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Meet Carla A. Harris, One of the Most Powerful Black Women on Wall Street

A veteran Morgan Stanley executive, today Carla A. Harris is one of the most powerful women in the world of finance, and she wants to see others follow in her path.

Just weeks ago, on Nov. 8, Harris returned to Jacksonville, Florida, to speak in a series of discussions at her alma mater Guardian Catholic Schools about the pursuit of excellence and her new book “Lead to Win – How to be a Powerful, Impactful, Influential Leader in Any Environment.” While tailoring her message for CEOs, she wanted to speak to young people and show them the possibilities available to them if they work hard, understand certain rules of the game and bend those rules to their benefit.

Wall Street powerhouse Carla A. Harris (Photo: Carla A. Harris)

You Can’t Be What You Don’t See: Wall Street and Diversity Issues

Harris, a graduate of Harvard University, understands she is only one of a very small group of African-Americans on Wall Street in executive roles and hopes her presence can open the doors for others.

In 2021, a study of one of Wall Street’s biggest firms, Goldman Sachs, which boasts 1,548 U.S. executives, revealed that only 49 of them are Black.  According to The Nation, Merrill Lynch reported in 2021, out of its 17,500 brokers only 780 were Black, a figure that comes to 4.5 percent. That’s a 125 percent increase since 1994, when 2 percent of its brokerage force was Black.

Statistics like this make the work that Harris does, in finance and through her leadership/ mentorship programs, that more important. The author of three books (“Expect to Win,” “Strategize to Win,” and “Lead to Win”) believes you can’t be what you don’t see, and for years Wall Street was not a place of prosperity for people of color. That has been the case dating back to 1711 when a law was passed by the New York City Common Council declaring Wall Street as the first official slave market for the sale and rental of enslaved African and Indigenous people in the city and in some instances today. Harris, who became a powerhouse in the same marketplace that once could have sold her ancestors, hated being in those slim numbers but knew she was trailblazing for a purpose.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she said, “If you’re a boomer like me, it was no strange thing to be the first, or to be the only one in the room. My thing was, if I can go there and be really good, then I won’t be the only one that’s in the room.”

The Journey to The Boardroom

At 60, this wife and mother of two, who had her first job was at McDonald’s when she was a teen, has dedicated her life to making room for others.

After graduating Harvard with her MBA, she joined Morgan Stanley. The year was 1987 and the company placed her in mergers and acquisitions and capital markets. Her job was to raise money for companies and brands interested in going public.

At 37, she distinguished herself by being exceptional, securing a position as managing director after she helped price the 1999 initial public offering for the United Parcel Service.

Fifteen years later, after working on a fund formed to invest in women and minority money managers and heading multicultural strategy, she was named vice-chair.

Some 35 years later, she is still at Morgan Stanley, in the position of vice chairman of Wealth Management and Senior Client Advisor at the bank and financial services holding company.

Over the years, she has been featured on lists like Fortune Magazine’s “The 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America” and its “Most Influential List,” U.S. Banker’s “Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance,” Black Enterprise’s “Top 75 Most Powerful Women in Business” and BE’s “Top 75 African Americans on Wall Street,” and Essence Magazine’s list of “The 50 Women Who are Shaping the World.”

She also serves on the boards of corporate companies like Walmart Inc., insurer MetLife Inc., and, as of 2021, the manufacturing company Cummins Inc. She also serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations such as Seize Every Opportunity, Harvard University Board of Overseers and the Morgan Stanley Foundation. In addition, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as chair of the National Women’s Business Council.

Mentors Need Mentors Too

A woman with service at the core of her being, Harris is a member of the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Alongsid, one of her mentors in her sorority, Alexis Herman (the former Labor Department Secretary and mentee of Dorothy I. Heights), she worked on the organization’s social action commission, focusing on “issues that matter to women of color, such as voter registration drives and learning more about women candidates,” noting her work was crucial for the elections that followed the death of George Floyd.

One of the most remarkable feats the two sorors were able to accomplish together was through their work on the board of Cummins, a company that appointed its first female CEO this year: Jennifer Rumsey.

While focused on giving back, selling out Carnegie Hall (twice) and the Apollo Theater on her recent book tour, and doing a series of master classes in her hometown, Harris still sees herself as growing and looks to her frentor as she reaches up to her next plateau.

She says Herman, who is the chair of Cummins board, has “that personal touch to make sure that everybody was engaged and everybody was heard.”  

“I put it in my playbook if I’m ever honored enough to get to sit in a lead director’s seat.”

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