Sonari: This is Now, What’s Next?, a podcast from Morgan Stanley. I’m Sonari Glinton. On this special episode I talk to the trailblazing financier Carla Harris. She’s a Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley, and the host of their Access and Opportunity podcast. Carla has seen access and opportunity change a lot in her 33 year career. That’s 33 pioneering years as one of Wall Street’s few Black women leaders.
We connected recently to talk about our lives and how our work - myself as a journalist reporting on the economy and culture, Carla as an investment banker and corporate leader. We talked about how that work has shaped our thinking about access to wealth, financial literacy, inclusion and success. I usually do the interviews on this show but Carla asked me some questions that really made me think about the forces, big and small, that got me to where I am today. We started the conversation talking about our first jobs…
Sonari: Okay. So one of my first jobs was when I was in first grade, my mother who worked in the auto industry would have me make her coffee every morning. And I think the key for my mom was that I was a working part of the family as early as possible. I also, you know, wash dishes and those things. Now, you did books for your grandmother's business when you were a child. What was the business and how did you get a gig like that?
Carla: Yes, I will tell you that my grandmother was the first successful female entrepreneur that I met. They called her Miss Emma and she ran what would be known in New York as a beer tavern. Right. We'd call it a juke joint.
And I had to tell you Sonari it was amazingly successful.
And I would say that my grandmother was the one that really informed not only who I am today as a professional, but certainly my relationship with money. She was arguably the most successful on her side of the family. She was very thoughtful about how she invested her money. She would never let a dollar out of her hand without thinking about how that dollar was going to come back.
And around eighth grade she realized how good I was at math, because I was sort of listening around when she was speaking in her accountant. And then I started talking to her about it afterwards and she said, well, wait a minute. What do I need him for when I have you? And you're going to do my books from now on, up until, you know, when you don't.
And so I started in eighth grade and I was doing her accounting and her sales tax calculations and all the things that she needed to actually run the business from a, from an analytical and a quantitative perspective until I graduated and went off to college.
Sonari: If you could sit down and talk to your grandmother about your career, just give me the first thing that would come up. What are you proud of that you would tell your grandmother?
Carla: Oh, I would be proud of the fact that I made it to the top of my profession. She would be proud of the fact that I made a lot of money. It was about the dollar because that generation came from a time when it was very hard for blacks to acquire, let alone to build wealth. Right? And so many things were limitations for them because they didn't have the money to do. I don't have the money to, you know, get this kind of healthcare. I don't have the money to get this type of, uh, legal protection. I don't have the money to send my kids to this opportunity. They can be exposed to that. So, so many things in their lives that were seen to be limitations came back to the dollar.
That was the access to the opportunity, you know, all puns intended. But, you know, let's talk about 2001. You were 27, you've been laid off from your finance job. What makes you take an unpaid internship with the public radio station WBEZ Chicago?
Sonari: Well, I got laid off from my finance job and had an option to move to Minnesota or stay in Chicago and get severance. And I was working in the Sears Tower on 9/11. Right. And there was a lot of conversation going around. It's like, do I want to be looking at this spreadsheet? I literally said, if a plane hits the building, what do I want to be doing in that moment? Do I want to be doing something that's boring? That I don't like that much? Or do I want to be in the mix living?
And I remember seeing the reporters around as we were exiting and I thought about that and I temped around after I took a year off, which is a great thing to do because I had that severance and I was working for a woman named Paula Takata, a Japanese woman at Quaker Oats. And I've never been at a place that was more welcoming and more affirmative of who I was. That was where I understood the idea of intersectionality. This woman, Paula Takata, like, I have to speak her name always because she was like, “You seem like you could be doing something more”. And literally she wrote the recommendation and encouraged me and when I got the internship, I remember she took me out to lunch and she said, “I'll take the racism and you take the sexism and we'll meet on brunch on Sunday.”
Carla: Oh wow.
Sonari: Meaning that I was supposed to go do this for other people. And it was very meaningful to me.
Carla: Well, let's, let's extend this conversation. You said, “My blackness and my queerness are my greatest asset, I can walk into any room that my esteemed and lauded white colleagues can and be comfortable. The reverse is not true.” So when did you realize your whole identity actually created access and opportunity and wasn't something that you had to set aside to be a good reporter?
