Who is Curtis Harris?
My name is Curtis Harris. I am a public finance investment banker; I've been working on Wall Street for the last thirty years. I work at Academy Securities, which is a boutique Investment Banking firm that is a disabled veterans business enterprise, and a minority business enterprise. Our firm was founded by a couple of Naval Academy graduates – an individual by name of Chance Mims, who decided to go into the brokerage business with a two-fold mission. One, to provide the financing expertise that our clients deserve and want, and also to provide an opportunity for veterans – who are interested in coming to Wall Street – an opportunity to put a foothold into the business and get the experience they need to be successful on Wall Street. I would describe myself as an individual who has taken risks doing something different and trying to be successful in ways that were probably not expected of me.
I want my legacy to be, “Curtis Harris was a guy who made an effort, and tried, and succeeded most of the time.”
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey is somewhat unique in that, when I decided to go to college, I went against the grain. I grew up as a military dependent on the Navy side; there was an opportunity to look at a school like West Point, get an engineering degree, be an officer, have a guaranteed job, and hopefully make something of myself. So I went that route. It was an opportunity to be on the other side of the boundary, which I grew up in. And for the most part, it exceeded my wildest expectations.
Once I graduated from the military academy, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps, which was the maintenance division of the Army. So my responsibilities as a Second Lieutenant Platoon Leader was to provide maintenance for tracked vehicles – tanks – in the heat of battle, which was my particular specialty. But the Ordnance Corps was responsible for the maintenance of all tracked and wheeled vehicles and doing it under fire. It was a pretty unique experience and an opportunity - albeit I did it during a time when there was no conflict – so most of my effort at work was basically just basic training exercises around California. I was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, so it was an opportunity go back to California after four years of being in New York. And it was an exciting time.
I did that, and then I was reassigned after three years back to Aberdeen, Maryland, which is the home of the Ordnance Corps, where I attended my Officer Advanced Course and also was promoted to Captain. At which point I was supposed to be reassigned overseas, but they asked me to stay and teach the Officer Basic Course the Officer Advanced Course and the Senior NCO Course. I felt like that would be a challenge; it was an opportunity to parlay the skills that I developed as a Second Lieutenant out in the Seventh Degree Division in Monterey and provide insight to these new officers coming out of either West Point or other commissioning sources of the ROTCs and uniformed universities around the country. So it was a great opportunity for me. I did that for the next two years, at which point I came up on my five-year commitment period and decision as to whether I was going to stay in or stay out.
So I decided again to take a chance. I applied to graduate schools to get an MBA. I was very fortunate – I got accepted into a number of schools, pretty much all the schools I applied to. But I got into the Wharton School, which is where I wanted to go. I had a great time at Wharton in that it provided me with insight and exposure to areas of business and the business community that I had no idea existed; in terms of the world of consulting, the world of Investment Banking, the world of marketing, everything. And in addition it was my first time being in class in a co-ed environment. When I was at West Point my class was one of the last classes that was all-male.
Once I graduated from Wharton I had a number of different offers. Marketing, consulting, etc.. But I chose to go to Wall Street to do public finance. Public finance was a business that I knew nothing about. It kind of opened up to me based on a call that I got from Merrill Lynch (of all places) that said, “hey, we're looking at your resume. We see that you have a good solid finance / numbers background and we do something that most people have probably never heard of or don't think about – in terms of providing the infrastructure capital to build things like schools, roads, airports, the ability to turn your water on, the ability to flush your toilets.” All that stuff, which most people don't think about but requires some pretty interesting financing maneuvering in terms of the capital markets.
So I went into this business called public finance, or the industry of public finance, which I've been in for basically the last 32 years. It's a fascinating business to me. It's a combination of politics and Wall Street because you have to be able to understand the needs of the politicians that you work with – our clients, the Mayors, and City CFOs, governors of the country – and helping to facilitate the ability to build the infrastructure that keeps the country in place and going forward. So it's a fascinating business to me, I like it; it's been challenging, but it's what I've been doing - so I enjoy it.
What are your top accomplishments?
My biggest accomplishment at a very young age was graduating from West Point. After I left the military and came to Wall Street, I was one of three African Americans that entered the Public Finance Department of Smith Barney Harris Upham at the time [which is now Citibank / Citigroup]. But the biggest accomplishment is the fact that I was able to convince the Association of Graduates of West Point to start a diversity conference.
