Opinion

CHARACTER SKETCH

John Harthorne: An insurgent in Boston’s business elite

Tim Bower for the Boston Globe

The Boston Business Journal’s annual list of the city’s 50 most influential business leaders mostly reads like the same old roster of gray-haired moguls. So when it crowned the boyish John Harthorne as one of Boston’s major wheelers-and-dealers last year, two obvious questions came to many readers’ minds. The first was whether the 38-year-old founder and CEO of the start-up accelerator MassChallenge really deserved his spot on the list, between titans like Robert Kraft and Abigail Johnson. The second was: “John who?

In a way, the surprise was mutual. “There’s a lot of people on that list I couldn’t get a meeting with if I tried for months, but every single person on that list could get a meeting with me tomorrow,” Harthorne admits, perfectly capturing the lopsided relationship between Boston’s old guard and its rapidly expanding start-up sector. But as the city rests its future on high-tech development on the South Boston waterfront, the region’s upstarts are becoming harder to ignore.

Over the past two years, no one has done more than Harthorne — a lifelong Massachusetts resident, MIT graduate, and Bain and Co. alumnus — to help the start-up sector expand. In its inaugural year alone, MassChallenge helped 111 start-ups raise over $100 million in funding, creating around 500 new jobs along the way.

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But to view Harthorne simply as the first of his generation to break into the local establishment is to misunderstand his ambitions. Describing himself as “evangelical for the class of creative people,” Harthorne believes — truly — that entrepreneurs have the ability to save the world. Entrepreneurship isn’t only about making money, he says, but a “pure, raw expression of human goodness, a creative drive and desire to just give.” It’s the “creative spirit,” he says, that “is so close to the human soul.”

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That explains why MassChallege operates, as Harthorne likes to say, on a “philosophy of generosity.” It’s the opposite of parochial. It helps companies grow without asking for anything in return, and is open to people from any industry, from anywhere. In person, Harthorne is too polite to criticize the culture of other established businesses. But perhaps MassChallenge is indictment enough. Ultimately, Harthorne isn’t trying to become one of the city’s next big players. He’s wants to redefine what it means to be one.

— ROB ANDERSON

Twitter: @rcand