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Black Wall Street Veteran Tells Her Story

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Black Wall Street Veteran Tells Her Story


Black Wall Street Veteran Tells Her Story

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, filmmaker Reginald Hudlin tells us the songs that top his personal playlist. That's a segment we call In Your Ear, and it's in just a few minutes. But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. It's a time when we talk to people who've made a difference through their work and set an example for others by how they've lived.

Today, in honor of Women's History Month, we want to visit with a woman who's made her mark in a place that continues to be known as a man's world: Wall Street.

Carla A. Harris is a managing director at Morgan Stanley. She is not only one of a small number of women and African-Americans in the top ranks on Wall Street; she regularly appears on lists of most powerful players in high finance.

As her latest venture, Harris has accumulated her pearls of hard-earned wisdom in a new book. It's called "Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet."

Carla Harris joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CARLA HARRIS (Morgan Stanley): Thanks very much, Michel.

MARTIN: Why did you want to go to Wall Street to begin with?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, I was first introduced to Wall Street in the summer of 1982, and what I found that summer was that it was a great way to combine my interest in math and my love of economics with my desire to also make a difference and to be one running the show at a very early age.

And in Wall Street, they certainly give you a lot of responsibility very early on. So that's actually why I fell in love with the business, and I was hooked after that.

MARTIN: Your first piece of advice is be your authentic self.

Ms. HARRIS: Yes.

MARTIN: And I think a lot of people will find that surprising, because they see particularly the financial services area, and a lot of corporate environments, as one where there's a distinct culture, and you're expected to fit into that culture, and if you don't, then you are going to find it not very comfortable. So when you say be your authentic self, what do you mean?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, that's exactly why I wrote the chapter, which is your point, Michel. It is important that you choose an environment where you can be largely you. If you are expected to be something that you're really not, you are not going to be successful long term in that seat.

And the point that I make in the chapter is that you are your best competitive advantage. Nobody can be you the way you can be you.

MARTIN: But you also talk about things like calling your dad on Sunday night.

Ms. HARRIS: Oh sure.

MARTIN: To get him to give you the rundown of the football games, which you did not watch, so that you could make small talk on Monday. Now, on the one hand, I thought that was hilarious. On the other hand, is that being your authentic self?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, I think it is being your authentic self because if you go to chapter two, I talk about being the architect of your own agenda. And so what was part of my agenda was to be successful in my environment, and to be successful in my environment, I needed to be able to be a part of that fabric. And if being a part of that fabric was also being able to engage with my colleagues about sports, then that was fulfilling something that was on my personal agenda. So while I may not have been a football aficionado, it certainly didn't hurt me to call my dad and say, okay, what's the quarterback's name again, and what's the difference between the quarterback and the fullback, until I was able to really understand the game.

MARTIN: But isn't that pretending to somebody you're not?

Ms. HARRIS: No, I don't think so at all, because if I really hated football and didn't want to talk about football and then had to do it week after week after week, then I would say your point is absolutely on point. But the point for me was that I wanted to be successful in that environment, and if being able to engage in the conversation meant being able to contribute to a football conversation, then I didn't think I was being disingenuous at all. And in fact I've learned a lot about football now and actually will sit down on Sundays and watch it.

MARTIN: You don't talk a lot about being a woman per se or being an African-American per se in the book. There's an interesting anecdote that you tell which I do think has a racial subtext which also speaks of this whole question of how authentic one can be and still survive in an environment where one is a minority in a number of ways. And it's about - people who know you know that love gospel music. You have a lovely singing voice.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And that you've actually recorded some CDs in order to raise money for charities that you're involved with. And there comes a time when you are asked to sing at a luncheon. I can see where that could have been a very awkward or tricky scenario.

Ms. HARRIS: Right. Yes.

MARTIN: Because for some people that's a stereotype that - oh, sure all the black folks are up here singing and dancing and - and I can see a scenario where someone might say, well I, I - that's not how I wish to be known. And I'll give you an example - like for example, in an office where I used to work, it used to drive me crazy that people didn't clean up after themselves after a staff lunch. I did not appreciate that, so I would often do that, and someone took me aside and said you shouldn't do that, as you are the only African-American female here, you should not put yourself in the position of cleaning up after people. People will expect you to do that.

Ms. HARRIS: Wow.

MARTIN: So I thought, hmm, I thought about it. Anyway, this is about you, not me. So how did you resolve the singing dilemma?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, you know, it's interesting. I certainly had a pause at that moment, but I ended up deciding that little voice called the spirit that I've learned the hard way to listen to said, you know, why don't you go ahead and do this? And I did that, and what was interesting about it was at the end of, you know, doing the quick song, a very senior person said thank you very much I really appreciate your taking the time to do this, I know this is not your area, but thanks for coming over to do this. And then we had a very good conversation for about 45 minutes, and that senior person ended up being very influential in, you know, the year-end process that year, and they had had their own business-related conversation with me after I'd sung, and I would never have had that interaction if I hadn't gone over there, you know, to sing a holiday song for three minutes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking to Carla A. Harris, a Wall Street veteran about her new book, "Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet." You also talk about a bit of advice that you got from a female executive about your communication style and the advice was frequently wrong but never in doubt.

Ms. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: Which is to say show no fear, show no hesitation.

Ms. HARRIS: That's right.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about this? Isn't that partly what's wrong with Wall Street right now, is that there are a lot of people who are wrong but never in doubt?