The diversity conference provided an opportunity to bring all of these cadets or former graduates of the Academy together and share experiences. What we found – and the reason that it made sense to do this – was because a lot of the graduates of the military academy had gone to a lot of great graduate schools (the Harvards, the Stanfords, Penns, Yale) and had become very active in that alumni world, but we're not active in money activities with West Point. And it turned out that it was because most cadets didn't really feel like their experience at West Point was something that was that positive. Because you come into an environment where you are challenged from every direction, but being a minority (particularly African American) at West Point was a difficult experience.
So what we found was that no one really enjoyed being at West Point. But after you graduate and after the years pass you tend to remember more of the positive aspects rather than the negative aspects. And we felt – or I felt – that the academy was missing out on an opportunity to bring back all these experienced graduates to share their experiences of how they were successful away from the military or even in the military, and provide an opportunity to show these new cadets or current cadets what life could be like. You know, five, ten, twenty years after they graduated. Whether they stayed in the military or not.
What we found was that once you got an apparatus to allow these cadets or the alums from West Point to come in and talk about their stories, provide a vehicle for them to give back to the Academy, that it was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We found that there were all of a sudden a bunch of cadets or former graduates of the Academy coming back and donating funds to the Alumni organization, which was the West Point Association of Graduates, at levels that they'd never done before. We were able to put together an effort to make diversity a center point of the Academy's mission.
How has your background influenced your success?
My background is somewhat unique. I grew up as the oldest of five. My mother had me when she was just 18, out of wedlock. She subsequently married, had four other children, and we grew up on the enlisted side of the Navy. The environment, or where I lived as a Navy dependent, was different based on what state you were in. In the south, I pretty much grew up in a segregated school system. And it was quite challenging. As we were growing up, my mother – who never got a college degree but was a very smart lady, and she got an associate's degree up to that point – she would make sure that we came home from school, that whatever books we were reading we would reiterate, and reread the stories and the lessons. Even though she was a nurse and working very hard, she wanted to make sure that we did as best as we could; and we were always taught and told we were as good as any other kid, and don't feel like you're not as good and you cannot do well.
We went to live in Long Beach California and that was the first time I had actually been an integrated school program. Up until that point the only white people I had ever seen were on television. But Long Beach was a big Navy town and it was in California. So there was a big difference from the west coast as opposed to the south in terms of integration. Going from Long Beach California to West Point, it was a decent foundation – not the greatest foundation. I still struggled I think academically because I used to joke that I was taking two foreign languages at West Point: English and German.
But I struggled through that and the one course where I really started to light up was chemistry. I had a chance when I was in high school to take an organic chemistry class, and that was something that – once I took chemistry at West Point – it lit a flame in the back of my head that said ‘Wow.’ So exposure is how all of this works because I ended up doing great in chemistry. I was in the top sections of our class. What that taught me was that if one has exposure to these types of courses, or any kind of experience, it's just going to ensure or at least help ensure a greater degree of success. So one of the things that I took away from that was that if I ever had kids, I was going to provide them with as much exposure as possible and give them the best foundation ever to make sure that they're even more successful than I am in college.
Please tell us more about your experiences at West Point.
The Academy, in general, has always been very interested in diversity. And in fact, under the previous administrations, when there was pushback on diversity in recruiting on a national level – I think there was a case involving the University of Michigan – the Academy was one of those entities that said, ‘No, diversity is important and it's important to us, and this is why. We want our officer ranks to be reflective of a nation. And to the degree that we can have the same percentages of our officers graduating replicate what those percentages are in the population, then we are achieving our goal.’ And so the Academy has always been interested in developing diversity, both cultural diversity and gender diversity once the Academy went co-ed in 1976. And they've done a pretty good job of it. But they always felt that there was something more that could be done.
We were also able to highlight and promote diversity on campus in ways that hadn't been done before. We were able to rename one of our big theater rooms in Thayer Hall. Thayer Hall is one of the big academic buildings at West Point. I think South Auditorium was changed to Robinson Auditorium to commemorate General Robinson – who was the first black four-star general who graduated from West Point – and it was a big event at the Academy. That has been superseded in recent days, literally a couple of months back; the Academy named its first building after an African American, which had never happened before. Which was kind of ironic, because we have buildings named after Confederate generals at West Point, but we never had a building named after an African American graduate.
