Agree with her politics or not, the California Senator’s rise to the VP ticket is something every disrupter can be inspired by.
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Adversity. That is the foundation of every good entrepreneur’s brand story. From the day she was born in 1964 in Oakland, California to her acceptance this week for the Vice Presidential candidacy on the Democratic ticket alongside Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris — who is of Jamaican and Indian heritage — is a living example of America’s opportunity as a melting pot.
Although her parents worked extremely hard to earn prestigious careers, Harris had to overcome significant systemic barriers that have prevented so many from creating their intended impact. Her journey, much like those experienced by high-growth entrepreneurs, is one of vision, perseverance, grit, determination and the ability to pivot. Whether the Biden-Harris ticket is successful or not, these five entrepreneurial characteristics are what propelled Harris to make a significant impact on the world, and can motivate us all.
1. She is fueled by achieving her purpose
The best entrepreneurs are the ones who understand that purpose, not ego, creates motivation that withstands the test of time and creates the ties that bind. Harris was raised in the Civil Rights era by a mother who taught her daughters that it was their job to create true equity in an inequitable world, with a particular interest in women, children and underrepresented populations. In order to do her part to break down systemic bias, Harris realized in elementary school that she wanted to be a lawyer and fight injustice from inside and outside of the system.
2. She employs a disrupter’s mindset
Harris studied economics and political science at Howard University, giving her the baseline mindset of an entrepreneur: a system’s view into power, how things work and distinguishing symptoms from root causes. From this perspective, Harris was able to dismantle inefficient, ineffective and inequitable status quos that no longer serve the world in which they exist. For example, during the first three years as San Francisco District Attorney, the conviction rate grew from 52 percent to 67 percent. Through her program Back on Track, Harris was able to reduce the occurrence of re-offending by offering practical education to people convicted with non-violent and low-level drug trafficking charges in lieu of prison time. The result was staggering; after just two years, only 10 percent of participants re-offended, versus the 53 percent rate held previously. And from an economics perspective, the program saved significant money for the state.
3. She favors progress over perfection
While this is common advice for entrepreneurs everywhere, the truth is that underrepresented populations often do not have the luxury of making mistakes. Systemic bias has conditioned each of us to believe that women should be judged based on binary definitions of perfection and imperfection. Further, women are typically hired for their experience while their male peers are hired for their potential. When Harris failed the bar exam the first time, she dusted herself off and took the test again, passing the second time. And while in college, rather than focus on perfecting her path in the legal field, much like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, she tinkered during college by working various entry level positions at the FTC, Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the office of former California Senator Alan Cranston.
4. She leverages true inclusion to co-create a better world
Harris appears to possess the ability to build relationships that bind regardless of who is in the room. She embraced her Jamaican heritage and felt at home in the predominately African-American, economically-disadvantaged community in which she was raised during, while also growing up to feel fully comfortable with people of influence and power. With frequent trips to India to visit family, she was duly embraced by the South Asian community. Through her sorority at Howard, Alpha Kalpa Alpha, she stood together with her sisters to protest against Apartheid and collaborated to create a program to mentor children from under-privileged communities. As a prosecutor, she became the voice of those underserved communities. She stood up to colleagues who would villainize gang members so that they could see the offenders as human beings and not just criminals who wear certain clothes and came from the wrong side of town.
5. She cultivates a strong personal foundation
Harris, like so many startup founders, has chosen a path that is not conducive for the faint of heart. From SoulCycle to watching reality TV during treadmill workouts, Harris understands that she has to refuel her mind, body and spirit in order to face significant barriers. Her love of good food and great company, including her tight-knit family and lifelong friends, give her the support to get through high-risk and high-profile circumstances, while also keeping her focused on what is important: creating the material changes in the world that she wants to make.
Harris has many challenges ahead as she nears the November election and the aftermath of everyone’s vote. With her entrepreneurial approach to disrupting systems in which the powerful thrive, she will always find a path from which to create the world she wants to live in. And hopefully we all can too.