Qadira Harris, Senior Director of Global Responsibility at Matterport, shares the inspiring story of her journey to become a passionate, resilient, and optimistic servant leader.
Avenue Code: Tell us about your personal career path. What was the passion that drove you to pursue a career in philanthropy?
Qadira Harris: My degrees are in Journalism and Mass Communication. I originally thought I would be a TV reporter or work for a publication like Essence or People Magazine, but neither of these career paths panned out. Instead, I ended up working in sales at a newspaper. I met a gentleman there who was leading community relations, and I was fascinated by his job since he got to represent the company while giving back to the community.
At the time, I was searching for one simple thing: a job that aligned with my personal passion for serving other people. So I secured an informational interview with him and immediately began engineering my path to the role I have now: leading social responsibility efforts for a global tech company.
I started by working for a number of local and national non-profit organizations and then transitioned to corporate philanthropy leading volunteerism, grant-making, place-based work, global disaster relief, and global awareness campaigns. I’ve had a well-rounded experience in the field, and it’s been encouraging to watch how companies have shifted their focus to think about systems change. That’s what I enjoy most about the work I’m doing today: I’m attempting to rewire entire systems.
And my degrees in journalism and communication haven’t been entirely wasted! I’ve freelanced for various publications, and it’s a little known fact that I even ran a blog on dating and relationships for a while (under a pseudonym!). I mention this because people need to know that it’s ok to go to school for one thing and end up doing something totally different or try different jobs along the way. We don’t always have to know what we’re going to do in life from day one. It’s okay to think of your career as more of a jungle gym than a straight line.
AC: It’s refreshing to hear a leader say their career sprang from a desire to be of service. Where did that desire originate?
QH: I get a little emotional when I think about this. It comes from my family, specifically my grandmother. She was the one person I wanted to be like: she had humble beginnings and was never wealthy, but she was known for giving back to other people. She lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment, but whatever she had, she shared. Her house was the place you could go if you needed a meal or if you just needed a place to rest. Watching her life of service inspired me more than anyone else.
To be totally transparent, there were times in my life when I would be eating at a food pantry, and then six months later I’d give back by serving at that same food pantry.
AC: It strikes me that you were very strategic and intentional about engineering your career path as soon as you saw an opportunity to be of service. What advice would you give to professionals who, like you, have to grow their careers without access to the resources that privilege affords, such as a well-connected network?
QH: The first thing I’ll admit is that it’s hard. There’s a false idea of meritocracy in the workplace, but the truth is that climbing the ladder is absolutely about hard work and talent, but it’s also about who you know, who likes you and who’s speaking up for you when you’re not in the room. Mentors and sponsors are highly valuable, and unfortunately, not everybody has access to these types of resources or relationships. I can admit I’ve never had a traditional mentor or sponsor.
Don’t get me wrong–there were people who imparted wisdom to me when I asked for it, but Sometimes you don’t even know the questions to ask. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. So having said that, my first piece of advice is that you must take action.You must take responsibility for your own career. You must make the first move even if you don’t know all the steps that will follow.
One way to do this in today’s environment is to make social media work for you. I reach out to people whose posts inspire me and invite them to grab a virtual coffee. Thirty minutes may be too much to ask for, but most people are willing to set aside fifteen minutes. Social media allows you to learn from people you may never meet, but you have to put yourself out there and be proactive.
The other thing that’s really important to understand is that you don’t have to have your whole life figured out. Society tells us that we need to have reached certain benchmarks at certain ages, that we need to have graduated from college at twenty-two and launched a career in our chosen field immediately after. But I actually think it’s more important to focus on soft skills like critical thinking, building relationships and setting healthy boundaries. These are the skills that will serve you no matter what you decide to pursue.
Wherever you end up, trust your gut. Just because someone has a bigger title, I promise it doesn’t mean they’re smarter. You were hired for a reason. So speak up even if your voice shakes.
Most of us are familiar with the saying, “When you reach the top, send the elevator back down.” I’d add: “Send it back down with an instruction manual.” There are so many unspoken rules within the working world in general, and many people don’t get ahead as quickly or as smoothly simply because they don’t know that putting your head down and doing the work is the bare minimum for success.
AC: For better or worse, equity, D&I, and social responsibility have become buzzwords. What have you learned, and what would you like to share with others in similar roles, about how to ensure these initiatives translate into concrete actions that genuinely create impact?
