The co-founder of the D.C. incubator talks about the importance of encouraging people to think the “entrepreneurial way.”
There are myriad problems worth addressing in the world, with just as many potential solutions. While the not-for-profit model is commonly used to tackle these kinds of far-reaching issues, there’s another, more effective means of attacking them, argues Donna Harris.
“A lot of people would think, ‘Well, let me go start a nonprofit,’” she says. “But if you look at how you actually scale and bring about change, the entrepreneurship model is extraordinarily effective.”
Harris has, in her own way, always been entrepreneurial, even if she wasn’t always able to recognize it. Now the co-founder and co-CEO of 1776, the Washington, D.C.-based global incubator and seed fund, she spent years working in corporate America before she experienced a kind of working world existential crisis. “I got up every morning and thought to myself, ‘Would the world be really any different if I did or didn’t do this job?’” she says.
“I wondered whether there was any impact one way or the other, and I couldn’t get away from that idea that I was one really tiny cog in a very, very giant wheel — that I was interchangeable. That has been a theme for me my entire life, and I see entrepreneurship as a way to fix that.”
Taking a leap of faith, Harris left her sales job at Oracle and plunged headfirst into the entrepreneurial economy. Since then, she’s started and overseen four businesses — three of which were ultimately bought — raised more than $35 million in capital, served as CEO of a government affairs organization and led the Startup America Partnership.
In a candid interview with Free Enterprise, Harris talked about her career, her passion for entrepreneurs and the state of women in business:
What distinguishes 1776 from other co-working companies?
First of all, we wouldn’t call ourselves a co-working space, so that’s uniqueness number one. We’re very much a membership community, and it’s not really about the space and the ability to work there, as much as it about being a part of the community. The connection that you get with that community — mentors, people who are going to sit with you and teach you what you need to build your company; potential customers; VIPs coming in and out — we’re constantly thinking about who do our startups most need to meet, and who would be difficult for them to meet on their own? So, we say, “Let’s go and get those people and get them on campus to shortcut that cycle.”
Tory Burch has voiced her frustration with how she’s often introduced as a “female CEO” instead of just a CEO. What’s your take on the state of women in business, and do you find the question itself frustrating?
I’m totally with Tory. Yes, I’m a woman, but could we please focus on the fact that I’m a successful entrepreneur as opposed to the fact that I’m female? I think that demonstrates where we are, which is we have an enormous recognition — finally — that the ratio is imbalanced in the tech world. And I think it’s great that we’ve recognized it. However, we’re short on solutions, so we end up having a lot of conversations about the problem instead of focusing on the things that are working to get to the point where it becomes irrelevant in terms of your gender. I would say the same thing applies to race and probably age.
To me, I am sort of tired of the question, and I’m tired of being held up as a successful woman. If you look at Evan (Burfield) and me, we’re co-founders and co-CEOs, so we’re seemingly equal. However, we’re really not: Evan gets invited to speak at substantive conferences, and I get the invites to the women-focused ones — that’s the reality. When the two of us walk into a room, 99 percent of the time people will shake his hand first, and they will assume he’s in charge and I’m the behind the scenes operational person, which could not be further from the truth. But until we get to the subconscious biases that we have, we’re not going to solve the problem. And that’s not just men; that’s women, too. We’re all guilty of it.
Do you think that’s changing?
I think it’s encouraging that women have role models today. When I was early in my entrepreneurship career, there weren’t any role models. Now, a woman who wants to be an entrepreneur can see lots of role models around her. I think if you fast forward to what that means five to ten years from now, we’ll be in a much better place.
What’s your take on data that shows more businesses are closing than opening in the U.S.?
It’s enormously troubling because all the data prove there’s a tremendously high correlation between entrepreneurial activity and job creation. The challenge is that we have an educational system that teaches students to follow directions and essentially indoctrinates people — particularly at the collegiate level — that there’s a career path that you should follow. Entrepreneurship isn’t usually integrated right into that. It’s sort of a specialty club or an add-on.
You see it all the time at the college level, but you even see it down at the elementary and high school level in terms of how we’re teaching our kids. It’s about following instruction and working your way up the ladder; it’s not necessarily about thinking for yourself, being a problem-solver, and questioning the status quo, and that’s what entrepreneurs do. They have to be able to say, “The way it’s being done now is broken.” And they have to have the hubris to say, “I have a better solution.” Sadly, I don’t think we’re teaching that.
How can that be fixed?
We need to more tightly incorporate entrepreneurship into what schools teach, so the way entrepreneurs think is integrated into students’ curriculum. Once that’s happened at the collegiate level, we need to move that kind of approach further back into the K-12 realm. The way I look at entrepreneurship is two-fold: There’s thinking in an entrepreneurial way, and then there’s the actual starting and scaling of a business as an entrepreneur. I think that first thing is important for everyone, even though not everyone will do the second thing.
What’s the best part about your job?
The most exciting part for me is that entrepreneurs are very passionate about their ideas and hungry to make them happen, and that can be really infectious. It’s hard not to be inspired by them when you spend time with them.
This piece first appeared in Free Enterprise.