‘Precipice of change’

Co-founder of incubator 1776 believes in the power of entrepreneurs

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Donna Harris has launched several businesses.
Photo by Mark Rhodes

Donna Harris believes entrepreneurs represent the heart, soul and lifeblood of any economy.

Harris, a veteran entrepreneur, co-founded (with Evan Burfield) 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based global incubator and seed fund, which last year opened a campus in Arlington. In late November, she announced that she is stepping down at the end of January as co-CEO of the incubator but will remain an investor and board member. Burfield will become sole CEO.

Harris, a Falls Church resident, describes herself as a “very passionate entrepreneur that wants every city to be a city where entrepreneurs can succeed … I believe in the power of entrepreneurs to change the world.”

Since its inception in 2013, 1776 has helped support more than 800 startups worldwide, raising more than $330 million in capital and creating more than 2,000 jobs. It is currently working with approximately 600 startups.

“1776 has been a vital partner in our business community since its arrival in Crystal City,” says Victor Hoskins, director of Arlington Economic Development. “Some of Arlington’s most innovative technology companies are part of or got their start with 1776.” The companies include Shift, an online car marketplace, and Notarize, an on-demand electronic notary service.

In addition to Washington and Arlington, 1776 has sites in San Francisco, New York and — most recently — Dubai. It is the first international technology incubator to have a presence in the Middle East-North Africa region.

Harris and Burfield picked 1776 for the incubator’s name because it reflects the dramatic changes that were going on during the year that the Declaration of Independence was adopted. “Today we are on a similar precipice of change globally,” Harris says. “We are bringing together entrepreneurs, corporations and governments who recognize the impact of the digital era.”

Harris traces her entrepreneurial career back to the third grade in Lake Orion, Mich. She and a friend collected worms and sold them for use as bait or to improve soil in gardens.

“That was ironic because we picked them up out of our garden and then went door to door. We sold them all,” Harris says, noting that she also once organized a circus in her garage and sold tickets. “I would create something and commercialize it. It’s so much of what I did.”

Her life has been defined by a series of opportunities. While she was studying finance and accounting at Central Michigan University, she was interviewed for what she thought was a finance job at Electronic Data Systems. Her college counselor, however, put her name on the interview list for systems engineering by mistake.

Harris, nonetheless, landed the job. (She later earned an MBA with distinction from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.) “People chuckle when I tell them sometimes life will take you where it’s going to take you. You have a plan, but then something happens in a way you could never have planned for,” she says.

She started her first business, CC Corp., in 1998 in Detroit. The company provided consulting and online training on enterprise software such as Oracle. She sold the company after it hit $1 million in revenue in less than a year.

Her next venture was Kinderstreet, which sold software for the education, sports and recreation markets. By the time it was acquired by Arc Capital Development in 2005, it was working with more than 900 schools in 41 states.

Before the launch of 1776, Harris was managing director of the Startup America Partnership, a White House initiative designed to promote entrepreneurship throughout the nation. “My role was to focus on making it a reality that cities outside of Silicon Valley could become areas where entrepreneurs could thrive,” she says.

Today her scope at 1776 is global.  Harris says the incubator’s Washington location gives it visibility. “Our innovators at 1776 are tackling issues the government cares about,” Harris says. “We want to get leaders like President Obama to better understand what’s happening in entrepreneurship globally. They bring a very large spotlight, and there’s no substitute for good publicity.”

Each year the incubator hosts a competition, the Challenge Cup, which connects promising new startups with investors and mentors. Next year’s Challenge Cup Global Finals will be held in June in Washington, where entrepreneurs will compete for more than $1 million in prizes.

Harris’ other role is being a mother to her 6-year-old son, Chase. “I think balance is always a challenge,” she says of juggling motherhood with her career. “I want to be the best for my son and my family, and I want to be the best for the work I do.”

Harris recognizes there are a small percentage of women in her field. “There aren’t that many women … in entrepreneurships and venture capital, but it’s also a challenge across technology … We have to hold ourselves accountable to do better,” she says.

“Donna is a terrific entrepreneur,” says Penny Lee, chair of K Street Capital, an angel investment group in Washington. “She is someone who executes with precision and is creative in her thought approach. She’s constantly pushing the envelope.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Harris' late November announcement that she will step down as co-CEO at the end of January.


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