Carla Harris on overcoming obstacles to become one of the most powerful Black women on Wall Street

Abu Mubarik December 02, 2022
Carla Harris -- Photo Credit: carlaspearls.com

In 1987, Carla Harris started her career at Morgan Stanley and steadily rose through the ranks to become one of the most powerful and senior Black women on Wall Street. She joined Morgan Stanley after getting a bachelor’s degree and her MBA from Harvard University. She started as an investment banker in the Mergers & Acquisitions department.

She later became the Managing Director of Global Capital Markets for the firm where she was responsible for the structuring, marketing and execution of public and private equity financings. She became the chair of the firm’s Private Placement Commitment Equity Committee and after more than a decade, she became a senior member of the Equity Syndicate desk, where she executed such transactions as initial public offerings for UPS, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and the $3.2 billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation, the largest biotechnology follow-on offering in U.S. history.

When Harris first joined Wall Street, it was mostly run by White men and the status quo has not changed significantly. A diversity report by Morgan Stanley in 2020 noted that 23 of its executives in 2018 were Black men and 14 were Black women. Another commissioned diversity report in 2020 noted that of the 1,056 executives, 16 were Black men and 18 were Black women

“It didn’t intimidate me,” she told Bloomberg about the lack of diversity at Wall Street when she joined. “That’s what you saw at Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, you pick it. So you know that if you wanted to play on this playing field, you were going to have to be comfortable in some cases being the only and being the first. That was not intimidating to me at all. That was just the way it was.”

In 2021, she announced that she was stepping down as Morgan Stanley’s vice chairman of wealth management. She is now a senior client adviser to the firm. Harris wanted to be a lawyer when she entered Harvard because she loved Perry Mason at the time and also loved to argue her point. “Everybody in my family said, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer,’” she told Bloomberg.

She later got exposed to finance and realized that the things she thought were found in the law were actually found in finance. She added that she realized that business people really called the shots and the lawyers helped get it done within the context of the law.

“I wanted to have a lot of responsibility very early on,” she told Bloomberg. “I was 19 years old and there I was, actually working on analysis and spreadsheets upon which people were making decisions to issue millions of dollars of bonds.

“And, you know, I wanted to make a lot of money. And I certainly realized in finance people could do that. The other thing that was attractive is I am negatively motivated. So when you tell me I can’t do something, I was all over it. And I really did not see a lot of people of color and I didn’t see very many women. Why not? It’s not like this is that hard,” she added.

Harris, born on October 28, 1962, in Port Arthur, Texas and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, began singing at an early age. She sang in both Catholic and Baptist choirs when she was 13 years old. While at Harvard University, she continued singing. She sang with the world-renowned Radcliffe Chorale Society, the oldest women’s singing group at Harvard, and in her own band called Rhythm Company.

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