Sonari: I realized that information is universal and it's everywhere. It's like water. And you don't just go to the spigot to get it. You go to the lake, you go to the river, you go everywhere. And if you think that you can only get information from one place, then you are a terrible reporter. And that is the thing that I learned is that my network is everywhere because I walk into a room and there's a mixed race girl or a dark skinned black woman with natural hair. Thirty percent of the time if I talk to her, she's going to be a little bit nicer to me because all the rest of y'all don't understand that all I have to do is smile and be for real.
Carla: Amen. Amen. I spent a lot of time, you know, Sonari talking about your authenticity is your distinct competitive advantage because it was certainly something that I realized, people spend so much time talking about, you know, how do you feel about being the only one or be the only woman or the only black person. I tell people all the time, if you're the only one that looks like you in the room, guess what? – you're the only one that looks like you're in the room and you should look at that as an asset because you don't have to fight for attention. Everybody's going to be looking at you. And all you got to do is deliver your excellence into that opportunity.
Sonari: So when I'm sitting at the table and I'm the black guy in the room or the black person in the room, that's a lot to carry. There is so much, I mean, as a journalist, there's so much educating that I have to do. Why do I have to carry the burden for all of y'all when you know that the biggest issue in America is race and I'm a brown person sitting in the room with you?
Carla: I guess I, you know, you don't, you don't have the obligation or the responsibility to educate anybody else. However, I guess I look at it that we're, we're at a moment where people are leaning in to be educated in a way that I haven't seen in my adult career. So, oh no, I don't care. I don't care if I'm tired, I'm not going to miss this. And if I am tired, sit down, get some rest that moment. Right?
Sonari: You know, I was thinking of our college episode and a woman LaShana Lewis, and this is about access and opportunity when people don't necessarily, as Diane Carol would say they can't even see who you are or see the beauty that you represent. And LaShana Lewis was this person who really touched me. She was a first-generation college student and one of two black students in her IT program in the nineties. I want you to listen to a piece of tape from the previous season of Now What’s Next.
LaShana: I'm what? 17, 18, 19 years old, away from home for a long time, for the first time. And I had to figure all this out and then finally talking to my counselor and she's like, you're out of money. You are stressed out. You're going through discrimination. You need to possibly consider leaving. So I did.
Sonari: How did that moment feel? Leaving college.
LaShana: Oh, it felt like giving up. I felt like I failed. Like if you could paint a scarlet F on the front of my clothes or on my forehead, that's literally what it felt like.
Sonari: When you hear someone like first-generation, I mean, from 13, this woman knew that she wanted to get into IT and she's surmounted all these hurdles. What does that stir in you when you, when you think about access and opportunity for someone like her, who did all the things she was supposed to do?
Carla: It tells me that there weren't other people in her world that could give her the counterargument that it wasn't over. Maybe she didn't have to leave right now. And so often when you are the first and the only, one of the things you don't know how to do is ask for help, because a lot of it you have been doing on your own and you also have powerful messages of people that you love and respect that are around you that may not be giving you that, you know, alternate way or that hope. And they're giving you love, they're giving you the best they have, but they also don't have access to that perspective and that point of view.
Sonari: Uh, well, so just to give you a spoiler, she eventually, after many, many years she got into an apprenticeship program and worked her way up running her own tech company. But in many ways she felt like college failed her and left her in a lot of debt. And how do you help people like that get over the hump when you know that there's so many LaShana Lewis', who could be, for lack of a better phrase, you know, kicking arse in the corporate world if they had a little mentorship in the beginning?
Carla: Yes, I'll tell you the way that I deal with it, Sonari, is that I try to mentor as many people as I can. I try to influence and get other people excited about mentoring. Sharing the information that you have, the experiences that you have with other people, exposing them to your relationships. Each of us have an opportunity to make an impact. And if you think about that, if each of us did that for one or two people, then hopefully there would be a lot fewer LaShana’s that were out there.
Or you hope somebody says to LaShana, “Go talk to so-and-so.” So even if they don't help her with specific advice, the fact that they turn her onto you or to somebody else who might be able to make a way for her, that's the kind of thing that we need to be in the business of trying to do. That we'll start to create access for people. But she had one conversation with the guidance counselor with no other conversations that person was, maybe you should quit. That became the period and not the comma and no other resources to say, well, let me go talk to somebody else. I'm not sure. That's it.
