When Carla Harris, senior Wall Street executive and gospel singer, married Victor Franklin, a childhood bowling buddy from Jacksonville, Florida, the New York Times sent a reporter to the ceremony. Friends noted that Harris is “a quintessential Type-A Wall Streeter” but also that she is “a Southern girl from Florida doing this investment banker thing. She still has her accent. She’s kept her religious values.”
On the phone, Harris comes across as more Wall Street than Jacksonville — at least at first. Clipped and rushed, she gives well-rehearsed lines from her book (she’s an author, too). But then she answers a question about her childhood in Jacksonville, and she relaxes. A smile enters her voice.
Harris — a Morgan Stanley managing director, Carnegie Hall chanteuse, philanthropist, inspirational speaker, author, and bowler — is the keynote speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Leadership Conference on Thursday, October 11, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel & Conference Center at 100 College Road East.
According to Peter Crowley, chamber president and CEO, the event has sold out and there will be no walk-in registrations. Anyone interested in being put on the event’s waiting list can E-mail their name and phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following Harris is a lunch keynote presentation, featuring a media panel about what it takes to get positive media attention. The panelists are Kelly Waldron, NJ 101.5 news anchor and reporter; Natalie Kosteini, reporter at the Philadelphia Business Journal; Krystal Knapp, founder of the online news blog Planet Princeton; Liz Matt, TV anchor, journalist, and public relations specialist; and Lynn Doyle, host and executive producer for Comcast’s “It’s Your Call with Lynn Doyle.”
Following lunch are four afternoon workshops: Robyn and Trevor Crane, founders of the Shake Your Money System, on “Image, Impact, and Becoming Irresistible”; Sarah Cirelli, senior marketing coordinator at WithumSmith+Brown, on “Marketing Your Business by Using Social Media”; Paula Gregorowicz, owner of the Paula G. Company, on “Who Do You Think You Are? How to Be a Woman of Unshakable Confidence”; and Alice Gabriele, investment advisor, and Wendy Herbert, estate, trust, and tax attorney, on “ABCs of Building and Protecting Wealth for Women.”
Harris’ book’s title is “Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet.” One of her biggest themes is the importance of forming networks and developing relationships with mentors, advisors, and sponsors. A subtext, though, is to take care not to listen to every piece of advice.
As a high school student, she was told to forget about the Ivy League and to apply to in-state schools. She looked into Ivy League schools anyway, and four years later graduated magna cum laude from Harvard (Class of 1984). She was also advised against majoring in economics, a tough subject, especially for a girl.
She didn’t listen. After earning that degree, she went on to earn an MBA from Harvard. Originally planning to be an attorney, an internship in her sophomore year quickly convinced her that the world of high finance was what she really wanted.
Her rise at Morgan Stanley was steady, but she says she wishes she had done a few things differently. Quiet in meetings at first, she came to realize that it’s important for women to make themselves heard — and make sure they’re included in every aspect of business.
She has been quoted as saying “Don’t say ‘they won’t let me do this or that.’ That should be a red flag. You need to start putting yourself into the circle, saying ‘we, we, we’ until they get it, because you need to be an integral part of the fabric. I can’t tell you how many women say ‘they go out for drinks and don’t invite me.’ Invite yourself!”
Harris, one of the most senior women on Wall Street, heads the Emerging Markets Platform at Morgan Stanley, where she has worked for more than 20 years. In this position, she provides investment advice to corporations, public pension plans, foundations, and endowments. She formerly headed the firm’s equity capital markets effort for the consumer and retail industries and was responsible for equity private placements. She was a senior member of the equity syndicate desk and executed initial public offerings for a number of high-profile companies, including UPS and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Perception is Reality. A piece of advice that Harris repeats over and over has to do with perception, which she sees as critical to success. “Perception is the co-pilot to reality,” she says. “You can control perception.”
And you had better do so — every single day. A key to creating a perception is the adoption of a three-adjective description. Everyone — new hire to managing partner — needs to be able to describe themselves with just three adjectives and then has to broadcast them far and wide, to make sure that everyone in their networks sees them in terms of those adjectives.
