by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Ed Harrell ’55 was just 23 years old when his employer sent him to Japan to educate employees and evaluate their work systems. Standing before a machine he’d never seen before, he had to deliver a verdict about how well it worked.
“You just have to be able to laugh at yourself, be honest about what you don’t know and then have the confidence that you’ll be able to figure it out,” he says. “And if you work hard, and you can partner with the right people, you’ll make it happen.”
That winning strategy served Harrell well in high-profile management positions all around the world, and as an investor in successful startups. Now, as this passionate advocate for global and entrepreneurial education looks back on a singular four-decade career, he’s passing along his lessons learned.
Harrell grew up outside of Baltimore and commuted two hours a day to attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, an all-boys public high school that offered an advanced college math and science curriculum and a vocational program. Rather than enter the family business after graduation, he interviewed for a spot in Dickinson College’s class of ’55 just a few weeks before the start of his first year. Ben James, then-director of admissions, must have been impressed by Harrell's confidence and advanced math and science skills, because he granted Harrell a scholarship on the spot.
To earn room and board, Harrell took a campus job as head waiter and dishwasher for Alpha Chi Rho, and, as a member of that fraternity, he befriended students from around world and developed a fascination with foreign cultures. A class with Donald Flaherty, who’d worked and studied in China and advocated for the college’s Asian studies program, only deepened Harrell’s resolve to travel the globe, so after graduating a year early, with a degree in chemistry and a math minor, Harrell entered Naval officer training.
As a Navy officer, Harrell traveled to Japan and Australia, and to the Mediterranean, where he served two tours. As a civilian, still in his early 20s, he spent two years in Japan, working with a major chemical company and then helped set up factories in India, quickly learning to communicate across multiple linguistic and cultural divides.
It was in India that Harrell invested in his first startup, a company launched by a fellow Westerner he met during his travels. And after meeting another expat—a Jesuit priest who was also an economist—Harrell decided to pursue an advanced degree in economics from Columbia University, with an eye toward foreign policy. One month before the spring semester began, Harrell called Columbia from Bombay. Despite the scratchy phone reception, he was hitting the books in NYC, just a few weeks after the call.
Although a job opportunity with DuPont interrupted Harrell’s studies, he completed his Ph.D., earned a certificate from Columbia University’s East Asian Institute in Japanese studies and entered the foreign service, all by age 31. He also married wife Paula, a Columbia University classmate and fellow global citizen who went on to become a professor and World Bank employee. All three of their sons were born in Japan; they now also have 10 grandchildren.
Over the decades, Harrell took on top management positions in global entrepreneurial training, technology commercialization, investment and capital market development, working with a number of private firms and government agencies, including the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); he also led the launch of Price Waterhouse’s (now PWC) international privatization division. On his retirement from the Department of State, he was asked to name a retirement gift—a thank-you for his substantial overseas work, particularly in Jordan, where he led the USAID foreign assistance program—and he requested to be sent to the advanced management program at Harvard University’s business school. The state department gratefully obliged.
Harrell now leads Harrell Capital Partners LLC, an early-stage bio and tech investment company he established in partnership with his sons (his oldest is CEO of a gaming company in Norway, another is a consultant to major companies, and the third—a former minor-league baseball player—is a senior executive at Google). In the Washington metro area, Harrell has lent expertise to the Tech Council of Maryland, 1776 D.C. and the Founders Institute Metro D.C. In the Carlisle area, he led the Murata startup incubator, launching several successful companies from an abandoned factory site not far from Dickinson’s campus.
Harrell also has taught courses at Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, the Shidler School of Business and the University of Hawaii, where he delivers an annual on-site program, and he taught introductory business at Dickinson in the early 2000s. He has advised the organizers of Dickinson’s Innovation Competition and supported Dickinson’s Flaherty Lecture series, established in honor of his former professor. He also gives back as a mentor to entrepreneurial-minded students in the Steelton, Pennsylvania, school district, and at Harrisburg University, where he is entrepreneur-in-residence.
Looking back on his undergrad years, Harrell says he’s grateful for the opportunities the college gave him, and he’s pleased to see how Dickinson's global-education programs have grown over the years, along with the college's international-student population.
“At Dickinson, I met groups of people I’d never encountered before, and it changed the way I saw the world,” he says, noting that he's particularly impressed by Dickinson's global centers, which were not yet established when he was a student. "I spent the rest of my life working with people in different countries."
Asked for advice he’d give current students and recent grads hoping to blaze their own paths, he says that a similar worldview shift is the key.
“My thesis is that anyone can be an entrepreneur, because entrepreneurism is a way of thinking, and you can learn to think differently and act upon that thinking process,” he says, adding that with confidence and creativity, young entrepreneurs can learn to develop their ideas, partner with experienced people and communicate effectively with investors, face to face. “The real fun is to see people say, ‘I can’t do this,’ and then realize that they can.”
Published November 13, 2018