So the first building name, which is called the Benjamin O. Davis barracks, is named after Benjamin O. Davis who graduated from the Academy in 1936. He came into the Academy in 1932 as the first African American to enter the Academy in the 20th Century. The last graduate of the Academy had graduated actually before, in the late 1918’s. But he came into the Academy in 1932, he graduated in 1936; he was 25th out of 350 cadets. But he had to experience something that only cadets who committed honor violations and then were let back into the Academy had experienced and that was being ‘silenced’.
For the four years that he was at West Point, he ate by himself, he slept by himself; no one would befriend him, and he was basically what was called ‘silenced’ for the entire four-year period only because of the color of his skin. It wasn't until after he graduated – that in years after he graduated – that his classmates finally came around and started to recognize what a great guy he was to put up with all this. And it was sanctioned by the school; I mean it was not a very positive environment and moment in history for the Academy.
Benjamin Davis went on to become the leader of the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous Red Tails. He was one of the first officers in the Air Force and was the first black General Commission , elevated to generalship in the Air Force, and retired as a three-star general in 1988. But he was promoted to a fourth star in 1998 by then President Bill Clinton, because it was understood that the discrimination that he put up with over the years probably held back the final fourth star that he should have rightfully had. So he is now commemorated by a building in his honor. He passed away in 2002 but it's a great honor; something that we are all thrilled with. And we know that part of the effort in getting the building named was generated by the efforts and accomplishments that were a direct byproduct of the diversity conference.
Which P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles resonate with you?
I think there are elements of P.O.L.I.N.G.® that that I have utilized in my career going forward. (O)thers is a good example. One of the things that I try to do is set the example and be mindful that there are going to be people behind me going forward, and I want them to be as successful as I can. Whether be it my kids, my colleagues, younger people that I work with. Life is a team effort and you have to make sure that you are aware of what others are doing in terms of their professional development, and what you can do to help guide that. In doing so, there has to be a level of professionalism that focuses on having the right ethics. Ethics is very important to me because I like to lead by example and I always want to be ethically correct, as best as I can define it. And it also allows you to sleep better at night. I don't think that there are any shortcuts in life; we were always told at West Point there was the ‘easier wrong’ and the ‘harder right’ and it's always great to err on the side of being right.
My West Point experience has allowed me to deal with things – (P)ersevere through things – that most people won't or can't. And that's actually a positive for me because it allows me to just drive on and be consistent and be focused. But it's my DNA at this point. What that has done over the years is that it's allowed me to gather that experience, (G)row into an individual that is going to be able to – by virtue of these experiences – (I)nspire young people behind me. My kids – I'm in a position for my kids that I never had when I was growing up, in the sense that my kids can call me and ask for advice. In terms of which courses they're taking. My oldest, who is out of college, who is now looking for his second career, or what the next steps are; taking the GMAT, what he should be focusing on. These are things that I kind of did in the blind, but because of my experiences and successes I'm able to provide them with the guidance that probably a lot of my peers had when I was in college at West Point and even while I was in graduate school. And I'm thrilled about it.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
I grew up not having a father who particularly liked me, because I wasn't his son by blood. And when I think back about his situation in his generation, in that he was in the military at a time when African Americans were limited to just two jobs – he could be a cook or he could be a steward. And I have to assume that that wore heavily on his mind. I'm not saying that it's an excuse for his alcoholism or the way he treated me or his family. But that was very challenging –growing up in an environment where there were no real positive role models.
But I took away from that to do maybe the inverse of what he had experienced. And albeit it’s a different time, but a lot of the circumstances were the same. When I went to West Point there were very few African Americans. There was almost an expectation that you would fail. And even to this day, I think that for most African Americans – well not so much in the military but I think more so in corporate America – there is almost a surprise if you can walk into a room and put two sentences together and be articulate, because people just have such low expectations of African American males in particular. But we have to be on the forefront in terms of setting the example and being the example for the younger generations behind us and take those chances.
