IVCA Profile: 2015 Stanley C. Golder Award Recipient Peter Barris, Managing General Partner at New Enterprise Associates

November 11, 2015

The 2015 IVCA Annual Awards Dinner is fast approaching – December 7th at the The Four Seasons Hotel – and the recipients for each of the awards being given at the 14th edition of the event have been announced. The honoree for the Stanley C. Golder Award, which “acknowledges individuals who have made profound and lasting contributions to the Private Equity industry in Illinois” is Peter Barris, Managing General Partner at New Enterprises Associates (NEA). The Stanley C. Golder Award is named for the Chicago-based pioneer of the area’s Private Equity industry, the founder of “Golder, Thoma and Cressey” Private Equity investment company, and the one-time Chairman of the National Venture Capital Association.

Peter Barris joined NEA in 1992 and was named Managing General Partner in 1999. Since that time NEA's assets under his management have grown from $1B to over $13B, and the firm has expanded its operations to India and China. Under Peter's leadership, NEA has invested in industry-transforming technology companies like CareerBuilder, Data Domain, Diapers.com, Groupon, Juniper Networks, Macromedia, Playdom, Salesforce.com, and TiVo.

Mr. Barris has been named several times to the Forbes Midas List of top technology investors, having personally led investments in over two dozen technology companies that have successfully completed public offerings or mergers. He serves on the board of public company Groupon (GRPN) and is currently a director of several private companies including BenchPrep, Goji Food Solutions, Lightbank, MediaOcean, SnagFilms, and Sprout Social.

Prior to joining NEA, Mr. Barris was President and Chief Operating Officer of LEGENT Corporation (LGNT) and Senior Vice President of the Systems Software Division of UCCEL Corporation (UCE). Both companies were ultimately acquired at valuations that were record breaking for their time. Earlier, he spent almost a decade at General Electric Company in a variety of management positions, including Vice President and General Manager at GE Information Services. Outside interests include serving on the Northwestern Board of Trustees and the Board of the Tuck School Private Equity and Entrepreneur Center – a committee designed to keep talent in the Chicago area. Mr. Barris previously served on the Executive Committee of the Board of the National Venture Capital Association and was also a founding member of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a philanthropic organization in the Washington D.C. area.

Mr. Barris numerous honors include Crain’s Chicago 50 Top Tech Stars, Washington Tech Council’s Hall of Fame, and the Washington Business Hall of Fame. He has been recognized on the “Venture Capital 100 List” (multiple times) by AlwaysOn, the “Tech Titans List” (multiple times) by Washingtonian Magazine, and the “100 Most Powerful List” by Washington Life Magazine. Mr. Barris is a 2005 Hall of Fame Recipient by Greater Washington Area Tech Council.

Mr. Barris attended Lane Tech High School in Chicago. He has a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Northwestern and an MBA from Dartmouth.

The IVCA continues its profiles on the awards dinner recipients, and spoke to Peter Barris regarding his experiences in the investment community, his career background and his industry philosophies.

IVCA: Congratulations on the Stanley C. Golder Award. You've had many honors during your career, but what does it mean when it comes from an association of your peers?

Peter Barris: Frankly, there is nothing that beats the recognition from one’s own peers.  Nobody better understands the environment we work in, and the challenges that we face than my colleagues in the industry – so I especially appreciate recognition that comes from that constituent group. In the case of the Stanley C. Golder Award, it is punctuated by the fact that it comes from the folks in my hometown.

IVCA: You've gone through one of the most interesting investment eras in history during your tenure at NEA. From 1992 to the present, which years were the most crucial in the make-or-break events of the investment environment, and why?

Barris: It is hard to pick a particular set of years that were the most crucial in the evolution of our industry, but if forced to do so I would have to say the decade of the 1990s – particularly the second half.  It was marked by the invention and maturation of the internet, which has served as the foundation for so much of the innovation back then, all the way up to now.  

It also marked a time when the venture industry grew at a crazy and unsustainable rate, but arguably served to transition it from a cottage industry to a mainstream industry. I think the fact that our industry survived the excesses of the time – and the resultant painful correction – also served to cement our permanent place in the global economy. 

