Courtesy of Simon Wheeler Photography

February 25, 2020

Carla Harris, Vice Chairman at Morgan Stanley, Offers Advice to Cornell Students Interested in Finance

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Internships and full-time jobs at investment banks like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are highly sought-after among Cornellians interested in finance.

A Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, Carla Harris shared her insights on how students can land a coveted Wall Street gig — offering tips on acing finance interviews, climbing the corporate ladder and excelling in an industry where both women and people of color are highly underrepresented.

Harris first broke down one of the most important questions that students should know the answer to, but often struggle with: Why do you want to work for us?

“If [banks] sense that you’re just trying to get a job in finance, then it’s the easiest way to take yourself off the list,” Harris said, who pointed out that it is vital for applicants to understand what distinguishes each Wall Street firm and position.

Understanding the “why” entails genuine introspection. Highlighting the importance of “understanding your own mind,” Harris said that no matter what financial profession one pursues — corporate finance, banking, internal strategy roles — it is necessary to communicate some understanding of the role’s function.

However, once students land a role, there is often more to it than just having a good work ethic. Recalling the greatest obstacle she faced as a young woman in finance, Harris said relying too much on the notion of “meritocracy” ultimately proved not enough: “I knew I was smart, and I knew I could work hard. So why wasn’t it working for me?”

Instead, Harris said it is critical that students begin to build relationships with upper management and key employees by the time their first year at the company is over — an ongoing process of networking that can shape a young professional’s trajectory by creating “awareness about how smart you are [and] what you can bring to the table.”

This skill means having the ability to read an environment and analyze the culture of the firm in order to “get people to think about you in the way that you want them to think about you.”

For women and people of color, building those connections may prove especially critical to rising the ranks in a homogeneous workplace — one which is still disproportionately male and white.

That lack of diversity prevalent in high finance is an issue that Harris has long been working to address.

For instance, to help increase representation of people of color in the field, she has placed a large emphasis on assembling diverse recruitment teams, with the reasoning that “if students don’t see people that look like them, then even if they made it to the process, they’re not apt to go.”

When it comes to internal mobility beyond college campuses, however, diversity is cultivated by the presence of strong role models in upper management positions — especially women and people of color. But even though financial firms have expanded their diversity recruitment programs in recent years, Wall Street as a whole has still struggled with a lack of representation among executives.

According to Harris, the root of this problem stems from two harmful signals that girls are given from a young age: one, that they need permission, and two, that they can or cannot do certain things.

Recalling interactions with women who have told her that “numbers are not [their] thing,” Harris guessed that somebody had told them this early on, eventually becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” To combat these harmful perceptions, a solution she offered was for parents to constantly affirm their daughters, encouraging them to try again when they fail.

Harris has also implemented some of her own initiatives at Morgan Stanley to address these diversity issues.

One is the Multicultural Innovation Lab, which focuses specifically on investing in “female founders of color.” Analysts and associates at the company rotate through this program and get exposure to traditional investment banking, as well as early stage company and entrepreneurial experiences.

To help more women and people of color achieve these higher positions, Harris gave her final piece of advice to incumbent employees who hold upper management roles: “The biggest thing that you can do is give people the confidence that they can execute.”