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An Interview with HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Jeff Walker (MBA ’81)

This article is the third in a series of interviews with this year’s Harvard Business School Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. Sponsored by the HBS Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program invites accomplished entrepreneurs to commit to either a semester or full academic year working with faculty and students on campus.

Many people consider the worlds of Private Equity and Venture Capital to be purely monetarily focused. However, Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) Jeffrey Walker has taken the skills garnered from years spent making headline deals to work in social enterprise.

Jeffrey Walker, former Chairman and CEO of CCMP Capital, a $12 billion private equity group, always had a hand in social issues. Jeffrey has served on his local board of education, as Chairman of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and on the boards of many other organizations. Currently, Jeffrey is Chairman of Millennium Promise (MP), an organization with the goal of ending extreme poverty worldwide by 2025.

HARBUS: Jeffrey, talk a little about your career experiences. How have they brought you to the point where you are now, Chairman of MP?

Jeffrey Walker (JW): I spent 25 years in private equity and venture capital. Helping set up the group in 1983-84 was really fun to do. We started from ground zero and grew the business through eight acquisitions. Then, we were working with small- to medium-sized growth companies, but as we grew to $12 billion under management and spun out from JPMorgan, we were doing bigger deals with more established companies and I realized it wasn’t quite as fun.

Along the way I became really involved in non-profits and created NPower, a non-profit that provides back-office technology and support to other non-profits as well as workforce development. I look at scaling that business and really enjoyed the experience working with growth companies. I realized these companies, despite being not-for-profit, had similar issues to those I faced throughout my PE/VC career. There were very few people on the boards of non-profits that had skills, time, or the willingness to make these businesses well-managed. I found my advice both welcome and well-received.

HARBUS: What prompted your interest in Millennium Promise? How did you become so involved?

JW: I became involved with MP because I believed in the mission and the leaders of the organization. I always thought that Africa was the next generation’s problem-that it was just too tough. But, I visited Africa and helped structure the business along with Jeffrey Sachs and Raymond Chambers, MP founders. I saw that there were a number of similarities to what we did in the private sector, raising funds and leveraging those resources to set up a private strategy. Then once you prove it you can scale, or in this instance, pursue a larger mission involving other NGOs, etc.

One key idea that forms a foundation for the organization is the holistic approach MP uses to tackle development. You really have to address all areas of the problem and truly meet all the needs of the people to make progress. You can’t solve the education issue without also taking into consideration infrastructure, agriculture, food and healthcare concerns because otherwise you will not be able to get the children into the schools. It is this holistic approach that differentiates Millennium Promise.

HARBUS: Are there any particular experiences that highlight the similarities between the for-profit and non-profit worlds?

JW: One particularly interesting experience was our solution for malaria. Ray set out to end malaria, understanding that it takes bed nets, a solution that people have known for years. However, Ray was able to spin out an organization (from Millennium Promise), Malaria No More, and raise $3 billion for bednets, bringing together five organizations, including the Gates Foundation, the Global Fund, and the International Red Cross. In a span of just 3 « years, the organization will cover the entire continent and save the lives of one million people a year who would otherwise have died of Malaria. One of the keys to pulling it all together was the simple message, clear vision, attainable goal, and a leader like Ray. This is a story I would love to write a case about.

Now that we have succeeded in one area-malaria-we are looking to identify what common characteristics that made this venture successful can be applied to other ventures. One of the keys is the partnership.

HARBUS: Elaborate on partnerships. How do you envision the partnership model applying to non-profit organizations?

JW: I believe in activist philanthropy. A lot of people have extra cash when they reach the age of 60 or so, and many want to be active in giving back. They like the idea of co-creation, of being partners in a cause and not just passive money, and want to know how they can get connected with a cause. This is very similar to the PE/VC model where you get on a board, get involved and create value. So, the goal is to get activist philanthropists to effectively work together to create value and help non-profits. There is a significant demand for active philanthropists to transfer their private-sector skills to the non-profit sector.

I also feel that this is an area where students can really help. This is one of the reasons why I am assisting with the Rwanda IXP to give students experience with the problems Millennium Promise is facing in Africa right now.

HARBUS: As an EIR, you are not only helping organize the new Rwanda IXP, but also collaborating on a case about the Robin Hood Foundation. What is it like to be back on campus? Are you enjoying the experience?

JW: It is fun to be back, and interesting from a faculty perspective as opposed to a student perspective. I am enjoying experiencing what it is like to teach a seminar, work on a case and help with a conference. A sectionmate of mine, David Wan, is running Harvard Business Review, and it is great to have the ability to meet with him and see if we can do something together that might have an impact at HBS.
I also love to be in front of the students and feed off their energy. There is nothing like being with people all bright-eyed. It’s amazing to see 360 people in the Social Enterprise Club. In my years, 1980-81, there wasn’t much discussion of social enterprise, and only 10 years ago there were just nine people in the club.

I will be speaking with the Leadership Fellows, and it is fantastic seeing all the great places they are going and listening to everything they are looking forward to accomplishing throughout their year. It is fantastic to find ways for students to get involved on a direct basis.

I also enjoy seeing the diversity in the classrooms. It is nice to see the flags and recognize the awareness there is of other viewpoints.

HARBUS: Jeffrey, thank you, your experience is moving. As an EIR, what career advice would you offer current students?

JW: What I did when I graduated was go somewhere where there weren’t a lot of MBAs. I would advise you to “stop looking for the paths.” If you think you’re on the right path, you are on the wrong path; there is no path. I did a lot of path-searching when I was here, too; it’s hard to break from the herd. But, I encourage students to really think about their passions, rather than just looking at what is hot. Maybe young adults today are able to spend more time thinking. When I sit with students and see that they want to start a non-profit that means change. To me, those are the people that are really interesting.they will have an impact.

Today, I might look at growth companies; look at places where I could really stir up trouble. In your late twenties, this is the time you need to take risks. It is not that risky to go off the path. Rather, it is risky to be a cog in one of those machines.

October 19, 2009
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