Books · Money & Careers

La’Wana Harris, A Woman Making A Difference

Following the brutal murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests began on May 26 in Minneapolis and quickly spread across the country. To date, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 each day. The New York Times has called it the largest movement in the history of the United States.

Companies quickly realized that they had to take a stand, publishing earnest letters from CEOs, running supportive advertising, and donating to affiliated causes. But the lack of equal opportunity in corporate America is not a problem that can be solved with a 30-second ad or a P.R. campaign. Like poverty and police violence, it goes back generations and it’s systemic. Executives who are committed to meaningful and lasting change need guidance and coaching. 

And one of the people they can turn to is La’Wana Harris.

Harris is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist, an ICF (International Coach Federation) credentialed coach, and a global leadership development professional who relentlessly pursues equity, justice, and belonging. Her most recent book, Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias has been praised for its practical approach to recognizing unconscious bias, encouraging tough conversations, building allyship, and putting privilege and power to work for genuine inclusion and diversity. 

In the book’s preface, she explains, “I don’t have all the answers, but I will be part of the solution by offering what I’ve learned about creating inclusion in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, with the hope that change will arrive more easily and swiftly for the next generation.

“The case has long been made for D&I (Diversity and Inclusion). Our heads are convinced. What we need to do now is work on our hearts to get them in the right, welcoming place and then use our hands to start creating change. My heart-and-hands approach is based on provoking meaningful and often uncomfortable self-reflection and brutally honest conversations that lead to courageous action. It is the hard, awkward, and necessary work that needs to be done toward establishing environments in which every individual is committed to being an agent of change within their sphere of influence. It is how we move beyond D&I lip service.”

Harris is quick to point out that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not what she does. It’s who she is.  

When I spoke with her recently, I began by asking about her early days in the business world. She insisted that we go back further and told me about her childhood.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother; my grandmother was a social justice champion and served the community all of her life. I remember a pivotal moment in my formative years with her. We were in rural North Carolina and we only had one stoplight in the town — it wasn’t just a saying, we literally only had one. We didn’t have a community center, so she decided that she was going to do something about all the kids that didn’t have anything to do. She bought an empty cargo van and my uncle got some school bus seats out of a salvage yard. He bolted the seats down in the van and I painted on the side of the van the name of our church. And that was the beginning of our social justice/community center/vacation bible school … you name it … ministry. We would go around and pick up children in the neighborhood. I would make corn beef hash and egg salad sandwiches, and we would serve the kids. Some of them didn’t really have food at home. My grandmother — who was known as Miss Mildred — was not a rich woman; she didn’t have a lot. But she felt that everyone deserves to have the best. She worked as domestic help in really rich homes for very wealthy people. She saw how good things could be, so she wanted to bring bits and pieces of that to her community. My passion grew out of that. When people talk about diversity and inclusion, they usually think about corporate life, how do you make an organization diverse. But, for me, I’ve always had dual roles in my life — there’s been the social justice, service of community from ever since I can remember and then I was fortunate enough to bring that into the workplace.”

As a teenager, Harris began serving as a Christian missionary and she continues that work today. She frequently travels to Haiti, the first independent, post-colonial, black-led nation in the world, and the site of the only successful black slave revolt in history. Her numerous trips have focused on providing mobile medical clinics, building orphanages, children’s ministry, evangelism, and public health education. Her mission work also includes domestic community revitalization and social justice projects.

As a young woman, Harris wanted to become a doctor and serve in an under-developed country. A high school romance, marriage, and three children interrupted those plans, and after going back to school to complete her degree, she eventually became a radiology nurse. That work included staffing mobile health clinics to provide mammograms for low-income Latina and Black women.

Through her nursing connections, she moved into the business world, working for a large multinational pharma and health company. It was at times a difficult transition. In fact, she describes herself as ‘a bull in a china shop.’ “I didn’t know about politics,” she explains, “I didn’t know that people would lie to your face. I didn’t know that people could be so competitive, that you could share what you’re working on and someone else would take credit for it. I was as naive as they come. I went in thinking that we’re all equal, that we’re all working towards providing the greater good for patients.” 

Harris experienced some ugly instances of racism. One manager threatened to “squash her like a bug.” Another told her some people were there because they did a good job; but she was only there because she filled a corporate quota. She is also familiar with the subtler forms of discrimination that many marginalized group’s experience: vagueries like, “You just don’t fit the culture here.” Harris has a term for people who stay in these situations; she calls them “the working wounded.” Staying the course in her early corporate jobs (“I had three children to feed; I needed that job to survive”), she eventually became a team leader and diversity ambassador.

“But, I did learn,” she remembers, “very painfully, that as a black woman in corporate America, there are limitations others will put on you. I found myself up against the angry black woman syndrome because I very quickly lost my optimism.”

When you speak with La’Wana — and not only have I done so one-on-one, but I also sat in on a conference call she led with a global company’s executive board — “angry” is probably the last word you would use to describe her. Two words you will hear Harris speak over and over are “hope” and “truth.” Part of her success working with historically white, male corporate leaders is that she doesn’t make accusations or exclude people in positions of privilege and power. Her philosophy about inclusivity is itself inclusive. She encourages the teams she works with to “welcome people in, not call people out.” 

In her personal life, Harris has found another rewarding way to promote diversity and inclusion. When her first grandchild, Jaden Israel, was born, she was disheartened to find so few children’s books with heroes who looked like him. So she did what anyone with boundless energy and passion would do; she wrote some. The books include characters of color, insights about black history, and stories that foster self-awareness and self-confidence. They’ve also made Jaden, who’s five years old now, a bit of a celebrity at his elementary school and the local library. One of Harris’s goals is to gift him her publishing business when he turns eighteen, tackling another significant barrier to true racial equity: inherited wealth.

Our conversation ended back at its beginning, with a reference to Harris’s grandmother. “My diversity and inclusion journey started with a legacy of servant leadership passed on from my grandmother. Now I am a grandmother seeking to pass along a legacy of love to my grandson and others. It’s one of my favorite quotes from my grandmother . . . ” 

A life well spent is one that is lived in service to others.” — Mildred Little.

To learn more about La’Wana Harris, you can visit her website: 

If you’d like to sample her diversity, equity, and inclusion coaching, you can watch a replay of her program “Exploring Radical Truth and Transformative Power.”

To purchase her new book, Diversity Beyond Lip Service, or any of her other titles, visit



Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.