01 Sep 2006

Street Singer

Carla Ann Harris has the chops, whether she’s performing at Carnegie Hall or managing an IPO.
by Julia Hanna


On a summer day in 1983, Carla Ann Harris (MBA ’87) stood before an audience of East Germans in a Leipzig church. Well before the Berlin Wall came down, Harris and other members of the Radcliffe Choral Society were on tour in Europe, and the time had come for Harris to sing her solo in the Negro spiritual “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”

“Here we were in a Communist country,” Harris recalls. “I didn’t speak German, and the people I was singing for didn’t speak much English. The song emanated out of slave times, but it was joyful and talked about freedom. The people in the audience were crying, something I will never forget. I remember thinking, ‘This is what people mean when they say the arts transcend everything. The audience may not know my language, but they get it; I’m communicating what the song means through the way that I’m singing it.’”

In an interview at her office in midtown Manhattan, Harris, a managing director at Morgan Stanley and an accomplished gospel singer, recounts this story and others with the kind of informal ease you might expect from a native southerner (she hails from Jacksonville, Florida). Just as apparent, however, is her passion and drive, whether she’s describing a recent IPO, her work with the Food Bank for New York City, or her relationship with God. Whatever the topic, her words come thick and fast, demonstrating the impressive power of breath control in speaking as well as in singing.

“I believe in being comfortable in your own skin,” says Harris. “I don’t feel like I have to turn on the banker and turn off the singer and spiritual person — they coexist.”

Harris describes her family background as solidly middle class. Her mother was an assistant principal at a middle school; her father was a commercial fisherman before retiring to manage his mother’s neighborhood tavern. “My parents were focused on education,” she recalls, “so the Catholic high school I attended, Bishop Kenny, was the aspiration in Jacksonville.” What her parents probably didn’t realize at the time was how high and how far their daughter would set her sights. “When I was accepted at Harvard College, my parents’ immediate reaction was, ‘Great. Now how are we going to pay for this?’” remembers Harris. “I told them, ‘I don’t know, but we’re going to find a way.’” Through financial aid, parental contributions, and student jobs, they did.

Before moving to Cambridge in 1980, Harris says she harbored the usual expectations of Harvard as a preppy, stuffy place, but found she was one of the few wearing Docksiders and green sweaters. The diversity of her classmates also surprised her: “I knew black and white, but I didn’t have an appreciation of all the ethnicities that exist in the world — Italian, Russian, Polish, the differences between various Hispanic cultures. That was fascinating.”

Harris says she came to Harvard with the intention of becoming a lawyer. The summer after her sophomore year, however, the economics major decided to try an internship in investment banking, courtesy of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a mentoring program for minority students. “I fell in love with Wall Street and the idea of taking on an enormous amount of responsibility at a relatively young age,” she says. “That was the first time I was exposed to the concept of an MBA.”

At Harvard, Harris crossed the river to attend an HBS African-American Alumni Association conference. “I had never seen so many folks of color doing such impressive things,” she says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to go to HBS. It became my goal.”

Harris brought her trademark focus and drive to her coursework at HBS. In retrospect, she says she might have spent more time with her classmates. “I get it now — why the School balances the class diversity. You don’t have to experience something to learn it; you can learn it through your classmates’ experiences. That’s part of the value of HBS. It’s huge.”

At Morgan Stanley, which she joined right out of HBS, Harris leads the equity private placements effort in global capital markets and covers the retail and consumer industry as well. “I work with corporate issuers and financial sponsors to help them think about the right time to take a company public or to raise equity capital, the right valuation for a stock, and which investors to target. I also help the company craft its story for the marketplace,” she says. “In the case of an IPO, managers haven’t necessarily gone out to sell their company and its investment thesis to investors before. We need to help them articulate the answers to the questions, Why buy this stock? Why buy it now?”

In 1999, Harris managed the execution of the IPO for UPS, the largest public offering in U.S. history at the time, with 109.4 million shares raising $5.47 billion. “In addition to the financial analysis there’s a lot of judgment involved in deciding where to price an offering. You may have an oversubscribed deal, but how far should you push it? It’s not a simple supply and demand equation; that may not result in the right price for the aftermarket.”

If intuition and financial fundamentals figure in Harris’s work, so too does a good measure of faith. “It’s not like I wear it on my sleeve, but everybody knows that it’s part of who I am,” she remarks. “Once we were going through a tough deal and I said, ‘OK, it’s lunchtime. I’m going over to St. Patrick’s. I know this deal will get done this afternoon.’ I’m half-joking, but people also know I’m for real.”

At Harvard and HBS, Harris began to explore her faith and relationship with God a bit more. “There wasn’t anything in particular that happened,” she recalls, “but I became aware of a power that I could depend on. And as I learned to be active in my faith, I felt like I gained more and more strength and clarity.”

For Harris, music is another facet of spirituality. Her first experience with singing before an audience was at a fourth-grade talent show. Urged on by classmate Moses Maylor (who kicked the back of her desk for encouragement), Harris sang “Bring the Boys Home,” Freda Payne’s Vietnam-era anthem. “It was 1971, and I was nine years old,” she recalls. “I’ve been singing ever since.”

Today, Harris sings in the choir of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem; she also has performed in concerts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. In 2000 she released the CD Carla’s First Christmas, followed by Joy Is Waiting in 2005. Proceeds from both albums benefit Bishop Kenny High School and the St. Charles Borromeo School; to date, her efforts have earned over $200,000.

“Music transcends everything about us that is physical,” says Harris. “So often a song can say something in a way that a conversation can’t. I like being in a position of communicating a message of hope, joy, and the idea that there’s a better day ahead if we can just hang in there. No matter how strong we are, it’s easy to forget the truth of that.”

Carla Ann Harris will headline a benefit concert for Bishop Kenny High School and St. Charles Borromeo School at Carnegie Hall on November 20.

Carla Harris on the Go

What pushes her buttons: “I am negatively motivated. If you tell me I can’t do it, then I really go for it.” Married Victor Franklin, August 11, 2001. How they met: Bowling. He was 15, she was 12. Song she sang at their reception: Etta James’s “At Last.” Kids? “Not yet. That’s coming. For now I’m the godmother of eight children.” Gospel influences: BeBe and CeCe Winans; Mahalia Jackson; Donnie McClurkin; Yolanda Adams; Shirley Caesar. Time management tips: “I am maniacal about my calendar. I make a to-do list that changes every day, throughout the day.” Nonprofit boards: Eight total, including the Food Bank for NewYork City, the Morgan Stanley Foundation, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, A Better Chance, and the Apollo Theater Foundation. Lessons learned: “Perception is the copilot to reality. How people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you.” Recent big deal: The Burger King IPO. Three adjectives she wants people to associate with her: Smart, commercial, tough. “As a woman of color in this business, you don’t want there to be a question about whether you’ve got what it takes to deal with any assignment.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1987, Section I
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