Sonari: Yeah, I was I was joking a friend of mine is in the restaurant business in Chicago, and we often talk about the rules of business in Chicago. Ask for help and take it are two of the rules.
Carla: And that, I mean, I've got to tell you so often someone has said, well, “So-and-so told me to come and talk to you and I thought you were busy so I almost didn't, and I go stop right there. Yeah. Everybody knows I'm busy, but everybody knows I have time. So if you have a problem, you have an issue, all you gotta do is raise your hand. So I’m going to first applaud you because you raised your hand. Second, let's talk about what your issue is. Third, here's what you ought to do. You're never going to leave my presence without a solution.
Now I'd like to turn the tables and queue up an Access & Opportunity clip for you. A lot of what we discuss on Access & Opportunity is how people can enact change in their communities. One individual Bernard Bronner thought the biggest impact a black entrepreneur can have on their community is to own their own business.
Bernard Bronner: My father always told us that a community is no better than the people in it. And he always wanted to say that if you want to help your community, you got to help the people in your community. He just believed in providing jobs. And it was an unspoken rule that single-parent women with kids could always get a job at Bronner Brothers during those days. I believe in: the best way to help the community is help the people in the community.
Carla: So Sonari, what do you think?
Sonari: I think what you can do is to be a part of your community in a real way. And I don't necessarily think you need to own a business. I think you need to be for real and understand what your community has given you. I always think of the guys at the newspaper stand. In my neighborhood when I was going to school at St. Ignatius, the guys would save the old newspapers from the day before and give me the New York Times or whatever so I could read them on the train. That is providing for your community, right?
That's what you're supposed to do. And I should say that for me, the proudest thing I am in my career is the time I've worked with Mikva Challenge and Youth Radio. Youth Radio is an organization that has 300 students in Oakland and we teach them media skills. I just recently got elected to the board of Mikva Challenge, which is an organization that works to get young people engaged in civic life around the country. And there is nothing more powerful than seeing young people find their own tribe.
Carla: Oh, I would agree.
Sonari: When you tell a young kid that they are an artist, it blows their mind. And then they, they go and they act like one, right? And we know that there are fabulous Black and Brown kids all over the place. So what doors are you opening? Or, how many doors can you open while you're in the building?
Carla: I could not agree more, which is why that's where I was earlier in this conversation. We each have an opportunity to do that. I don't care what seat you're sitting in, where you're from, where you live, just by virtue of who you are. Each of us have that power to do that. And we ought to be more intentional about it.
Carla: So talk to me about leaving NPR in 2018 and becoming a freelance reporter and podcast host. What motivated that decision?
Sonari: What I'm about to tell you happened in the span of 30 seconds. I'm in the newsroom at NPR, I was wearing an old ratty suit that I didn't like. And an executive walks over. I was just saying that, oh, in my mind, I don't like this suit.
And she looks at me. She goes, “You look so nice today. Great suit.” And then I walked away and I thought, first thought I had was I definitely need to get rid of this suit. And then the second thought was, why if I wouldn't take a restaurant recommendation from this person, why am I letting them control everything about my life? And I will take this story from funny to wild. I was having conversations with Quincy Jones. And I had pitched them a podcast and they had said, well, at least come in and talk to us about it.
I'd gone to Quincy Jones’s house in Bel Air and he looks at us and he goes, “Why, why are you boys wanting to go out on your own?” And we gave him a LinkedIn reason and um, and he goes, “Really? Why are you guys leaving?” And when you're like, well, because they don't recognize, they don't understand and blah, blah, blah. And he goes five words that changed my life. “Yeah that seems about right.” And he validated me with one sentence and he goes, whenever you are frustrated, whenever you are jealous, whenever you're angry at the position that you have in your life. He said he said a gigantic swear. And he said it very loudly. He's like, “You're thinking too blanking small.” And then it's like, well, what am I doing in my life? Who am I? Like I'm on the bandstand trying to work my way up the band. And I'm like, no, I should go and start my own band and find my own music. Yeah, leave this good, steady job. And I was like, seen.
Carla: The number one question that I have received over these last two years is do you have any regrets? You're over 30 years on Wall Street. Do you have any regrets? And I tell them the one regret that I have is that I didn't play bigger. So, no matter how successful you might think that I have been whatever you think of my career, good, bad, or ugly, I'm telling you I didn't play big enough.
