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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2011

Banker hits high notes

Gospel singer merges profits with piety

NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK — Wall Street banks are not known as particularly religious workplaces. But Carla A. Harris, a managing director at Morgan Stanley and a part-time gospel singer, has found a way to blend profits with piety.

Ms. Harris, one of the most senior African-American female executives on Wall Street, began her career in mergers and acquisitions, then worked her way up the equity capital markets ranks. She now runs the emerging manager platform at Morgan Stanley, where she advises asset managers owned by women and members of minorities.

But after hours, she is a celebrated gospel artist who sings in two choirs, has released three solo albums, and has performed two packed shows at Carnegie Hall.

“I always like to say that my success is not about who I am, but whose I am,” Ms. Harris said, pointing to the sky during a recent interview in a Morgan Stanley conference room.

Now 48, she began singing as a 9-year-old in her Catholic elementary school’s talent show. She grew up on a steady diet of soul and R&B, but when she arrived at Harvard University, she joined the Radcliffe Choral Society, an all-female classical choir. That forced her out of her comfort zone, she said.

“I’d never sung Stravinsky and Bach and Mendelssohn,” she said. “I wanted to challenge myself.”

After Harvard, Ms. Harris did a short stint at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, and received her MBA at Harvard business school before joining Morgan Stanley in 1987.

At first, she said, she kept her passion for music hidden from her banker colleagues. On Wednesday nights, she would sneak out from the bank to go to Harlem, where she would watch amateur-night performances at the Apollo Theater before heading back on the subway to the bank.

“I wanted to keep Carla the Singer in a box,” she said. “But it wasn’t long until people figured it out.”

She eased into showing her musical side in a professional setting, first performing for colleagues in 1991 at a group function. Four years later, she sang “Amazing Grace” at a client dinner for Heartport, a biotech firm for which Morgan Stanley was the lead underwriter on the initial public offering.

Her performance was a hit, and she soon was performing at company functions. She sang at colleagues’ weddings, did an impromptu song at the bank’s analyst training conference, and serenaded John J. Mack, Morgan Stanley’s chairman, with “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” at a company talent show in 2009.

Today, Ms. Harris — demonstrative and fast-talking, with a fondness for gold jewelry and golf-ball sized earrings — said she squeezed music into her day however she could.

She sings in the car on her morning commute from her Montclair, N.J., home, takes voice lessons during her lunch break, and even sneaks quick vocalizations in the elevator ride up to her eighth floor office.

“It’s enough to get a couple notes out if you need to, if you’re having one of those days,” she said.



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