Carla Harris executed the largest biotech follow-on offering in U.S. history but she’s not stopping there

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 29, 2024 6:52 AM EDT
Carla Harris. Photo credit: Morgan Stanley

With nearly four decades of experience in investment banking, Carla Harris is one of Wall Street‘s most influential executives. She has executed multimillion-dollar transactions such as the initial public offerings for UPS, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Ariba, Redback, and the General Motors sub-IPO of Delphi Automotive. Notably, Harris executed the historic $3.2 billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation, the largest biotechnology follow-on offering in U.S. history. She currently serves as a Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley.

Harris attributes her professional success to her upbringing. Her parents always led her to believe that she could do whatever she wanted and never put limits around success. They encouraged her to excel academically, created expectations on her grades and allowed her to pursue her passions. Even her grandparents created within Harris an appetite for excelling, motivating her to be the best at any endeavor she took on. This explains why she was able to unapologetically enter rooms with no women and or African Americans and completely steal the show.

Her teachers also believed in her leadership potential and helped nurture it. Harris pursued a bachelor’s degree in economics at Harvard University with prospects of a legal career. She wanted to be a lawyer because of the power, responsibility and monetary reward that came with the profession. She soon realized that lawyers didn’t call the shots and that business people had all the authority. After her sophomore year, Harris had already made up her mind about becoming an investment banker. She had heard about how difficult Wall Street was and became negatively motivated by the challenge.

“You needed some analytical skills and some quantitative skills, but the thing that pushed me over the edge is that I did not see a lot of people who looked like me, and I couldn’t figure out why. And that made it even more interesting to pursue. The reason I wanted to be a lawyer was because, you know, I thought I could call the shots. I thought I could have a certain lifestyle. I could have a lot of responsibility very early on. And that was the summer that I realized that the lawyers didn’t call the shots,” Harris said.

After her undergraduate, Harris went back to Harvard for an MBA. She was sure that business was the way forward for her and had already narrowed down the firms she wanted to work at. In 1987, Harris began working for Morgan Stanley in New York in mergers and acquisitions. She worked on some of the largest initial public offerings on record in her first 10 years at the firm. One such transaction was the $3.2 billion common stock transaction for Immunex Corporation, one of the largest biotechnology common stock transactions in U.S. history.

She focused on securing equity private placements for consumer and retail industry leaders and was able to ascend the corporate ladder. Harris ascended to head the Emerging Manager Platform and moved to a Managing Director & Co-Head role at Morgan Stanley. She most recently was as Vice Chairman and Managing Director, responsible for increasing client connectivity and penetration to enhance revenue generation across the firm. Having spent nearly four decades in the investment industry, Harris has extensive experience in the technology, media, retail, telecommunications, transportation, industrial, and healthcare sectors.

“There have been many situations throughout my business career where I’m the only woman, and probably twice as many where I’m the only person of color. And it has never made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve always thought of it, personally, as an opportunity to impact and in some cases to educate. You should remember that if you’ve gotten the opportunity to be in that environment, they have chosen you because they think that you can, in fact, make rain. So make rain,” Harris explained how she dealt with imposter syndrome.

Harris describes the highlight of her career as being appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Women’s Business Council. She has since helped hundreds of women to confidently take the leap and start their businesses. A gospel singer, Harris has recorded four CDs and sold out concerts at venues such as the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall.