Coming home again

After graduating from MIT, Harris pursued a career in design

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By Siobhan Neela-Stock

Contributing reporter

Despite graduating with an engineering degree, Quinnton Harris' heart wasn't in the industry.

"I didn't love sitting with the technology, making it work and then optimizing and iterating that technology," he said. 

Harris, 29, was more interested in the emotional connections people have with products and marketing. To explore this path, he enrolled in the Management Leadership for Tomorrow program in addition to his MIT coursework. 

"Its thesis was, we are going to increase the number of black and brown people in corporate America but specifically in corporate leadership positions," Harris said.

Today, Harris can boast an impressive track record at companies like Digitas, a global marketing and tech agency where he was promoted to a junior art director role after an internship at the company right out of MIT. He was also on the team that created the Taco Bell mobile app, which he said was the first time customers at a major fast food chain could order before entering the store. 

Harris' magnetism to the arts and storytelling shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows his family. His mom was a singer and a seamstress.  

His parents didn't stay together long. Harris, along with his twin brother and older brother, were raised by their mother and grandmother, who lived with them.  

"He faced some serious hardships in his life, so we didn't see him as much," Harris said of his father. 

Seven years Harris' senior, his older brother stepped in to fill his father's shoes, acting as a role model for the young man. 

"He ended up becoming an artist as well," Harris said. 

In elementary school, Harris discovered he had an affinity for math and science. While at Proviso East High School, he participated in its honors program. Glenn Lid, a chemistry teacher, was one of the first teachers at the high school to foster Harris' intellectual proclivity.  

Lid referred him to MIT's Minority Introduction to Engineering, and Science summer program. This six-week curriculum gives participants an idea of what life at MIT is like, Harris said. 

"It was also used a way to expose high-achieving minority talent to various different engineering disciplines," he said. 

Prior to this program, Harris had never been to the East Coast or even traveled alone. 

"It was all these really new experiences that I've had…and they were all indebted to Mr. Lid as someone who really saw something different about me," Harris said. 

In addition to Lid, Harris developed close relationships with his math, science, and art teachers. 

Harris' family was supportive of his endeavors but couldn't offer him much advice as they hadn't ventured very far out of Maywood. 

"My family was very local in terms of what they understood about life," Harris said. 

The only exception was his older brother, along with Harris' teachers, who knew staying in Maywood wasn't the best option for his future. 

"I'm not saying that Maywood was a bad place…it wasn't the safest, it wasn't the richest place but for what they saw in me, they said you probably won't be able to get what you need here," Harris said. 

Two days after Harris graduated from high school, his grandmother died. 

"That last year of high school was kind of tough…when I came back from the summer program at MIT I found out she had cancer," he said.

Despite dealing with his grandmother's death, Harris had made a promise to himself early on in high school to attend college cost free and he stuck with it while also managing his grief.

"Our family was very blue collar, really couldn't afford college in the first place," Harris said. 

Harris said he initially applied to five universities and several scholarships.

"I went to this after-school program, they saw my transcripts and they're like 'Yo, why are you only applying to five schools?' I'm like, cause I only want to go to five schools," Harris said. 

He reconsidered after they told him that any university in the country would admit him based on his grades. Harris applied to about 20 universities.  

The majority of the schools he applied to accepted him, several were Ivy League universities, but Harris had his heart set on MIT.

He was a Gates Millennium Scholar, which allowed him to attend MIT free of charge. Harris had already received a financial aid package from MIT that covered 80 percent of his attendance costs. The Gates scholarship covered the remainder. 

"That was a game changer. I remember putting my mind to it, like I'm going to do this and it happened. I couldn't even believe that it happened," Harris said. 

But Harris says his support system was the real game changer.  

"They would see this level of brilliance in me and part of it wasn't like because of what I've done, it was just my personality, my demeanor. I'm a very giving person, very open person," Harris said. 

The Proviso East graduate will soon need to lean on his support system once again. In the beginning of April, Harris quit his job as the first Creative Director at Blavity, a tech company focused on creating content by and for black millennials. 

Harris plans to spend the next three months reconnecting with himself. He plans to visit Maywood, where he has not lived since he was a teen. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife of two years. 

"[During high school] I realized I needed to go away to really find myself and have experiences that would inform more of who I am," Harris said. "I think now it's less of trying to find myself in these places but to kind of rediscover myself in the places that I had already been." 

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