As a college senior, Cheryl Harris says she didn’t have her eye on a career in procurement. “I knew how to spell procurement,” jokes Harris. Decades later, Harris, the Senior Vice President for Procurement with Fortune 100 company Allstate, believes procurement is her destiny.
“I made the mistake once of telling a former leader that I’d do my job for free,” Harris recalls. “He coached me to never say that because people might take advantage of it. But that’s how much I enjoy my job. I’m making a difference. In the value I deliver for Allstate, people I mentor, in the suppliers I help, in the college students I work with. I live out my purpose in this role each and every day.”
An accidental encounter while at Florida A&M’s career placement center changed Harris’s direction. She was interviewing for another company when recruiters from American Express Financial Advisors (AEFA)overheard her conversation. They followed her out of the career center and asked her to interview with the firm. A few weeks later, Harris interviewed with AEFA executives in Minneapolis, was offered a position, and started her career there in August 1989.
“It was the best experience ever,” she recalls. Her time at AEFA gave her two passions: using supply chains to improve businesses and communities and using her executive position to mentor younger leaders.
Supply-Chain Leadership for Better Communities
In the 1980s, AEFA (and parent company American Express) took a progressive position on using recycled papers and soy-based inks in their printing of internal and customer collateral. Harris immediately saw the significance of this opportunity to make a positive environmental impact. When her career took her to Accenture, and then Allstate, she extended her work to build socially responsible supply chains: reducing environmental impact, implementing supplier reviews to ensure they were compliant with laws and regulations, , and driving inclusion in the supply chain by supporting businesses with minority, women, veteran, disabled and LGBTQ ownership.
Allstate’s position as one of the US’s leading insurance companies allows them to direct suppliers to make more sustainable-driven choices. Recently, for example, Harris’s team negotiated their office furniture agreement with a well-known global supplier, incorporating sustainable product design and materials selection, and end-of-life solutions. Furniture purchased in 2019 is manufactured with 50% total recycled content and 62% recyclable materials. Harris is proud to report that deployed furniture during 2019 conserved the equivalent of approximately 25,000 gallons of gas.
“When I think about all my team does to make communities better, I feel really good,” says Harris. “Together with our suppliers and customers, we’re reducing carbon emissions, reducing plastics in the environment, and trying to help small diverse, women, LGBT, veteran and disabled owned businesses grow.”
Mentoring Rising Leaders
Harris’s work helps her connect with young leaders; mentoring college students and young professionals is a passion that, like her focus on procurement, also developed during the early years of her career. When Harris interviewed at AEFA, her interview panel was 10 Caucasian men. As an African-American woman, she recalls walking for blocks in Minneapolis without seeing anyone who looked like her. This environment could have felt isolating, but instead Harris felt connected as a result of mentoring from a VP at AEFA (who also graduated from the same alma mater). “She prepared me for the work I do today.”
As Harris climbed in the company, she began to do the same for others. “I want to find ways to bring practical reality to people of all races, colors, sexual orientations; to be a better employee, a better leader, a better contributor,” says Harris. “That kind of leadership radiates.”
Now, as a doctoral student in Benedictine University’s Ph.D. Program in Values-Driven Leadership, Harris is exploring ways she can take what she’s learned through a distinguished career, combine it with what she is learning in the doctoral classroom, and use it to help college students and young leaders find their paths forward.
“The doctoral program matters to me because, as employees and leaders, we need to think about culture, we need to do things with ethics at the core. You can go fast. You can grow big. But if you don’t do it in a responsible way, that’s not a good thing for anyone,” says Harris. The doctoral program’s curriculum helps leaders explore the values and relationships that can be leveraged to help businesses grow, and help communities and people develop.
“That’s the attraction to this program for me,” says Harris.