A Career in Finance, Then New Life in the Desert

Dana Harrison ’81
Courtesy Michael Harrison k’81

Nov. 19, 1960 March 9, 2018

A 1997 CAR ACCIDENT prompted Dana Harrison ’81 to take a new path in life. Her career in finance had begun in 1981 with Bank of America, and she climbed the corporate ladder with ease, becoming lead project manager for the launch of Charles Schwab’s successful foray into online trading and brokerage services. Still, she had often wondered if there was more to life. After the accident, she yearned for a change.

Enter Burning Man, an annual nine-day “temporary metropolis” in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada dedicated to “community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” according to the event’s website. Each August, more than 70,000 people set up camp on a 7-square-mile patch of desert to connect with like-minded individuals and explore creative pursuits such as musical performance, building sculptures and vehicles, and fire dancing. As the name suggests, a staple of the event is the burning of a 40-foot wooden “man,” which takes place on the final night.

Harrison wanted to be part of that.

In 1998, she decided to take early retirement, leave the financial world, and volunteer for the event, which drew about 15,000 people that year.

“It was building a city that was centered on artistic creation in the middle of the desert — it was freedom,” says Harrison’s longtime friend, Ann Brody. “Dana had been going to Grateful Dead concerts for many years, and [Burning Man] was a similar community, sort of a visual-arts experiential version of the same thing. From her perspective, what’s not to love?”

Harrison’s good ideas and business acumen caught the attention of Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell, who invited her to manage the organization’s income-generating areas just as Burning Man was evolving from a relatively modest event into one attracting tens of thousands of participants from across the country. The founders needed help.

“Dana was always quick to jump in and help when we needed it, and her appearance on the scene was perfectly timed,” says Goodell. “We weren’t a full-time organization, we didn’t have full-time employees, and we didn’t have an office.”

Harrison became known in the Burning Man community as “Biz Babe” after she created a ticketing system for the event modeled after the process used by the Grateful Dead and oversaw the 30,000-square-foot Burning Man café for about a decade, when event attendance grew by about 40,000 people. She formed her own production company in 2008 to create a Burning Man-centered rock opera, which helped expand that community’s culture with sold-out performances in San Francisco.

Over the years, Harrison also brought her business and management skills to myriad nonprofit and arts organizations and became an influential figure in the San Francisco Bay Area arts scene. She loved to travel; she rode camels across the Gobi Desert and hiked K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. She developed close relationships with many of the people she met on her travels, using her business skills to help build the nonprofit Community Partners International, which provides access to health and social-welfare services to communities in Southeast Asia.

She died of cancer in March. “Dana acted from a place of love and respect, and she helped people to become their best,” says her brother, Michael Harrison. “Her smile, the joy that she danced with at live music events — she just brightened every scene up.” 

Allie Wenner is a writer at PAW.


Watch: A Scene From ‘How to Survive the Apocalypse: A Burning Opera’

Courtesy TheReallyBig.com