Words For Success. So, what are Harris’ adjectives? “Tough, commercial, fair,” she says. It’s important to note, she adds, that “these may change over the course of a career.” Her descriptors, now that she has achieved something of a superstar status on Wall Street, are very different from those she may have used two decades ago.
“A brand new associate would want ‘analytic and quantitative,’” she says. “Those are the qualities associated with success” at that level. A first step in choosing the traits for which you want to be known, she says, is an understanding of what is perceived as most important in your profession at your level. “You need to understand the micro and the macro,” is how she puts it.
To get at the macro for your profession, she says, “you need to drill down.” In the old days, she says, the rising star in a firm might have been described as being “a good guy.” Okay, but what does that really mean? It’s the job of the ambitious employee or professional to ferret that out. “It could mean very assertive, takes a lot of initiative” in one industry, says Harris, but in another, say marketing, it could mean “very creative,” while in sales it could mean “relationship oriented.” After figuring out just what traits are valued, the individual needs to personalize and adopt them — and then act them out, again, and again, and again.
“Your behavior has to be consistent around those three words,” says Harris. As an example, she says that if an analytical mind is prized in a particular position, an individual hoping to be recognized as over-the-top analytical must speak in an analytical way at meetings, taking care to insert “what do the numbers say” or “speaking quantitatively” at every opportunity.
Be Introspective. Harris also stresses that the truly successful person will not be afraid to be true to himself — or, of course, herself. Yet it took Harris a little while to fully come out — as a gospel singer.
“I wanted to keep Carla the singer in a box,” Harris is quoted telling the New York Times last year in an article on her dual banking and singing careers. And this despite the fact that she had been singing soul and R&B since age nine. Early on in her career at Morgan Stanley, she would sneak out from the bank to go to Harlem on Wednesday nights, where she would watch amateur night performances at the Apollo Theater before taking the subway back to work.
Within a decade, however, Harris could keep her voice quiet no longer. She began to reveal herself as a singer slowly, first singing at a group function at work. Then she began singing at colleagues’ weddings. Before long, she was belting out “Amazing Grace” at a client dinner. Now a staple in firm talent events, she is often asked to sing at business meetings and frequently complies. She takes voice lessons during her lunch hour and even uses the elevator ride to her office to practice a few notes.
More than an amateur, Harris has released three CDs, and becomes animated when she talks about her upcoming November 19 concert at Carnegie Hall — her fourth. “Proceeds are going to Better Chance Inc.,” she says, “and to St. Charles Borremeo,” the Harlem church where she sings in two choirs. A third recipient is Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, where, she says, the money will go toward increasing opportunities for “students of color.”
Harris, who was born in Port Arthur, Texas, speaks fondly of her childhood in Jacksonville. Her father, the late John Harris, was a commercial fishing boat captain based out of New Orleans. “He was gone six months of the year,” she says. “When he was home, he worked with my grandmother, in her sundries store.” Her mother, the late Billie Joyce Harris, remains her inspiration on the hotly contentious work-life balance issue. A teacher turned dean of students who coached whatever sport was in season, Billie Joyce also put a hot meal on the table every morning and every evening. “She was an educator, a mom, a wife,” says Harris. Watching her mother, she says she had “no reason to think I would not be able to do it all.”
Harris returns to Jacksonville frequently. It is also her husband’s hometown, and, says Harris, “he’s one of six kids,” so there is lots of family to visit. The two met in a bowling alley when she was 12 and he was 15. A bet ensued. If he won the next game, she would give him her phone number. He didn’t win, but he got the number anyway. Dedicated to her career, Harris didn’t marry her childhood sweetheart, who is now in a master’s program, training to be an adult ed teacher, for another 26 years.
Harris, who turns 50 this year, shows no signs of slowing down. Increasingly busy with speaking engagements, taking on ever more responsibility at Morgan Stanley, and working hard at her music, she harkens back to her mother when she says, “she didn’t make a lot of compromises. She was not overwhelmed.” Perhaps that’s what life looks like when the role of Type A Wall Streeter is played by “a Southern girl from Florida.”