QH: No matter where you turn over the last eighteen months, everyone is committed to these words. But the outward sign of true commitment is usually that those with power and privilege become actively uncomfortable with the way things are and take action. Discomfort is important because it means that instead of pointing the finger elsewhere, we’re assuming responsibility.
I like to remind people that we’re actually operating within a system that isn’t broken–it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. Being uncomfortable is what pushes us to acknowledge the changes that need to be made. Unfortunately, in many D&I spaces, it’s acceptable to keep kicking the can down the road and making excuses about why nothing has changed. That’s why real accountability is needed.
To accomplish anything, we have to actually listen to impacted communities and make sure they are at the table in decision-making capacities. We need to be examining who’s in leadership and how we can shift to share power so that those who are excluded can be included. And we also need to remember that many of these conversations are not new–people have been talking about equity and equality for centuries.
My work is challenging because it requires accountability, systems awareness, and long-term commitment. There are days when it’s really hard and I want to hide under my desk, but then something like a conversation with an employee who’s passionate about what we’re doing will enable me to rise up again like a plant reaching for sunlight.
AC: How would you describe your leadership style?
QH: I’m a direct communicator. I like to outline goals and expectations, but I also like to give people autonomy. I actually encourage mistakes because it means you’re learning. I’m excited about my employees’ careers, and I genuinely want to help them get to where they want to be. I never want people to be shy about saying, “I want your job” or “I want to be CEO.” My response is, “Great, let’s figure out how to get you there.”
I truly believe that the people around me are great, and because of this, I have high expectations that each person on my team pursues their full potential, whatever that may look like. When it’s all said and done, I want to leave people and places better than when I first arrived.
AC: What keeps you up at night, whether it's a problem you're interested in solving or an idea you want to try?
QH: I struggle to step away from work when the day is done because I believe that the systems I’m trying to change and the people I’m trying to help need me. It’s easy to beat myself up over not moving fast enough. We all know that change comes slowly, but I am impatient.
In my role at Matterport, I have a very exciting opportunity because my team and I are literally building something from the ground up. There are so many ways in which we can be a force for good. My current focus is on narrowing down where we can most effectively leverage our resources and key businesses strengths. Then we’re going all in.
AC: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you working on that you just can't stop sharing your passion for?
QH: Even though my work is hard, I'm truly optimistic that change is possible. If you’re in this space for the right reasons, if you have the grit and the stamina, and if you understand your “why,” you’ll be eager to go to work each day.
AC: Where do you find your optimism?
QH: My optimism comes from my belief that at our core, humans really do want many of the same things. We all want to be able to provide for our families, we want to go outside and breathe the fresh air, we want love, we want respect and we want to feel a sense of peace. Even when I have assumed that the person across the table from me is not on my side because we disagree on policy and method, a little conversation reveals that what we want is, at a core level, the same. That’s what makes me optimistic.
AC: What are some of your favorite ways to feed your mind?
QH: For me, walking into a bookstore feels like falling in love–I literally get butterflies! I can still remember my mother taking me to the book mobile as a child. I still read a lot today. I’m old school, so I need to hold a book in my hands and feel the pages. Currently, I’m reading The Daily Laws by Robert Greene, but Langston Hughes is my all-time favorite writer.
I also enjoy brunches and group chats with my girlfriends. Sure, we may sometimes talk about reality TV shows, but most of the time our conversations revolve around our futures, what’s going on in the world, or a news item that sparks a discussion, all of which helps shape my perspectives.
AC: What was your biggest "Aha!" moment in the last 6 months?
QH: There are no shortcuts to greatness. You’ve got to put in the work. So often we compare ourselves to others who seem to accomplish their goals faster and more easily, and we want someone else to expedite the process for us. But ultimately, we have to put in our own work.
AC: What is the legacy you're creating? What do you want to be remembered for?
QH: That I did my best with what I had, that I left people better than I found them, and that I lived beyond myself, always reaching back to pull someone else up.
I also want to be remembered as someone who balanced giving and serving others with self-care and setting healthy boundaries. I firmly believe that you shouldn’t deplete yourself for the sake of others, because then you’re no good for anyone else.
Finally, I would like for people to remember that despite everything life threw at me, I was able, even in my darkest moments, to somehow see the slightest bit of light, and that light gave me the ability to get up and keep going, and to do so with grace, class, and humor.
AC: I can’t speak for the whole world, but that is certainly what I will remember about you. It’s been a privilege to talk to you today and to hear your story, Qadira!
Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.