Where others see problems, Donna Levin sees opportunities.
When she couldn’t afford college, she used her entrepreneurial instincts to create odd jobs and carve out a career in coding that helped pay for her education.
When she struggled balancing child care with a demanding job as an executive, she used her advanced tech and leadership skills to help co-found Care.com.
And, when she was collaborating with future leaders to tackle even larger problems, she used her vision to discover something even more powerful.
“I realized something really amazing during that time,” she says. “You don’t have to be the person that tries to go off and solve all those problems. You can be the person that helps people who want to go out and solve all those problems.”
Now, as the CEO of The Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, Levin has never been better positioned to empower others to solve the world’s biggest challenges.
Her journey to Babson’s Blank School exemplifies how entrepreneurial leaders can help change the world by inspiring others.
For Levin, education always has been a priority, especially when it wasn’t easy.
Born in Chicago, Levin moved with her family to Brookline, Massachusetts, when she was in the first grade, primarily because of the school system. But, “the reality was that there wasn’t a clear plan for college in my household,” she says. “College is very expensive, so I had a lot of stops and starts.”
Levin first attended Boston University, where her mom worked. But, when her mom’s tenure there ended, so did her ability to afford it. So, she embarked on “a ton of side hustles.” She sold Christmas trees out of a Burger King parking lot near Fenway Park. She worked as a personal assistant, and she even delivered pizzas to “hardcore techie” friends. “Before there was Uber Eats,” she says, “I guess there was Donna Eats.”
“Before there was Uber Eats, I guess there was Donna Eats.”
Donna Levin, recalling how she would deliver pizzas to tech friends early in her life to make ends meet
With her entrepreneurial spirit—and a knack for coding that began in the eighth grade—Levin also began earning extra money by fixing scripts and debugging software for one of those tech friends. He convinced her to apply at his company, and she got a job testing hardware.
“That changed the trajectory of my life and my career,” she says. “I no longer had to stay awake for days and do all the side hustles. I could afford to pay for my education.”
Levin earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing communications from Emerson College in Boston, and embarked on an ascendant tech career that led her to Turning Point Software (acquired by Metamor Worldwide).
“Now, imagine getting to the West Coast during the start of the dot.com craze, and everyone thought they were changing the world, everyone had a mission,” she says. “That energy and that focus on ‘we can make the world better.’ I loved it and started looking for my own startup.”
‘Putting People First’
Following a short stint at Furniture.com, she joined Upromise—the highly successful startup that helped people save money for college.
“The mission resonated with me,” Levin says. “The culture was one where it was always putting people first, always listening to those needs and responding.”
Levin advanced to the executive team, but Upromise had just been acquired by Sallie Mae and she was the mother of a young child, trying to balance child care needs with career demands. One of her colleagues, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, had left to care for her two young sons and her ailing father. So, Levin began thinking about what she would do next and started searching for problems in need of a solution.
“The one that resonated the most with me was how great would it be to put together a solution for folks just like ourselves who are forced to work, who have people they love and who need care, and they are trying to safely coordinate all those tools and services and they want them in one place,” she says. “That was the birth of Care.com.”
At Care.com, Levin and Marcelo—along with co-founders Dave Krupinski and Zenobia Moochhala—created the culture they craved, focused on people. One of the first things they did was ask all the employees to bring in a picture of a loved one, which they displayed on a wall as a reminder.
“That really grounded the conversation,” Levin says. “It was no longer just about the metrics. It was the reality that every single one of those numbers tie back to a family, and to someone who was either a care recipient or a care seeker.”
Bringing ‘Big Ideas to Life’
After nine years building and running Care.com and “feeling like the mission’s realized,” Levin pivoted again to focus on other challenges.
“I knew I wanted to find other people who want to solve problems, and I wanted to help other people bring their big ideas to life, particularly women and underrepresented minorities,” she says. “I had a hypothesis that it was an access issue.”
“I knew I wanted to find other people who want to solve problems, and I wanted to help other people bring their big ideas to life, particularly women and underrepresented minorities.”
Donna Levin, CEO, The Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College
Levin returned to college, earning her Executive MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. She was invited to stay, given a chance to pressure-test her hypothesis over three years as an entrepreneur in residence and senior lecturer at MIT. In 2018, she moved to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she was the inaugural executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Last fall, Levin was named CEO of Babson’s Blank School, where she now is harnessing all her experiences as an entrepreneurial leader to empower people to find solutions to the world’s greatest problems. For starters, the pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for today and the future. But, again, Levin sees only opportunity.
“When we think about the future and what’s ahead, I think everyone is focused on how we can rebuild and it’s more equitable, and that gets me super fired up,” she says.
“At Babson and the Blank School, this is how we are helping create leaders that people want to follow: Leaders who inspire everyone around them to do more than they thought possible, to go for bigger visions, to go solve these challenges.”
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