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If you want to see Carla Harris do something — anything — just tell her she can’t, then stand back and watch her go. When Harris was a senior honors student at Bishop Kenney High School in Jacksonville, Florida, her guidance counselor advised her not to apply to any Ivy League schools. Not only did she apply to several, she was accepted to each one and chose to attend Harvard University.
When her mother wondered aloud how they would pay for it, Harris responded, “I don’t know, but I’m going,” and she worked her way through school to make it happen. In the college’s core economics course, a teacher told Harris, then a freshman, that she didn’t have the aptitude for economics. “You can’t think, girl,” he said. She, of course, promptly chose to major in economics and went on to graduate magna cum laude after producing a senior thesis of such high caliber, it remains housed in Harvard’s archives alongside the work of such iconic alums as John F. Kennedy Jr.
Count on Harris to defy the odds whenever they’re stacked against her. Earn an M.B.A. from Harvard? No problem. Become a managing director at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, one of Wall Street’s preeminent investment banks? Done. Record a solo CD during the same year that you help execute one of the largest initial public offerings (IPO) in U.S. history? All that, and more.
As head of her firm’s relatively new Equity Private Placement Group, Harris helps both public and private companies raise capital through private investors. On the verge of turning 40, she just celebrated her first wedding anniversary and is now contemplating her next feat — starting a family. She recently talked with BLACK ENTERPRISE about her grab-it-all approach to life and the lessons she’s learned so far.
IN HER OWN WORDS
Someone asked me a while ago, “What really does it for you? What motivates you?” I think it’s that I want to have credibility when I look somebody in the eye and say, “You can do it because I did it.” In order to be able to tell somebody that and have him or her really feel it, you have to have some tangible evidence. I have plenty.
I fell in love with investment banking in the summer of ’82 because of SEO [Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a nonprofit mentoring organization]. I tell everybody, SEO changed my life. I walked into Harvard in 1980 thinking I was going to be a lawyer. Then, the summer after my sophomore year, I tried the SEO internship and got a fabulous opportunity working on Wall Street. That’s when I realized that I liked finance and that my perception of what a lawyer did was, in reality, what a businessperson did.
I thought lawyers put the deals together, but that summer I realized that it was really the bankers. I wanted to be the one that called the shots. I wanted to be the one to give advice. I thought, “I have good judgment. I have good people