NEW YORK – Carla Harris started her career on Wall Street in 1987, the same year the celebrated Oliver Stone movie that made “greed is good” a national mantra premiered. As Harris recalls it, the actual demography of Wall Street at the time wasn’t much different from Stone’s casting — there were so few Black managing directors, and so few women, she knew them by name.
In the 33 years since, Harris, a Black woman, has risen to the upper echelons of her field, been a champion for equal opportunity in the workplace and has inspired others to strive for personal excellence with her Catholic faith as a foundation.
On March 14, the University of Notre Dame announced that Harris, now the vice chairman of wealth management and a senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, as well as a gospel singer, speaker and author, will be awarded the 2021 Laetare Medal, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic award. It’s often dubbed the “Medal of Honor” of the American Catholic church.
“Throughout her exceptional career, Carla Harris has exemplified the highest ideals of American enterprise, championed the principle that opportunity should never be denied on the basis of gender or race and generously mentored countless rising leaders,” said Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins in a statement announcing Harris’ selection.
“Enriched by her gifts as a singer and public speaker, her work in the competitive world of banking is firmly rooted in her commitment to service, developing the next generation of leaders and her Catholic faith,” he continued.
In a conversation with Crux, Harris said she found out she was this year’s recipient about three-weeks before the university’s announcement, and was “very, very surprised.”
“I had heard of the medal before, but it’s not something that I would’ve had a clue at all that I was being considered for at this time,” Harris said. “It’s just an honor. Humbled and honored were the first two emotions that I felt.”
At Morgan Stanley, Harris has mentored hundreds of associates and led efforts focused on promoting women and people of color in business and oversees the company’s multicultural client strategy and helped build its Multicultural Innovation Lab.
In 2013, she was also appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council – an independent counsel to the president, Congress and the U.S. Small Business Administration, which sought to improve business opportunities for women.
The reason Harris fights for equal opportunity goes back to her childhood. Her parents instilled in her at an early age the importance of striving for excellence. That lesson stuck, and as she grew up it blossomed into a desire to share that success with other people.
“I also learned on Wall Street that the way you grow your power is to give it away. So, if I get any kind of currency, or any kind of power, the whole point is to spend that in a way somebody else can benefit,” Harris said. “I guess it comes from my personal mantra, ‘(God) gives, I get, and I give. And the circle goes back around again.’”
Upon hearing the news of Harris’ selection for the 2021 Laetare Medal Tiffani Blake, a protégé of Harris’ and a fellow parishioner at the parish of St. Charles Borromeo, Resurrection and All Saints in Harlem, N.Y., said she cried.
“For her to be given such a prestigious award that’s based on her faith and her commitment to uplifting of all people regardless of where they come from, making sure there’s access to education and all of those pieces, she is it,” said Blake, who is also the assistant provost for student engagement and development at the New York Institute of Technology. “She is one of those people making the world better.”
Brother Tyrone Davis, executive director of the Archdiocese of New York Office of Black Ministry, said his reaction to the news was simply, “good move, Notre Dame.” He told Crux Harris is someone who will “roll her sleeves up” when it comes to ministry.
“If you ask Carla to spare the moment to lift up a prayer, Carla’s going to step right up and say a prayer. She’s going to lift that prayer up and that prayer is going to lift everybody up,” he said.
Harris also uses both her voice and pen to give back and inspire. She is the author of the books Expect to Win and Strategize to Win. She wrote both books to share what she has learned about pathways to success.
As a recognized gospel singer, Harris has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theatre. Her concerts are always for charity. And she doesn’t just raise money, but uses the concerts to introduce people to the different organizations they can donate to.
“Then, long after this concert there may be benefactors now for these charities because they’ve been introduced in this way,” Harris said. “It’s always been about a multiple supplier effect and music is a great connector.”
The Laetare Medal is announced each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday and dates back to 1883. Notre Dame established the award as an American counterpart of the Golden rose, a papal honor that goes back to the 11th century.
Previous recipients of the award include President Joe Biden, President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Sister Norma Pimentel and Hollywood actor Martin Sheen.
The Laetare Medal bears the Latin inscription, Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“Truth it is mighty, and it shall prevail”). Every year the award goes to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences and illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Davis also noted that he likes the fact that a prestigious institution like Notre Dame recognized Harris, someone who is not only “Black and Catholic, but a special kind of Black and Catholic. Someone who understands fully what both of those mean and more.”
Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo, CEO of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation in New York where Harris is a founding board director, called Harris’ commitment to Catholic faith “inspiring.” She’s a “modern trailblazer,” he said, who’s already broken many barriers.
Harris will receive the 2021 Laetare Medal at the University’s commencement ceremony in May.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg