How Builders and Backers is evolving entrepreneurship

While entrepreneurship is still a useful and popular philosophy for the D.C. region, there are some that hope to expand their view of what can be done to help society. Instead of starting with a market-based solution and finding a problem to fix, Donna Harris, venture partner and founder of the Builders and Backers initiative, hopes to mobilize people to start with the problem they want to solve and find the right solution to fix it.

ABERMAN: Tell everyone about your new initiative. What are you up to?

HARRIS: So I’ve been quiet the past three years, but I’ve been busy researching, testing and experimenting, and launching an initiative called Builders and Backers. Our objective is to mobilize our country around the concept of buildership, that we can all see problems, solve problems, and make a difference in our communities. And through buildership, we can solve the problems that actually matter. So we need to be builders, and we need to be backers.

ABERMAN: You’ve been around what we used to call, or talk about as, entrepreneurship. How does buildership differ from the entrepreneurship that you and I have talked about for years now?

HARRIS: If you circle back to where we started with Startup America and 1776, we had a very real problem around getting people involved in high-growth entrepreneurship because our country needs the jobs that these businesses can create. The challenge is that really well-intended efforts to create ecosystems have ended up in ecosystems that revolve around venture capital. And so people that have ideas and want to pursue them, end up going down the pathway of creating a venture capital-backed business. Which is great for some concepts, and for some entities.

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But it isn’t great for some other ones. It’s nto the vehicle for everyone. And so, we need to be teaching entrepreneurial thinking and doing to everyone, not just people who want to start a venture. It’s not a means to an end. It actually is the thing that we all need to be excellent at as a country, whether you’re a mayor, you’re running a not-for-profit, you’re working inside a company, you’re a parent of a student. We all need to be able to be builders, and that’s the word we call entrepreneurial thinking and doing.

ABERMAN: I have been around the venture capital industry for a long time, and I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying, in that, in a lot of ways in our country, we’ve created almost a lottery, where if I play this game I might become a billionaire. And it’s true, if you play well, you may become a billionaire, but you’re an outlier, and it doesn’t provide a road map where the many people that aren’t going to be billionaires can contribute. And it also focuses on economic outcome in a very narrow way. So, I’m with you. What is it about entrepreneurial behavior that you think we have to trigger in our communities to make a difference in our society?

HARRIS: If you think about what you just said, we have put venture first. I’m a venture capitalist, I’ve invested in companies on five continents. And when you start by saying I run a venture capital fund, you narrow your aperture to the ideas you can invest in. And you might come across fantastic people with amazing ideas, that can actually make an impact in their community, but they don’t fit your investing model. So what if we flip that around and say, why don’t we start with the problems that we want to solve? Let’s look at the promising practices that are out there, everywhere, and by the way, we don’t care if that promising practice is a not-for-profit or a high-scale venture, we care if it actually solves the problem.

Then, we put the funding in alignment with what that promising practice needs to scale. So we’re flipping that around. And if we can do that, then it becomes an imperative that we teach people how to look at the problems around them, to understand and unpack the problems, get to the root, to be able to find out-of-the-box solutions, and then have the courage and tools to experiment, in really small ways, to solve the problems. And in essence, that’s what we’ve been teaching entrepreneurs for the last decade.

But we’re doing it through the lens of, it can or should only result in this narrow kind of company that I can back. So, in terms of communities, if we look at the vitriol, the political backlash, the divides, and I don’t care which side of the aisle you’re on, we’re harshly divided in a time where we have serious problems that we need to fix. So while everyone is focusing on who is in office, and elections that are or are not happening, we focused on, what if we taught people how to actually do this, and unleashed them across the country? Could that actually not only help solve the problems, could people come together by building together, and purposefully tested that concept. And it turns out, the answer is yes.

ABERMAN: Implicit in your thesis is that there are other places to find resources and money, other than venture, to support problem solving. So, what are those other sources, if it’s not coming from selfish people looking to make lots of money?

HARRIS: I’m one of those selfish people. I run a venture capital fund, I’m an angel investor, I have a fantastic portfolio of amazing entrepreneurs that I’m backing through a venture lens. I also am a philanthropist, I make donations, I’m an adviser and mentor, and sometimes I think about lower-return vehicles I can use to back the companies. We have literally trillions of dollars in capital as a nation, if you look collectively at the philanthropy dollars that are sitting in donor-advised funds. If you think about it, our country is one of the most generous in the world. The capital is not the problem. The vehicle-first orientation of that capital, in terms of, because I’m a philanthropist, I use these vehicles; if I’m a venture capitalist I use those vehicles.