Most of us are a function of what we can see, and we don't go beyond that, which we can see, or the experiences that we've had. So I try to push people and myself to go beyond that, which I think I'm trying to do. I think I want to make $2 million a year so why isn't it 15? Answer that question. Well, why isn't it 20, or you think you want to get this award? So why isn't it five of them? So make sure you check yourself. That you're not limiting yourself by that which you have seen or by somebody else's influence.
Sonari: Can I ask, what do you think has constrained you?
Carla: Oh, the same things I just talked about. For a long time, it was being a function of, I'll give you an example. Growing up in the South, people say things like, you know, you only have one shot, you know, you're not going to get as many chances as everybody else. Those are some of the narratives that I would argue anybody, especially if you were black growing up in the South, in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, those are the messages that generally your parents or your grandparents told you.
So I started thinking about that over the last two years. And I had to ask myself the question, you know, how much did that message as subconscious as it might've been in these later years? How much did that message constrain my risk appetite? Because if you only think you have one shot, you're going to be really careful about that shot as opposed to just swinging wildly with abandon every time you get at the plate. Right? So I realize now that that probably was a limitation. So I am conscious about making sure that I'm playing big, that I'm swinging hard, that I know I have another at bat. It's not just one at bat. And I'm trying to spread that message, especially to younger professionals, as much as I can, because it's taking those risks, reaching beyond, are the things that allow you to grow and accelerate. So those have been the biggest limitations as I look back on it, and I thought a lot about this over the last two years.
So now, you know, that we have this tradition in Access & Opportunity that we call the lightning round and that's where we allow folks to get a chance to know you in a way that they might not have known you before. So, I'd like to ask a couple of those questions if I might?
Carla: All right.
I understand you have a desert island gospel playing list and you know, that's right up my alley as a gospel singer. So, what is the most played song on that list?
Sonari: Pop Staples “Gotta Serve Somebody” is from a relatively recent album, I love this Pop Staples album.
Carla: Oh my goodness. I'm going to have to get that cause I'm a Staples fan and I don't think I knew about that one.
Sonari: Now, so what is your hidden talent? And you cannot say gospel singing.
Sonari: Cooking what?
Carla: Oh, I make a mean pot of collard greens. I make a mean sweet potato pie and the best bread pudding you ever had in your life.
Sonari: I have an aunt Dorothy Rogier who lived in Boca Raton, and she cooked for the Parker Pen family. So I'm going to say her bread pudding might be better than yours. But, what's your favorite meal?
Carla: Uh, hamburgers and French fries.
Sonari: All right.
Carla: And Victor burgers to be exact though, my husband makes the best burgers ever, and they're, they're huge and sloppy. So that's my favorite meal. No question about it. So how about your favorite car?
Sonari: My favorite car is whatever the newest Porsche 911 convertible was.
Carla: Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh! So you like to go fast?
Sonari: Yeah. I just like…but if I had a billion dollars or a million dollars, it would just be a Porsche.
Carla: Okay. Okay. So give me a book you read recently that you would recommend.
Sonari: You know what, for you I would recommend “Soul, Funk and R & B”. It's a Taschen book by my buddy, Bruce Talamon. And he was the principal photographer for Soul Train soul magazine. And this book is so beautiful.
Carla: I got it. I just wrote it down.
Sonari: A trend that you think will define the future?
Carla: Yes. Three to four days a week working in an office environment.
Sonari: If I have to go back for three, I ain't never going back.
Carla: Oh, my goodness. Uh oh, then you might make me change my answer next time somebody asks me that question. I might say two to three.
So Sonari, thank you so much for taking the time to speak down with me today. It was a pleasure and a privilege.
Sonari: Thank you so much.
Outro - (Theme music to bridge)
Sonari: You know when I think about this conversation, there’s a message that stands out to me, as a gay Black man. And I hear it loud and clear from Carla, and it’s a message I’ve heard my entire life. The most important thing that you can do if you have a seat at the table, is speak up. And as a colleague of mine used to say, if you are the only woman, or person of color in the room, first get another person in the room. Second, demand respect. And Carla Harris definitely demands respect.
Carla Harris is a Senior Client Advisor with Morgan Stanley. She also hosts the podcast, “Access and Opportunity.” I’m Sonari Glinton, this is Now, What’s Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley.