Black History Month: Andrea Harris a Triangle trailblazer in minority development and economic enterprise

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Andrea Harris' legacy of economic development and minority enterprise commands attention.

For more than three decades, Harris has been a giant in building North Carolina's black wealth.

In 1986, she co-founded The Institute -- a nonprofit minority-economic-development office in the heart of Durham's historic Black Wall Street.

A building they own.

Her passion and drive to close the minority wealth gap has garnered her multiple business and leadership awards -- including multiple Orders of the Long Leaf Pine -- the state's highest honor.

"I didn't do anything by myself. I got to enjoy all of the fruits of a whole lot of people's labor," Harris said, with her typical humility.

Her team's mission at The Institute: bring lawmakers, banks and business leaders to the table -- challenging them to do better.

Many of those discussions happen in The Institute's boardroom.

"When you are the only voice in the room, you need to make sure you are clear where you stand and that they understand on the front end. I'm just not in this space to be here. So if I'm going to be in the room let's be clear. That I am clear about why I'm here," Harris said.

Harris is humble but intense.

"I've been in meetings where I had to say 'Whoa ... go girl,'" co-founder Lew Myers said about Harris' fierceness.

Myers said Harris' honesty, directness and compassion always brokered the deal.

"I mean, she is the epitome of what we would like leaders to be," Myers said.

Part of Harris' leadership strategy at The Institute is generating financial support for minority businesses and HBCUs, all while building relationships.

"I consider Andrea to be the mother of minority enterprise," said former Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

Bell said that in 2003, his community development firm, UDI, called Harris when the company struggled to secure a major grocery chain on its property near North Carolina Central University.

"She opened doors for us. We got a Food Lion. They came," Bell said.

Christopher Rivers met Harris nearly a decade after he had just gotten out of prison.

Harris gave him a job at The Institute.

"I've seen her make countless decisions. None of which start with herself," Rivers said.

He said the experience at The Institute led to him starting his own licensed construction firm, The Christopher Building Co., which now employs up to 20 people.

"It's an emotional thing because I don't know how I would have become the person that I am but from my connection to her. Literally," Rivers said.

Today, Harris is retired from The Institute, but she hasn't left completely - she still uses her voice for her community.

"I still sit on an economic board where I am the only female and the only minority in the room and this is 2019," Harris said. Her advice to women and people of color is, "That we've still got some work to do."

Harris says back in the 1980s, the State of North Carolina was doing less than 1 percent of its business with minorities and women.

Today, Harris says that number is up to 15 percent.
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