Andrea Harris, who helped to start a Durham-based nonprofit that helped to develop thousands of businesses owned by women and people of color across the state, passed away Wednesday morning.

She was 72.

A spokeswoman with the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development, which Harris cofounded in 1986, confirmed her death. Institute president Kevin J. Price told the INDY that Harris did not have a lengthy illness, but he declined to disclose her cause of death.

Price described Harris as a selfless person who cared for others and said her death signals the passing of the old guard to a younger generation of economic activists. Part of Harris’s legacy was generating over $1 billion in awards to minority businesses, which in turn led to homeownership and enabled entrepreneurs to take care of their families. 

“The greatest legacy Andrea left us is a compounded legacy,” Price said. “What I mean by that are the dividends that will be paid generations from now.”

Tributes in praise of Harris’s activism and support for women entrepreneurs appeared on social media platforms soon after news of her passing became public.

Raleigh native Kelli London said Harris was not afraid to speak out about things she felt passionate about. 

“She was little but fierce,” London wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s what I loved about her the most. Her love for her community and social activism is what made her who she was.”

A short biography written by Mary Tyler March in the June 2015 edition of the state’s black heritage calendar noted that Harris’s life was dedicated to overcoming barriers to economic growth and opportunity.

Harris grew up in Henderson during the heart of the civil rights movement. After graduating from Bennett College, she chose to become a community organizer rather than attend graduate school.

“I decided to be a part of saving the world,” Harris told March. “I thought I was invincible.”

Two years after graduating from college, Harris, then 23, was named executive director of a community action agency in her hometown. She was the youngest community agency director in the nation, supervising 120 full-time employees and helping fight poverty across three rural communities.

The biography reported that Harris directed the community action agency for six years before moving into another role: representing lower-income older adults throughout the Southeast and in Washington through the regional Office of Community Services. 

“Her work helped the participation levels of minority and elderly in conferences on national aging policy more than ten-fold,” March wrote.

In 1986, Harris and two colleagues co-founded the groundbreaking N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development. The nonprofit has been instrumental in the exponential increase of businesses owned by women and people of color. 

The Institute has been located for the past 34 years in the six-story, Neoclassical Revival building that formerly housed the NC Mutual Insurance Company and Mechanics & Farmers Bank when the district was known as Black Wall Street.

Price said Harris was well aware of the district’s economic legacy for African Americans.

“That’s why we’re on Parrish Street,” he said.

“There were then fewer than 30,000 minority businesses in North Carolina; today, there are more than 132,000,” March wrote in the brief biography.

The Institute is also home to the Women’s Business Center of N.C.

In 2015, Harris said that the Institute’s work was founded on the belief that home- and business-ownership are the two most effective means for building economic assets and expanded access to opportunities.

Words the diminutive community leader spoke five years ago still resonate. 

“Investing in populations with limited net worth is far less costly than the negative social consequences of economic isolation,” she said. “We must work towards widely shared prosperity as an economic imperative.”  

Royster-Davis Funeral Service in Henderson is handling Harris’s funeral arrangements, which were incomplete on Wednesday afternoon.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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