Alumni Focus

Matt Harris, class of ’94, was initially wait-listed at Williams. “I basically squeaked my way in,” he said. “I contacted the admissions office to see how I could be accepted and they told me to try to distinguish myself – to be a leader.” Harris accomplished that objective by winning the valedictory speech contest at his high school in Newton, MA, ultimately winning him admission. Since then, he has made distinguishing himself a habit. Most notably, his name has recently appeared in publications like Fortune, The Boston Globe, and USA Today as the co-founder of Village Ventures, Inc., a unique and successful venture capital fund that invests in non-traditional, regional markets.

Despite his success in the business world, Harris didn’t start college with venture capital in mind. “I came to Williams planning to be pre-med,” he remembered. “But I found myself constantly studying flashcards while my friends were taking these exciting religion and political science classes. I realized that was the kind of work I really wanted to be doing.” Discovering an interest in economics as well, Harris went on to major in Political Economy.

Of all of the courses he took at Williams, he describes Religion 205, with H. Ganse Little, professor of religion emeritus, as one of the most influential. “It was basically post-modern theory, about belief systems in society,” Harris explained. “I didn’t do very well, but it was so eye-opening and challenging.” Beyond the academic impact of the course, Harris claims it solidified important friendships as well. “I took it with several friends, and by the end of the semester, we were all best friends. It was like we’d been through a war together. That class was so formative for us as a group.” Bo Peabody ’94, the founder of Tripod and Harris’s partner with Village Ventures, was one of those Religion 205 veterans.

Outside of academics, Harris played rugby, serving as the captain of the team in his junior and senior years. The college experience he remembers most fondly? “Beating Amherst. We lost three times to them while I was captain and every time, we had to give up our jerseys – it was awful. So before the spring of my senior year, we imposed more discipline on the team and really worked hard. We finally won, narrowly, right at the end of my senior year. It was such a great feeling.” But Harris appreciated more than the glory of victory about rugby. “That same year,” he explained, “I remember going out to Michigan, for the Michigan-Ohio State football game. It was huge, the fans were going crazy and there was such a feeling of energy – but it wasn’t the fans on the field. That, for me, was the difference between Williams and bigger schools. I could be on the field, not just in the stands.”

The spirit of cooperation that Harris experienced on the field and in the classroom at Williams served him well post-Williams. After graduation in 1994, Harris began working as an associate with Bain and Company, the management-consulting firm, in Boston. “Going into the workplace can be really intimidating,” Harris observed, “because you’re surrounded by these very smart, ambitious people, and I think some people view things like a race. But Williams is so small that collaboration is part of the deal and there’s less competition than at bigger schools.” Harris found success at Bain, where the cooperative attitude was similar to his experience at Williams.

After a year of consulting, Harris took a position at Bain Capital, working in private investments. In 1997, however, Harris left Bain and Boston, headed back to the Berkshires, and became the founding managing director of The Berkshires Capital Investors (BCI), a venture capital fund. Assisted by a $1 million investment from Williams College, BCI was founded with the intention of investing in Berkshire region companies, making money in an area with little competition, as well as helping to boost the county’s economy. According to Harris, “the dual nature of BCI – their make money/do good mentality – really appealed to me. I had been thinking about leaving Bain anyway. I was getting a little jaded about raw capitalism.” Harris partially credits his experience in Religion 205 for this sentiment. “A lot of us in that class left Williams feeling that we had the obligation to do something really interesting with our lives,” he said. “A lot of us already had, like Bo Peabody, who had started Tripod. My job was lucrative, but I wasn’t really changing anything. After a few years, it wasn’t interesting enough.”

BCI turned out to be lucrative and interesting, prompting Harris and Peabody, who was ready for a new challenge, to think bigger. “We realized that there were other parts of the country with the same sets of conditions as the Berkshires, or better. If we could partner with schools, starting locally focused funds, it could be really profitable,” he explained. And so, in January 2000, Village Ventures was born.

Village Ventures looks to invest in communities near schools, populated by smart people, without a lot if competition and with a high quality of life. It operates as a system of venture capital firms, or, as Harris described the company, as “a venture capital franchise.” Village Ventures itself invests in local venture capital funds in targeted regions, as well as provides its own capital for business investments in that locality. So far, the system is working; Harris and Peabody have expanded to a network of thirteen locations across the country, from Maine to Arizona.

For Harris, living in the Berkshires again so soon after graduation was strange at first. “At the time, I was all of 23, and I thought that it would be temporary, that I’d live here for a while and then move back to the city,” he said. “But it just worked out. I got a dog, got a house – it’s nice to be in a place where everyone knows you. I think there are people who really like living in the country, and maybe I’m one of them.” Being back in Williamstown with a different purpose, Harris has gained some different perspectives on the region as well. He commented, “When I was at school here, I didn’t think about the local community at all. The Berkshires were sort of an abstract concept. I went hiking sometimes. Now, I see the community and the school very, very much in tandem.” Still involved in aspects of Williams – Harris has been a guest lecturer, sometimes attends rugby alumni events and plays IM soccer – he’s accordingly expanded his local involvement. “An area like this is really an eco-system community. You can’t live here and only think about business,” he believed, and as a result, serves on the boards of several regional non-profits, like Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts and the Williamstown Theater and Film festivals. Harris is very connected to MASS MoCA as well.

Harris learned about leadership on the rugby field and gained insights in his courses while at Williams, but he didn’t cultivate his appreciation of the arts as an undergrad. “My biggest regret is that I never took art history,” he said. “I am bound and determined to audit 101-102 before I leave this area.” That regret aside, Harris describes himself as “really bullish on Williams.” Above all, he appreciates the support he’s received from the school. “Most importantly, I got a vote of confidence from Williams. There are very few things more important than feeling that people believe in you, and I got that,” he explains.

Harris’s advice to current Williams students echoes the advice he once received from the admissions office. “At a bigger school, you can be a part of lots of things, but at Williams, you have the chance to lead them. Running one thing is really more important than being part of six — it’s such great experience to be in a position where people look to you for what to do next. Focus on a few things that you really care about and take the opportunity to be a leader.”

Imagine how far this guy would have gone if only he’d taken art history.

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