A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former Captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Jonté Harrell has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal as well as numerous commendation medals for combat leadership, and has traveled to nearly 100 countries.
With his MBA from Columbia Business School and sixteen years of international experience in Finance and Technology, Harrell is now Head of Equity Capital Markets at Drexel Hamilton, an investment bank entirely owned and operated by military veterans, and founder of Ossian Capital, where he invests in technology startups around the world. He also serves as a CFO in residence at the Columbia Startup Lab, guiding Columbia alums launching ventures.
Hear from Harrell on his work transitioning veterans from military service and helping entrepreneurs start up.
What drew you to Drexel Hamilton and its mission?
I wanted to be closer to veterans and help them with the transition from being in the service to civilian and corporate life.
As a veteran myself, I know that the transition is fraught with a lot of choices – such as which industry to work in – and it can be especially difficult for those who served in combat that are also trying to mentally or physically recover from wounds of war.
At Drexel Hamilton, I have the opportunity to help veterans transition to a corporate setting, specifically into financial services where veterans have a track record of success. I can also give back as a veteran leader by advising from my own experience as a gay person of color who has made that transition from military service.
What made you interested in starting an investment entity?
Ossian Capital is named after Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point. Flipper is celebrated every February but with the story of this achievement is also the fact that he essentially endured four years of silence at West Point, where he was not spoken to unless there was official business.
Knowing his journey, there are parallels to be made to an entrepreneur’s journey. Most founders endure hardship until either you find traction, or move on with lessons learned. Through Ossian Capital, I seek to help founders through the early hardships.
I work with mostly early stage startups. To date, 80% of the startups have a founder who is a veteran, woman, or person of color, and the majority are generally focused on tech or e-commerce.
Most often, I help founders gain the early financial expertise they need without hiring a CFO. In the military, I was a tech and data officer, so I also help startups think about how to scale or expand through tech and strategy. Founders at all stages are almost always raising capital, so I nudge them to stay plugged in to helpful networks where they can learn and grow, networks such as the Columbia Startup Lab, angel networks, and VCs dedicated to diverse founders.
What advice would you share with founders?
Founders should know the power of two things: networking and marketing.
With networking, it’s a matter of knowing that you don’t have to be an expert at everything. You can leverage the expertise found in your community, such as the Columbia community, and the communities that you have through your specific affiliations. I see founders who put their heads down and try to solve everything themselves, but they would benefit from knowing that there’s actually a lot of help out there.
With marketing, it’s a matter of knowing that you have to be visible. People need to know your product and know about you, so you should put yourself out there through things like earned media: spotlight features, podcasts, and more.