Julia Harrison: entrepreneur and first port of call for business in Brussels

 
 

These are challenging times for politicians and regulators focusing on technology. Long-time Brussels operator Julia Harrison is the woman whose public affairs practice helps both the disruptors and the disrupted navigate their complex relationship with the EU hub.

Julia Harrison has the demeanour of the naturally discreet. You would be hard-pushed to discover from her that she won a scholarship to Cambridge aged 17, that she started an all-female business in Brussels or that she is an award-winning entrepreneur and leader.

However, she will acknowledge that the various and ongoing issues that have dogged the relationship between Brussels, the tech leaders of Silicon Valley and the wider traditional sectors have kept her and her colleagues busy, to say the least.

Harrison is senior managing director and managing partner of FTI Consulting in Brussels, and founder of the 70-strong public affairs and strategic communications practice.

In March 2017, as awarded by Trends Tendances magazine, FTI Consulting was not only number one in its market, but also the fastest-growing mid-sized company in Brussels in any sector. The award, she says, ‘is testament to our different position in the market. The fact that we’re global and have specialists in economics, restructuring and technology means we can offer different perspectives.’ 

 
 
Photo by VanderWolf-Images/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by VanderWolf-Images/iStock / Getty Images
 

Harrison was one of the first to spot the magnitude of the tech-driven disruption coming from the new players out of Silicon Valley – and the corresponding political reaction. As a result, FTI’s practice has grown to support many of the so-called FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) group of first-gen tech platforms, as well as European technology leaders such as Zalando, Booking.com and the Internet Society.

But Harrison is involved in much more than just tech, which accounts for about a third of the practice’s business. Other clients come from more traditional industry sectors, including energy, automotive, financial services, healthcare, chemicals and manufacturing.

In some areas, such as the Hydrogen Council, a global CEO initiative launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos in 2017 and designed to promote hydrogen as an alternative energy source, FTI’s clients work together on a cross-industry basis.

Nor is the work confined to just Brussels. With regulation and policy collaboration crossing borders to match the way issues develop in society today, Harrison’s work, as a member of FTI’s senior leadership team, has a multinational dimension. 

By its nature, the tech industry operates at a speed and scale and with an ambition that challenges both public policy and established industries. It is unquestionably shaping the world we live in. Brussels is where those issues are faced and resolved.

For Harrison, who’s been in public affairs all her working life, it’s been quite a journey in the 15 years since she – and six other women – founded Blueprint, the practice she later sold to FTI. ‘I paid myself nothing and put my house up as a guarantee,’ she remembers.

The many ways in which tech is disrupting the established order today were probably unimaginable back then. A long list of issues – including privacy, transparency, tax, market regulation and anti-trust concerns – are challenging traditional business models across all sectors from health to automotive, and they need debate, better engagement and thoughtful solutions.

Part of the problem, notes Harrison, is that policy and regulation always lag behind market developments. ‘Intrinsically,’ she says, ‘technology looks ahead and regulation trails behind. The question is: how do we marry the two to get the right balance of responsibility and innovation? This dynamic is often divisive and part of our job is to find ways to move forward for all parties – at least to ensure better understanding leads to more sensible outcomes.’

She continues, ‘By its nature, the tech industry operates at a speed and scale and with an ambition that challenges both public policy and established industries. It is unquestionably shaping the world we live in. Brussels is where those issues are faced and resolved.’

For Harrison, this is a stimulating environment. ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’

You get the sense that this appeals to two sides of her nature – the action-minded, entrepreneurial side, and an intellectual side that identifies and then unpicks the big issues. ‘We have to see where those issues are going, and where they will impact policy,’ she says. Even when today’s debates are solved, there will be others, notes Harrison.

Take artificial intelligence (AI). ‘Some see AI as an educational tool. Some see its use in healthcare. But it also needs to be debated at an ethical level. Obviously these are areas that attract policymakers. The difficulty is that politics can’t keep up,’ says Harrison.

Which is where she fits in.

‘Our job is to help bridge a gap between the business community and policymakers. People think lobbying is about stopping people making policy. It’s not. It’s actually about making things happen in such a way that they do some societal good rather than just having each side grandstanding at each other.’

This, Harrison says, is harder than it sounds. ‘The two sides don’t think the same way: they are often from different generations; they have different mindsets; the policymakers often don’t understand the technology or business model; and compromise is not something that industry is used to.’

She continues, ‘So there’s an aspect of translation required, and because of the multilateral way Brussels operates – national interests, EU-wide imperatives, different priorities and so on – I have to be a facilitator too.’

Power of diversity

Though Harrison started her practice with an all-female team, today FTI Consulting is about 50:50 by gender, but diverse by nationality (20-plus, she says), skills and interests, on a spectrum from committed greens to lawyers. The critical thing, she says, is the range of perspectives. 

There’s plenty of evidence to show that, in post-conflict situations, women running SMEs and businesses have a significant stabilising influence.

If there’s one area where gender imbalance bothers her, it’s in the ongoing shortage of women setting up and scaling businesses, and the consequent lack at times of a female perspective in the boardroom and beyond.

It’s an obvious area where Harrison feels she can ‘try to use [her] experience and make a contribution’.

Spreading her wings to try to foster female perspectives outside of public affairs, she joined Be Angels, becoming a fledgling business angel to try to do more in this area. Harrison also spent several years as a non-executive director at the SustainAbility consultancy and think-tank, as well as on the inaugural board of the Women’s Forum, which aims to promote the contribution of women in the economy and society.

‘I think the achievement of which I’m most proud is being a female entrepreneur and growing this business to scale.’

She adds, ‘But I’d like to see more women – anywhere in the world – doing this. There’s plenty of evidence to show that, in post-conflict situations, women running SMEs and businesses have a significant stabilising influence.’

Her award in October 2017 as one of Consulting magazine’s 20 Global Leaders will, she hopes, inspire others to follow her lead. 

Julia Harrison was interviewed for thisisabout.com