Donna C. E. Williamson '74
This interview is dated 6/20/2014.
Donna C. E. Williamson '74 has been a key contributor to the advancement of the Brown Women's Leadership Council, serving as Co-Chair of the Communications Committee and as a member of the Executive Committee. Donna has over twenty-five years of strategy, operating, and board experience in the healthcare industry and is currently a managing director for Ceres Venture Fund LP.
With regard to your career, please describe your current position and what led you to that position.
I am currently working in venture capital. I started out as a financial analyst after attending business school at MIT. Both my studies at MIT and my work focused on strategy development and corporate planning. I moved into that area and developed the first formal strategic planning process at Baxter International, an American health care company. From there I went on to run a number of new businesses for Baxter, growing them from start-ups to sizable (over half a billion dollars). These were spun off into a company called Caremark, of which I was a founding officer. After Caremark was acquired, I decided to continue growing new businesses as a venture capitalist.
How has being a woman influenced the leadership roles in which you have performed in your industry?
My studies in applied mathematics at Brown at the time meant I had very few women in my courses. Business school similarly had few women along which, with working throughout high school and college, gave me confidence alongside men in the workplace.
Is there a specific woman that you have looked towards as a role model or mentor? And how have you been a mentor to others?
Unfortunately, there were very few women to look to when I entered the workplace. I remember I was one of the few women with a cubicle when I started my first position after business school. I knew no women with an office at my company. There were no women on the board of directors or officers of the company. I had a few women professors at Brown, but none at MIT. Of course, that looked very much like my classes at Brown so I did not think about it much. Perhaps because I have three sisters and I later realized how isolated women were, I have reached out to support women for many years, as a peer, manager, investor, and mentor.
Tell us about Ceres Venture Fund, which specifically supports women-owned and women-operated businesses. Can you tell us why this work is important to you?
To be clear, we invest in a variety of businesses. However, I give special attention to female entrepreneurs and routinely go out of my way to speak with them. While more women than men have been starting businesses for some time, few women have been able to grow their businesses with venture capital. One of the most helpful aspects of being a venture capitalist is offering feedback on a business and making introductions to others. Historically, women have not had this benefit. Not every business is a good fit for our fund, but I do try to support women entrepreneurs regardless of whether we make an investment. I feel this is important because there are so few women in venture capital- maybe 5% of decision makers- that many women entrepreneurs don't have access to the venture community. As a result, they lack both the understanding of how to refine a business plan over time with feedback from the market and the opportunity to develop relationships with investors. Often women feel they have "one shot" at investors, but in reality, most investments are made because of relationships that develop over time. Few women took advantage of venture capital, relying on their own sources of capital to grow a business. Today women are entering technology fields where venture capital is a key requirement for growth. As an entrepreneur, a woman can define her business culture much more freely than as a part of an established organization. This can be much more empowering to women both financially and personally. Most banks will not lend to these businesses until they are relatively mature.
What is your fondest memory of your undergraduate years at Brown?
My fondest memory is that of sitting up late at night discussing the issues of the day with friends. They ranged from the war in Vietnam to ideas touched on in classes. Business was not something people thought about much back then.
During your time as the Co-Chair of the WLC Communications Committee and as a member of the Executive Committee, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your involvement?
As a start-up executive, I have to say seeing the WLC take shape from a group of women chartered "to make something happen" to actually making something happen has been tremendously rewarding. My role has been in defining the mission, logo, website, and "brand" associated with the WLC. All of the committees have contributed to making this a robust and exciting organization. I have particularly enjoyed getting to know my fellow WLC members, not unlike getting to know my first friends at Brown.
What is your favorite part about the Women's Leadership Council?
My favorite part of the WLC is reconnecting with Brown through fellow alumnae and current students. It's nice to know that the excitement and stimulation that Brown gave us as undergraduates can follow us as alumnae.
This year marks the University's 250th Anniversary. What advice would you give both to undergraduate women and to alumna as the University approaches the next 250 plus years?
We have to recognize that while many things will change over the next 250 years, and Brown must be one of them, we must embrace change with the knowledge and support that Brown has given us. One of the strengths of a Brown education is that it is self-driven and forces us to find our own path into the future. At the same time one of the most important aspects of that learning will be to build a secure foundation with Brown that will support us emotionally, economically, and intellectually while we move ahead into the future. We are just beginning that process with the WLC.