23 May 2018

Carla A. Harris, MBA 1987

2018 Alumni Achievement Award Recipient
by Susan Young


Vice Chairman, Morgan Stanley

In January Carla Harris attended a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration hosted by Walmart, on whose board she sits. While all the remarks were powerful, it was an essay written by an 11-year-old boy that stuck with Harris. “Here’s this kid telling us that we have the opportunity to do something every day to make others feel included,” she says. “How is that so hard?”

“If you have the opportunity to be successful, it is your responsibility to let somebody else stand on your shoulders.”
“If you have the opportunity to be successful, it is your responsibility to let somebody else stand on your shoulders.”

The boy’s words struck a chord with Harris, who has spent much of her life exemplifying his advice. During her three decades at Morgan Stanley, for example, she has led numerous initiatives focused on women and minorities and mentored hundreds of associates. As a sought-after public speaker, she shares her “pearls” of wisdom, helping inspire others to be the best version of themselves.

Harris grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, the only child of an educator and a commercial fishing boat captain. “My parents brought me up in a ‘no excuses’ household,” she says. “They ingrained in me that I had to take responsibility for myself.” Her tight-knit family included two grandmothers who were a key part of her upbringing, as was church. While her faith was—and remains—solidly Catholic, she also attended a Baptist church so that she could sing in the gospel choir.

That faith remains a crucial part of Harris’s life. She organizes her schedule to be home on Sundays so she can attend services at Harlem’s St. Charles of Borromeo, where she is a member of the Gospelites. “Singing is my form of praise,” says Harris, who has released three albums and played at Carnegie Hall five times. “To give somebody hope through what you’re singing is a big deal.”

Faith has also played a role in Harris’s expanding family life. Two years ago she and her husband, Victor, welcomed their first child, Dakota. “This little girl is clearly divinely ours,” says Harris, who is all smiles as she talks about motherhood, even while admitting that balancing her career and family takes work.

Although Harris is brimming with confidence, she is not one to brag. Her life’s remarkable trajectory—including being the subject of an HBS case study and authoring two best-selling books—sometimes surprises her. When a college counselor told her not to apply to Ivy League schools because they were too competitive, she didn’t heed his advice, was accepted everywhere she applied, and picked Harvard. “Never count yourself out,” is one of the insights she now shares with others.

The summer after her sophomore year at Harvard, Harris worked on Wall Street. “That was my introduction to finance and the MBA degree,” she says, noting that back in Cambridge, she began crossing the river to study at Baker Library and attended a conference organized by HBS’s African-American Student Union. “I’d never seen so many people of color in suits, talking about great things,” says Harris, who, two years later, enrolled at HBS as a first-year student.

Harris thrived at HBS, and the experience launched her career at Morgan Stanley. She joined in 1987 and worked her way up, holding positions in mergers and acquisitions and equity capital markets—where she handled the initial public offering of UPS, the largest IPO to date in 1999. Now, as vice chairman, she oversees the firm’s multicultural client strategy and has organized an industry conference for senior leaders of color, built an in-house multicultural innovation lab, and partnered on a fund geared to small inner-city entrepreneurs.

“Carla invests in other people and helps others see their dreams come to light,” says Damon Caldwell, an HBS classmate who was in her study group. “She really has a big tent.” Whether at work or in her community, Harris believes that society’s biggest problem is that “we are not thinking about the humanity that is within everyone.” As a corporate leader, mother, singer, and person of faith, Carla Harris is clearly doing more than her fair share to counteract that trend.

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1962 Born, Port Arthur, Texas
1984 Earns AB, Economics, Harvard University
1984 Joins Booz Allen Hamilton, Consultant
1987 Earns MBA
1987 Joins Morgan Stanley, Associate
1994 Joins St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church
1999 Manages IPO of UPS
1999 Named Managing Director, Morgan Stanley
2000 Releases album, Carla’s First Christmas
2005 First solo concert at Carnegie Hall
2005 Releases album, Joy Is Waiting
2005 Named by Fortune to list of 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in America
2009 Publishes Expect to Win
2010 Named by Black Enterprise to list of 75 Most Powerful Women in Business
2011 Releases album, Unceasing Praise
2013 Named Vice Chairman, Morgan Stanley
2014 Publishes Strategize to Win
2018 Named by Savoy Magazine to list of Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America

Photo by Susan Young

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1987, Section I
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