05/28/2014 08:28 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Carla Harris, Chair of the National Women's Business Council

Carla Harris is a prominent global investment professional and business expert. She currently serves as Chair of the National Women's Business Council and Vice Chairman of Wealth Management and Senior Client Advisor at Morgan Stanley where she is responsible for increasing revenue generation and client connectivity and penetration across the Wealth Management, Investment Banking and Sales and Trading businesses. Harris was recently named to Fortune magazine's list of the 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America, Essence magazine's 50 Women Who Are Shaping the World, and Black Enterprise magazine's 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.

Ms. Harris earned her AB in economics from Harvard University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She remains actively involved in her community and sits on the boards of several organizations including the Executive Leadership Council, Mount Sinai and St. Vincent's Hospitals, Xavier University, Food Bank for NYC, A Better Chance, Inc., and The Apollo Theater Foundation.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of companies and a lot of different leaders in my capacity as a banker for the last 2 ½ decades and I have seen a number of examples of stellar leadership. My perspective and my actions have always been driven by how I want to be treated as a person being led, but have also been informed by watching other leaders as well. I believe that strong leaders know how to leverage the contributions of the team, create efficient clear processes, can articulate a vision in a compelling and convincing way, can inspire others to follow them, is liberal with praise and constructive criticism, is decisive, engaging, responsive, believes in diversity of thought, has a strong appetite for risk, and has a strong measure of fearlessness.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at the National Women's Business Council?
I have taken many companies public and have also raised private financing for emerging public companies, so I have a really strong understanding about the challenges that private companies face and a perspective on what makes a strong, effective management team. I have a sense of what an entrepreneurial company needs to communicate and do in order to position itself in the market and the key questions that any business owner needs to be able to answer in order to be effective in their competitive environment. I also understand the power and importance of relationships which is key given all of the constituencies that we serve.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the National Women's Business Council?
My tenure is less than a year old, but I am very proud of the annual report that we distributed in December 2013, that defined the Council's 2014 focus areas and the latest quarterly meeting that the Council held at a wonderful accelerator-- 1776, where we discussed the importance of women in high growth areas, and the importance of access to capital from accelerators and incubators as important contributors to the formation of sustainable women owned enterprises. Just before I took the reins as Chair, in 3Q 2013, the Council had been impactful in helping to impact legislation that lifted the award caps on the women owned small business procurement program through the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act.

The Council is focusing on STEM and has launched #STEMforHer. How do you hope this makes a difference and encourages more female entrepreneurs and girls to pursue a STEM career?
One of the Council's focus areas is increasing the number of women in high-growth industries. We hope to make a difference in: 1) raising the awareness around the career opportunities in STEM; 2) raise awareness and interest of female graduate students in pursuing more patent and commercialization opportunities; 3) help to increase the number of women accessing the SBA's SBIR program; 4) impact the increase in the amount of capital flowing to women entrepreneurs in STEM related industries.

What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
We're in a great economic environment for women-owned businesses, possibly a perfect storm. Women pursuing entrepreneurship should take advantage of record low interest rates to obtain business, government or government guaranteed loans. I'm excited to see women excelling as the fastest growing sector in the small business community. My best advice would be for women to create a solid plan to access capital. Our research findings show that women rely heavily on personal savings to start a business, which results in women-owned businesses commencing with lower amounts of start-up capital. Our research suggests there is a direct correlation with access to capital and revenue generation, we believe that it is imperative to get more capital in the hands of women entrepreneurs at the outset in order to improve the sustainability for women owned businesses, enhance greater revenue generation and increse job creation.

In addition, women who want to start their own business should endeavor to aggressively leverage their network for capital, marketing, introductions to suppliers, customers and other resources that could be impactful to the success of the business. Your network is one of the most important tools in your tool chest, yet it is the one that is grossly underutilized. If you want to start your own business, you should also endeavor to have enough capital to sustain your business for at least a year. Many small businesses start off undercapitalized and then fail before the one year mark, due to lack of capital resources. Ideally, you want to have enough capital to sustain yourself, if you don't make one sale in that first year.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I believe that it is very important to have balance in order to sustain long term success in any career and I define balance as those things that bring you joy. Your work won't always go well and may not always be fulfilling or rewarding on any given day, so you must have something in your day that will bring you joy or a sense of satisfaction, for that will create balance in your day. Some days that could mean that a transaction or a business meeting goes very well and that brings you joy, and other days that could mean that you run a 5k successfully or you see your child hit a homerun, or you mentor someone, it is important to understand what brings YOU joy. I am very aggressive about my calendar and I make sure that I have something that brings me joy scheduled in my calendar every day.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
One of the things that I continue to say to professional women is to focus on your relationships in your environment. While your performance is important, as you get more and more senior in your career, the decisions about your career will be a function of someone's judgment about you and judgments are influenced by relationships. In addition, I think that it is important that we continue to see an increase in the number of women in positions of leadership, influence and authority as entrepreneurs, in the corporate workplace and in corporate boardrooms.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has been extremely valuable to me in the way that it should serve anyone and that is to give you the valuable feedback that is tailored specifically to you and to your career aspirations. My mentors have been honest with me about developmental needs and risks that I should take along the way and the advice has been extraordinarily valuable and essential.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Frankly, I admire all of the women who are currently in the CEO chair in major corporations today, for example, Ursula Burns and Meg Whitman, Marissa Mayer, as well as the women who are in Congress, who lead cities, states, who lead small businesses, major non-profit organizations and universities. It is no easy feat, to get to the Chief's Chair and to sustain your leadership and to be effective. I think that women leaders tend to understand that the way to grow your power is to give it away, to empower others, they are extraordinarily prepared when it's time to ascend to positions of leadership, and can make tough decisions in crisis situations.

What do you want the NWBC to accomplish in the next five years?
The NWBC has made significant strides as a council, whether it's collaborating with national women-focused nonprofits, conducting innovative research, or making pivotal policy recommendations to advance women entrepreneurs. We are continuing to support the ecosystem of women's entrepreneurship. In the next 5 years I believe the council will continue to provide sound research, expand the conversation around women business owners to include women-led companies, and advance solutions and ideas that will impact policies to increase the amount of capital flowing to women owned businesses, increase the distribution of federal procurement contracts to women business owners, and improve the creation, collection and distribution of data regarding women entrepreneurs.