Ms. HARRIS: No, I don't think that that's really at the core of it at the end of the day, Michel, and I can't really say what is at the core. But I think what she was trying to communicate is that at that time I was very junior, and you know, I definitely would say right upfront I don't know or would show that I wasn't certain about something, and her point to me was, you know, look we are expected to have a certain level of knowledge and expertise about what we're doing, and it's okay to say you don't know, but you need to exude some confidence about what you do know, and if you don't know the answer to that particular question, assert what you do know and then follow up with the person with whatever the discreet answer happens to be.

MARTIN: I do understand what you're saying on a micro level, on a sort of day-to-day interaction level, but you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that Wall Street isn't the most popular place in this country right now. As a Wall Street veteran, I would like to ask you - why are we in the fix that we're in? What is your understanding of this?

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah, I can't really answer the question, Michel, how we are, why we are where we are at large, because obviously there's a lot going on globally, and the one thing that I am encouraged about, to be honest, is that in fact at least we are having a conversation with all parties at the table, and I think that's a good thing at the end of the day.

MARTIN: One of the things that you write about in the book is you write about your own spiritual faith, and I can see where that might have been - I don't know if risky is the right word, but a difficult decision, because everyone doesn't, some people consider faith a private matter and you've chosen this book to say, look, I need to share that this is an important part of who I am, but you don't talk a lot about ethics. Is that because that's - you've never confronted an ethical challenge?

Ms. HARRIS: I'd have to say, Michel, after, you know, 21.5 years on the Street, I can't recall when I felt like I've had an ethical challenge. To talk about my spirituality was important, because it is a very important part of who Carla Harris is and it is the number one driver of why I think I have been successful long-term on the Street. And that's why I left it as the last pearl, so that if your remembered nothing else about the book, you remembered that piece, as I think the most important piece of and the most important component of my success.

MARTIN: Has the recession changed the way you think about any of these issues? I get the feeling, as of course you say in the book, and we have said, that this book is the result of all of your two decades of experience on the Street and things that you've thought about and worked through over time, but you get the impression that this was completed before the current - I don't know what word you use - downturn - a lot of people use the word crisis, Armageddon, whatever. Is there anything you would change if you had started it - writing it now?

Ms. HARRIS: There is absolutely nothing that I would change, and in fact I would argue, Michel, that these pearls are probably even more important in this environment, where people tend to think, oh boy, let me hunker down, I'll keep my head down, you know, I really don't want to make any waves. And in fact what the book tells you is that that's not what you should do in this environment because keeping your head down will not keep you from getting shot. You might as well keep your head up so you can at least see the bullet coming.

Chaos breeds opportunity. Companies now are rewriting the rule book, so now is the time to engage with your boss, to articulate that you understand the challenges that the firm is facing right now and here are your two or three suggestions about what they might do and here's what you're trying to do to be a part of the solution. People are looking for solutions. They are looking for people who can think out of the box. They want people who will step up to the plate and take a risk and not afraid to play in this environment. So now is exactly the time where you can differentiate yourself.

MARTIN: But speaking of thinking out of the box, I'm interested in this question of - I've asked you a couple times and you don't want to give me an answer about why you feel that we are in the situation we are in now, which I, you know, is your choice. But from my vantage point it appears that part of the issue is a herd mentality, that nobody wanted to say no. Nobody wanted to say no to securitizing, you know, mortgages that had no underlying value, nobody wanted to say no to acquiring all these toxic assets, and so the question I have is - forgive me, and this is not meant to be a personal attack on you, by any means, but why does that happen? What is the point of diversity on Wall Street if everybody is going to think alike? Does that make sense?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, the question certainly makes sense, and let me just say, Michel, I am not trying to skirt your question in any way, and the reason why I say I can't really answer why we are where we are, because they were - there are a number of players that have, you know, been around the world that, you know, and everybody has a different perspective of why we are where we are or what the real problem is, and there are a lot of different schools of thought, and I certainly was, you know, not in every place - in every place around the world in order to be privy to some of those conversations and how they got made, so that's why I don't really feel comfortable answering that particular question.

But to your point about diversity on the Street, I don't think that the Street necessarily has a herd mentality.

I certainly don't think that it's homogenous thinking across the board. Having been in this industry for 21 years, I can tell you that there are a lot of smart people in this industry. There's a lot of healthy debate that goes on every single day about every single situation or deal or challenge. There is certainly diversity of thought on the Street across the board.

MARTIN: Have you ever seen conditions like this before?

Ms. HARRIS: You know, if you look back every sort of three or four years, there have been some type of exogenous shock to the system and each time, you know, we had a major inhale and said, oh my gosh, haven't seen anything like this, you know, this is really something. And I will admit, this certainly feels, looks, appears to be more intense than any of those periods.

MARTIN: I mean hasn't the Dow lost like 40 percent of its value?

Ms. HARRIS: Yeah, it's been, as I said, it's been very intense. But you know, again, at the end of the day, we have seen instances where there have been major shocks to the system. History tells you we'll come out.

MARTIN: So the country can expect to win.

Ms. HARRIS: Amen. We can expect to win.

MARTIN: Carla A. Harris is a managing director at Morgan Stanley. She's author of the new book "Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success from a Wall Street Vet." She comes to join us in our New York bureau. Carla Harris, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you very much, Michel, for having me on today.

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