June 2015

Andrea Harris

Andrea Harris’ life has been dedicated to overcoming barriers to economic growth and opportunity.

Growing up in the rural community of Henderson, NC, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement, she had seen more than her share of inequality. So, after graduating from Bennett College, she chose to become a community organizer, rather than attend graduate school.

“I decided to be a part of saving the world,” she recalls. “I thought I was invincible.”

Two years later, at age 23, Harris became Executive Director of a Community Action Agency in Henderson. She was the youngest community agency director in the nation, supervising 120 full time employees and helping fight poverty across three rural communities. Harris stepped out of that role after 6 years to begin representing lower-income, older adults throughout the southeast and in Washington through the regional Office of Community Services.  Her work helped the participation levels of minority and elderly in conferences on national aging policy more than ten-fold.

When she tired of the constant travel, Harris took a job with North Carolina state government. Although the slow pace of progress frustrated her, she found the experience provided a new direction for her work.

In 1986, she and two colleagues co-founded the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting minority and women businesses. There were then fewer than 30,000 minority businesses in North Carolina; today, there are more than 132,000.

Harris says the Institute’s work is founded on the belief that home- and business-ownership are the two most effective means for building economic assets and expanded access to opportunities.

“Investing in populations with limited net worth is far less costly than the negative social consequences of economic isolation,” she said. “We must work towards widely shared prosperity as an economic imperative.”

Biography written by Mary Tyler March