IVCA: Your past resume includes stints at GE, LEGENT Corporation and UCCEL Corporation. How did those management positions at the individual companies best prepare you for the investment industry that you joined later in your career?

Barris: My management experiences were varied. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to learn the practical application of management best practices than at GE, at the time I was there. My first job was on Jack Welch’s staff – that was worth a PhD in itself. The LEGENT and UCCEL experiences propelled me into top spots in the management of public companies. In both of those cases I was in the middle of a rapidly-changing systems software environment,  where I learned many lessons – some the hard way – about managing through technology disruption in good times and bad.  

The lessons that I learned as an operator were priceless when it came to my venture role. When I sit down and counsel one of my CEOs about a challenge they are facing, there is a very good chance I have faced a similar challenge in my past and learned important lessons from it. I think undoubtedly it makes me a better judge of businesses when assessing investments, and makes me a better advisor after the fact. 

IVCA: What characteristics do you find consistently in the tech companies that have had the most success under your investment umbrella?

Barris: Great people who know what they don’t know.  People who seek advice, make decisions quickly, are willing to experiment, and drop things that are not working. Those are some of the common traits, which are anchored by a courage combined with the willingness to fail.

IVCA: What is your style in regards to decision-making? What do you believe is the best way to cut through the clutter of decisions the board of directors have to make during the development of a new company?

Barris: First, make sure that you are all on the same page as to what your objectives are. It sounds simple but I have found so many times  – absent a real focus on the topic – that many directors come to the table with different agendas, and that makes it difficult to focus the group on what is truly a priority, and deserves the attention of the board.  If you are crystal clear on the shared objectives, it is not all that difficult to focus on what really matters.  

IVCA: One of your committees at Northwestern involve ideas regarding keeping tech and entrepreneurial talent in the Chicago area. What successes with that theme have occurred, in your opinion, and what still needs to be done?

Barris: I think Chicago has come a long way in developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem. – the ecosystem and the support infrastructure it implies are critical to sustainability.  What is going on at ‘1871” – the new biotech incubator – and now‘The Garage at Northwestern,’ are all examples of building an entrepreneurial community. There have been so many success stories coming out of Chicago in recent years that there remains no doubt that it is for real. Many, but not all, of the success stories are based on business model innovation rather than technology innovation.

I love the innovative business models, but I also think Chicago could use more on the tech innovation front to fuel the emerging ecosystem, with companies like Cleversafe and Braintree coming to mind. There are a number of implications to this, but a good place to start is by retaining some of the very talented engineers that come out of the Midwest’s world class universities. I think we are starting to see that – grads recognize that they don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to find exciting, challenging jobs and careers.

IVCA: Philanthropy is part of your purpose. Besides funding various organizations, what is your philosophy on giving your sweat equity and ideas to these causes, to make the world a better place?

Barris: Very simply, I subscribe to the biblical saying ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ I find it particularly rewarding when I’m in a situation where I can contribute both my time and talents, along with my financial contributions. Two examples are my involvement here with Northwestern University and working with Venture Philanthropy Partners in Washington, D.C.

IVCA: You've served with the National Venture Capital Association. How important are groups like the NVCA and the IVCA in promoting the Venture Capital and Private Equity industries, and how do they best contribute to making sure that VC and PE issues are front and center in the current economic climate?

Barris: By any relative measure we are a small industry...but one that has a huge impact on the GDP.  At a national level it is important that our voice is heard in the halls of government because, frankly, government regulation is more likely to hurt our industry than help it.  

It is critical that those in power understand the impact that our industry has on job creation and the economy in general, and consider the implications of legislative action on company formation. At the local and regional level it is – as I stated earlier – more about building community and ecosystem. In that regard organizations like IVCA are critical.

The 2015 IVCA Awards Dinner, presented by Kirkland and Ellis LLP, will take place on December 7th, 2015, at The Four Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Street, Chicago. Individual tickets are still available, contact Kathy Pyne for information.