Who are the people who have influenced you the most?
Who are the people that have influenced me in my career? I've had several but I think the first and foremost was an individual that I met when I was in high school. His name was Elmer W. Stringfellow; he was a retired sergeant and an ROTC instructor at the high school that I ended up going to. But he was the guy who literally singled me out as an individual with potential, because I was actually a pretty bright student but I didn't know anything about the business culture. Mr. Stringfellow or who we called ‘Sergeant’, would introduce me to the local business members of the Kiwanis Club, which was at the time and – I think they still exist – a gathering of business individuals. But he taught me how to wear a suit, put a tie on, and do all these things that I would have never thought about doing. But it gave me exposure. And he was the one who suggested that I might want to consider going to the military academy because of what it had to offer and just all the upsides. In fact, I applied to West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy, and I got into all the schools. And he was the guy that kind of put me on that path.
In later years, one of the guys that became a friend of mine – and that I would eventually go to work for – was Stan O'Neal, who was the first African American Chairman of, the major Wall Street firm, Merrill Lynch. He did a lot of great things at the firm, and it was very exciting to be at Merrill during his tenure; to be in a large organization run by an African American that historically had blocked those types of opportunities. So that was amazing to me to just experience it. Albeit it wasn't for a very long time, but it was it was trend setting and it was nice to know that that was a possibility in America.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I would give to younger self is to always take risks, but more importantly just be confident in the decisions that you make. I think early on, particularly when I was coming into Wall Street, I wasn’t exactly sure which direction or what focus I should be taking in terms of professional development. Because I wasn’t getting advice from anybody. But, as it turns out, 99% of the time I was making the right decision – and that was because of confidence that I had within myself. Once I made that decision and I dove into it. The only other advice I’d give to my younger self is to have much more fun. Life is… you have one shot at it, as far as we know, and you should enjoy it. Do some of those things that you said you would put off tomorrow, today. Because there is just so much benefit to exploring and just being enlightened.
What is your idea for a ‘Call to Action’?
The ‘Call to Action’, and how can diversity be implemented in organizations? First of all, I think organizations have to understand that there is a very positive upside to diversity. By definition, diversity allows you to have different voices in a room that can provide multiple options, as opposed to no diversity and basically getting one or two solutions. What we have to do as a people, as entities, as organizations, is to push that theory forward. Too many times we are confronted with situations where there is no diversity voice in the room, and it leads to organizations going down paths that they did not necessarily have to go down. And in a lot of cases, and we're seeing them today, from the activities that are going on at some of the media companies to just actions that are occurring in government. If you don't have a diversity voice or a diverse voice in the group, then you're going to miss out on opportunities to do well and to do better.
The only way to make sure that there's diverse voices out there is to be as focused and to be challenging. To sometimes not necessarily be the most comforting voice, but to just be diligent and make make your point. It’s not easy. Sometimes there can be negative repercussions. But you’ve got to think of the long game and not necessarily the short game. There have been many times when I've been in meetings, where I've spoken up from a diversity perspective knowing it's the right thing to do, but also recognizing that it's uncomfortable and that not everybody is going to feel it. But in every case that I'm aware of – in the long game and in the long term – it worked out.
Tell us one thing no one would guess about you.
One thing that people would not guess about me is that at a very interesting time in my career – when I was in graduate school – I actually auditioned and performed in the Wharton Follies, which required you (or at least asked to the best of your abilities) to sing dance and act on the stage. I did that out of a whim. I got a spot in the cast, and it was probably one of the more wonderful things I have ever experienced in my entire life. The excitement and electricity that goes through you when you're on stage and performing – whether it be singing or dancing and acting – was something that I've never experienced before. And I actually contemplated doing it professionally after graduate school.
But I ended up deciding that maybe I should try to get a job – and not that acting is not a job, I don’t want to say that it isn’t – but I wanted to pay for whatever student bills that I had. I thought acting was just something that was a lot of fun. As it turns out, whatever that gene was in me, it went to my youngest son who actually was a child actor for a short period of time before he decided to go to college. But it's something that I don't think about much because it happened many years back, and it was before cellphones so there's not a big record of it anywhere – unless someone can dust off a couple of old VHS tapes. But that was me. I almost had an acting career.