An Inclusive “One Harvard”
HAA president Vanessa Liu on harnessing power “for the greater good.”
At a time when the world is so polarized, says tech business leader and entrepreneur Vanessa Liu ’96, J.D. ’03, Harvard’s global and intergenerational connections can help alumni “significantly impact and shape the world.” In fact, she adds, “It’s hard to think of any other type of community which can have this transformational potential.”
As the new Harvard Alumni Association president, Liu wants to help some 400,000 graduates mine and grow their relationships and knowledge “for the greater good.” Think of the most urgent issues facing civilization—climate change, world peace, among others—“and I will guarantee that you will be able to find someone here on the faculty, or among the alumni, who is an expert on the topic or cause you care about,” she says. “When you were in school, you had that with your peers—and now you still have that, but it’s on an intergenerational, international level—which is just incredible.”
Part of the movement to harness that power, she adds, is continuing to bridge gaps and find common ground within “an inclusive ‘One Harvard.’” Liu is well-prepared for that task.
A Chinese American born and raised in Manhattan, Liu arrived at Harvard focused on the sciences and thought of becoming an astronaut. But then she discovered the Institute of Politics. There, she was inspired by IOP fellows such as then-Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. “I happen to have a lot of family in the Netherlands, and we bonded over that, along with our perspectives on the world order,” she says. They kept in touch, especially through her year as a Fulbright Scholar in international law, at Utrecht University, and a few years later she spent a summer in Switzerland working with Lubbers at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; he was then serving as the high commissioner. “That experience, and many others like it,” she says, “shaped my desire to find work that helps people build bridges.”
After law school, she spent nine years as a consultant in the telecommunications, media, and technology practice at McKinsey & Company, moving among London, Amsterdam, and New York City. She then became COO, CFO, and general counsel of the $22-million, New York-based Trigger Media Group, a digital media venture studio. Since 2018, as vice president at SAP.iO Foundries of North America, she has brokered early-stage venture capital investments and accelerated enterprise software start-ups.
“Diversity and inclusion have been the hallmarks of the work I have done,” she says. “It’s not only important to bring in innovation, but to do it in a way that is inclusive. Over 80 percent of the start-ups we’ve worked with and put in front of Fortune 1000 customers are founded by under-represented founders.” That work began years before the MeToo movement, and was focused, in large part, on developing women- and BIPOC-led tech businesses in a male-dominated industry.
Liu left that post in June, but inclusiveness is also central to her new venture: building, running, and investing in companies that are transforming how older adults age in place. In Chinese culture, elders are revered, she says, but in the United States “There is ageism and discrimination…it is very accepted to just dismiss the worth of older adults. I want to change that perception—change how society basically regards older people.” Liu lives in Manhattan with her Dutch husband, Harold Brunink, LL.M. ’04 (whom she met junior year when he was a visiting student at Dunster House), and their two children, although the family spent the pandemic in the Netherlands to help care for her aging in-laws. Reflecting on her family’s need for connection, especially during the pandemic, has also highlighted the reverberating benefits of Harvard’s alumni network.
While a student on campus, she, like many others, studied hard, and found the school experience very challenging. Only after graduation, having found social and professional comraderie at alumni clubs wherever she has lived, has the University community become her own. Liu became an alumni interviewer in 2005, and later co-founded the New York chapter of the Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs Shared Interest Group. In 2014, she joined the HAA as an elected director, working as vice president of College Alumni Programs before moving into the role of HAA vice president. As part of the One Harvard cohort, she feels responsible for steering that societal mission, and asks the big question of herself, and alumni: “Are we fulfilling our roles as citizens and citizen leaders after the education we received?”