation rates have barely budged and startup failure rates have not decreased. Outside a handful of powerhouse cities, entrepreneurship isn’t delivering on the hoped-for jobs and economic thriving, and only a tiny fraction of our population is engaging in it.
I wanted to understand why and what we could do about it. Three years (and thousands of hours of conversations, interviews, and small group discussions and reading over 3,500 books, white papers, studies, articles and reports) later, it’s clear that our love affair with venture capital is having some difficult unintended consequences. To be clear, venture capital is an important resource and we need more of it fueling high growth companies across the nation. But, it’s only appropriate for a small sliver of companies and shouldn’t be so inextricably linked to all things entrepreneurial. But it has infused how we talk about entrepreneurship, it’s become the default pathway for taking action on our ideas, it’s what we teach in our incubators and accelerators and university programs, and it’s the primary (and often only) means of funding entrepreneurial ventures in most communities. Today, I have a vastly different viewpoint on how to foster entrepreneurship than I did a decade ago when I was Managing Director of Startup America and the work I did at 1776.
In what way has your time at Ross led to the work you now do?
When I was at Ross, I was also in the middle of building my first company. What was book theory to some would literally be foundational for me the next day in my venture. Talk about putting your learning into action right away! Building a company is a risky, lonely job, and as CEO you often are executing while you’re still learning. Doing it while being part of the Ross community created a safe zone for me, where I could say “I don’t know how to do this,” and then get help from some of the top thinkers in the world. Over the years, my connection to the faculty and alumni network has remained strong. And as my role has morphed from building a company to helping others build thousands, I continue to find kindred spirits at Ross.
Do you have any advice for current students aiming to make a career in the social sector?
I’d tell students that they shouldn’t look at this like an either-or decision. Some of the most impactful organizations and roles I’ve seen are inside companies. And some of the least impactful organizations I’ve seen are labeled social impact organizations.
Start first with your why. What do you care about and why? Then become a master of the problem — not a specific idea or solution or organization. Ideas will change. What is a solution today might not work tomorrow. Organizations come and go. Seek to understand that problem inside-out and upside-down. Get to know others who care about that problem too — from every sphere of society. Then look for the levers where you can apply your unique gifts and talents to bring about change. Sometimes the best place to do that isn’t where you expect it to be.
A turning point for you was your visit to Haiti. Have you reflected on Haiti after this latest earthquake?
I’ve thought about Haiti nearly every single day in the decades since my first visit. The sheer poverty was overwhelming — just beyond comprehension. But it was meeting that little boy that continues to break me — realizing that my crumbs of goodwill, no matter how well-intentioned, weren’t going to change his life because the roots of the nation’s poverty remained. The nation never recovered from the 2010 quake, and despite billions of dollars pledged to help, little has changed. For me, it’s a stark example of how many of the institutions we traditionally task with driving social change are falling short and why we need orders of magnitude more entrepreneurial initiative around the world.