Cheryl Harris: A Shining Example of Giving Back

Cheryl Harris
Cheryl Harris

Chicagoan and South Side native Cheryl Harris has made it her life’s mission to give back. As the Senior Vice President of Sourcing & Procurement Solutions at Allstate, she is a representative for Quotes for Education, a program that has encouraged students, alumni and supporters of HBCUs around the country to assist future generations of students.

Over the last eight years, Allstate has raised over $1 million to keep the HBCU legacy alive through providing scholarship money, in partnership with the Tom Joyner Foundation.

With the dedication and support of HBCU alumni, they are committed to climbing toward their $250,000 goal this year.

A graduate of Florida A&M University (FAMU), Harris earned her bachelor’s degree in business, where she went on to work for American Express after graduation. She says none of her academic accomplishments would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the resources and guidance of Silas Purnell.

“My mother was 16 when she got pregnant with me. It was a blessing that we landed in Silas Purnell’s office. I think it was Stateway Gardens where I learned about HBCUs and applied to many schools,” she said. “I wanted to be a chemistry major, an archeologist or physicist. Through this process with Silas, I actually became familiar with FAMU.

She later received a scholarship. Being the first to go away to college was a fresh experience.

“My mother went to Olive-Harvey College as with my Dad. But I was the first one to go away and the first one to go to an HBCU. It was life-changing for me and for my siblings, really for the rest of my family because I became a role model and example.”

One of her first mentors was Betty Wilson, who at the time was the VP of Human Resources at American Express. She flew the fresh graduate to Minneapolis to interview for her first corporate job. The experience was eye-opening, being raised in a predominantly Black community and attending a historically Black college, she says Minneapolis was the whitest city she’s visited.

Being offered a position, she accepted and moved there. It was more than where she was geographically, it was about the experience of growth.

“Betty taught me and all the people she helped recruit from FAMU the importance of paying it forward, the importance of being role models to those less fortunate. She taught us the importance of authenticity and to take pride of all things that we do — inclusive of spreading the word to give back — when I got tapped on the shoulder to be the spokesperson for Quotes for Education.”

With Quotes for Education, the company partnered with the Tom Joyner Foundation to help award scholarships to students from all walks of life in pursuing a higher education and follow their dreams.

For a second year in a row, this year’s “student ambassador” was LaVerne Robertson Davis, a 63-year-old who went back to school at Dillard University to finish her education.

Rapper Common Helps Out

Chicago native and FAMU fellow alum Common was also tapped to speak on behalf of Allstate, reaching out to college students about the program.

This is the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) 2015 Summit and Salute. Kathy Anderson Photography
This is the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) 2015 Summit and Salute. Kathy Anderson Photography

The Common Ground Foundation and Allstate partnered on several occasions over the years. Allstate was the lead sponsor of this year’s Aahh Fest in September.

“It’s there, it’s sort of a celebration of all of the artistic things and the artistic legacy that we have in Chicago.”

Before becoming a full-time rap artist, Common was a student at FAMU but left after his first year to pursue his passion for music.

Harris feels this is why Common is an ideal fit for the Quotes for Education program. His educational path first led him to his passion for music.

“If you ever attended any university and you leave, you are automatically considered an alumnus. So, Common is an alumnus of FAMU. We’re very proud to claim him. The fact that his mother was an educator on the South Side of Chicago and his daughter attends Howard University is important,” said Harris. When you talk to Common and his team about the mission and purpose of Common Ground, it only makes sense that these two things would join forces.”

With the various commitment to community and service, including Allstate’s global sponsorship of WE Day, Harris feels her place at the leading insurance company is parallel with her obligation to give back. She serves on the FAMU board and chairs the school’s Industry Cluster Committee, where they work closely with the president to assist students with financial challenges to remain in school.

“We come together to help fill in gaps. It’s not about just getting students to HBCUs, it’s about keeping them in school. Allowing them to finish so that they can then pay it forward.”  Carrying the legacy of Silas Purnell and those before him, Harris reflects the baton she holds at Allstate.

“The endgame is how do we empower our youth to think beyond what they find in their classrooms and what they find in their communities? That’s what WE day is about — about bringing the world of possibilities to everyone. 

There’s a common purpose. There is so much good that comes out of it.”

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