If we flip that around and say, well, it doesn’t matter what label I put on myself. What do I care about? What do I really think is broken that I want to be able to invest my resources in? Now, let’s go find the promising practices, and let’s go put the right vehicle around that promising practice. There’s trillions of dollars available, and that’s not even thinking about government funding, corporate initiatives that align around some of these challenges that we need to address. If we think about the issue of distressed communities, we’ve got an entire swath of country of communities that are falling behind in this race to be a digital economy.

A lot of companies care about that, not just mayors, not just the people who live there. They care about that because that’s their customer base. So, there’s a lot of stakeholders that care about the problems, we just haven’t structured the right way for those stakeholders to actually be able to back solutions to those problems.

ABERMAN: So over the last couple of years, as you’ve done various things around this issue, what’s the project that you’ve worked on that has provided the best use case for why this new model makes sense to you?

HARRIS: We’ve done a lot of experimenting in discreet pieces and parts of this. Can you teach buildership? Can you mobilize people to employ buildership around problems that matter? Can you find backers that are willing to embrace this model? Can you structure investments around this model? And all of those were fantastic proofs that this thesis was correct, and that this model works. We, over the last nine months, have been working in a pilot community, particularly aggressively over the last six, in North Carolina. Working in Winston-Salem, Piedmont region, Greensboro, High Point, and all the communities to the west, like Boone and Wilkesboro.

They’re in some cases distressed communities, and in other cases small to midsize communities as companies move and jobs move to bigger cities. And we were able to mobilize builders across the western third of North Carolina, we found them, they were very excited about this concept of buildership, embraced it immediately, came together for workshops around, how do we actually employ it? In a single four-hour session that we had with them in December, they generated over 1500 ideas around solving the economic challenges that vex the region. And by the way, we were able to feed those challenges to one of the largest corporations in the world, who has actually begun solving with them some of those challenges.

Because we’ve been able to connect all the stakeholders, and the backers who care about those problems, to the ideas, and the builders that generate those ideas. And so, we’ll be showing a documentary film soon that shows that work, and it highlights the people that are in every community across the country who actually can be builders, if we actually structures the tools and ways to mobilize them and back them.

ABERMAN: I’ve known you a long time, we’ve worked in many different projects together. I know you’re a very purpose-driven person and you have strong faith. How do you think that faith and entrepreneurship interrelate, and what do they have in common?

HARRIS: What a great question. Personally, it is an important intersection for me. As a person of faith, I view entrepreneurship more through the lens of a tool I understand how to use, and I can use purposefully in the world. And there’s nothing wrong with making money as I do that, but I’m aiming it at problems that matter. I’m aiming it at the idea that every single person in this world has a gift, and what a shame it is that we don’t actually unlock all those gifts. And, what are we missing in this world because we haven’t? To me, that’s purpose, that’s my calling, that’s my why. Though I do it through a variety of lenses, secular and spiritual, and it’s not about taking my faith, and going out there and saying my goal is to convert people.

I’m called through my faith to be a person who loves my neighbor. And I define love as love in action. And action for me means yes, I want to get out and serve, I want to volunteer and donate to that immediate need, but I also want to solve. I went to Haiti right before the dot com crash, and I saw the magnitude of the problems. And I met a little boy, no older than my son, who by the way is turning ten today. He was living in squalor in a garbage dump, and he had no clean water, no clean clothes, and I’m there on a trip painting churches and doing wonderful, good work. And I was aggrieved because I didn’t actually solve the problem that led to that little boy living in squalor. And we have some of the same challenges emerging now emerging in our country.

With water and poverty and homelessness and education, and communities falling behind, and economies that are struggling. And I want ot be someone who serves, but I really want to be someone who solves, and I want to help other people not just call them and say, hey, we should go solve this. We need to teach people how to go solve this. And if we use the word entrepreneurship, it closes peoples’ minds to thinking that they need to go create a company. But the word buildership, to be a builder, we all can be builders. And we all can be backers, if we think about what those words truly mean.


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