Few leaders on Wall Street—or any street—know how to use their voice quite as well as Carla Harris.
The vice chairman, managing director, and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley not only has forged an impressive career over 30-plus years in investment banking and financial services, but she also has become one of the most powerful and influential women and Black executives in the world. She even served as chair of the National Women’s Business Council, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013.
Harris also readily shares her experiences and advice—Carla’s Pearls, as she calls them—as a book author, speaker, and podcast host.
On top of all of that, Harris is an accomplished gospel singer. She has recorded several albums and performed in Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” she said. “To be on that stage and perform is a singer’s dream come true.”
Harris brings her voice to Babson College this month for Commencement, where she will address the graduate Class of 2020 at the digital ceremony Saturday, May 8. Harris also will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
“Singing has always been a very large part of my life,” she said.
Harris began singing in gospel choirs when she was 13 and sang with the renowned Radcliffe Choral Society while at Harvard, where she earned both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA. She continued pursuing a recording and performing career even while starting on Wall Street as a first-year associate at Morgan Stanley.
“I didn’t want to get to the 10th anniversary in my career and look in the mirror and either not like that woman that was looking back or not know her,” Harris said. Pursuing her passion has ensured that she has never had that problem even as her career has passed its 30th anniversary.
Watch Babson’s virtual Commencement ceremonies at babson.edu/watchcommencement.
In addition to bringing balance to an otherwise hectic professional life, Harris’s singing has helped develop more than her voice. It has improved her ear, too.
“As a singer, you are very attuned to your audience,” Harris said. “As a singer, I have a great ear for listening, and if you’re going to be a great banker or a great relationship person of any kind, you must be a good listener. That ear has been honed from singing and performing.”
Making a Difference, Making Progress
Any entrepreneurial leader knows that listening and responding go hand in hand, and Harris has spent a career doing just that as she has climbed the corporate ladder at Morgan Stanley.
This past year, though, has been different and not just because of the pandemic. The displays of social injustice and demonstrations have had a major impact on everyone. That has led to increased dialogue and more opportunities to listen.
“What has happened in the last year is that it has opened up the conversation, and I could not be more excited,” Harris said. “Anytime there are things that we can’t talk about, those things grow into real obstacles and walls. And, when you have those kinds of obstacles and walls, it definitely does indirectly but substantially impact productivity and collaboration and innovation.”
Those conversations have led to action at companies and organizations across the nation, including Morgan Stanley, which has long been a leader on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Harris said, “It certainly has made us think even more assertively about what we can do to make a difference.”
Morgan Stanley doubled the size of its Multicultural Innovation Lab, a startup accelerator launched in 2017 to promote financial inclusion and provide access to capital for companies led by women and multicultural entrepreneurs. And, Morgan Stanley announced last year the formation of the Institute for Inclusion, investing in underserved communities, advancing equity through giving, and driving workplace diversity and inclusion. The company also improved its recruiting practices to expand its pipeline and create more opportunities.
“As tough as this year was for all of us to witness, to feel, to endure, I don’t believe that it will be for naught,” Harris said. “I think we’re all going to be better off.”
“As tough as this year was for all of us to witness, to feel, to endure, I don’t believe that it will be for naught. I think we’re all going to be better off.”
Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley vice chairman, managing director, and senior client advisor
Accelerating Innovation, Taking Risks
In her Commencement address, Harris will speak about the challenges spurred by the pandemic and the opportunities that accompany chaos.
“There’s really no part of the business that hasn’t been impacted,” she said, “and if you think about what COVID-19 has done, the rate of innovation has sped up.”
That accelerated innovation will require a special breed of innovators to keep pace and adjust to changing markets and conditions, Harris said.
“Every company will be thinking about bringing on people that aren’t afraid to take those risks, that actually are excited about innovation, that know how to capitalize on failure,” Harris said. “Employers will be thinking about things differently and testing in that interview process for that agility, for that propensity or capability to fail fast, for that appetite to take risks.”
That message ought to be music to the ears of any Babson graduate.
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