By Jeff Ayres
Most 16-year-olds haven’t yet figured out what type of career they want after finishing school. Andrell Harris was no different, but he at least could call himself a business owner at that age.
The opportunity presented itself in the form of a gumball machine in a friend’s garage. He soon was stocking the devices in dozens of grocery stores long before finishing college. Now 28, Harris, currently living in Alexandria, Va., and a real estate and stock-market investor, has donated $55,555.55 toward the creation of a scholarship in his name at Jackson State University’s College of Business.
The amount is an homage to the fifth anniversary of Harris’ graduation from JSU with a bachelor’s degree in finance in 2008. The scholarship initiative was first announced last fall.
“I saw a lot of students who had to leave school simply because they couldn’t afford it,” the Terry High School graduate said. “For me, it was imperative to show students that they can go out and make a dynamic impact.”
He’s keeping the scholarship criteria simple — at least a 3.0 grade- point average, demonstrated financial hardship and residency in Mississippi. He said he remembered the Byzantine requirements of many scholarships he pursued in his student days. “I hated reading them,” he said, preferring something more straightforward.
JSU welcomes every opportunity to add new scholarships, but this one is especially meaningful because it comes from a young alumnus, said David Hoard, the university’s vice president for institutional advancement.
“His reputation preceded him,” Hoard said. “He was a go-getter when he was here on campus. Scholarships (like Harris’) are critical to the mission of a university.” Harris says he plans to visit Jackson often to mentor business students.
While many people Harris’ age are still establishing themselves professionally, Harris hasn’t taken the usual route to where he is now.
At 16, he and friend Jason Owens happened upon a gumball machine in the Owens family’s garage. Sensing potential, the two paid $75 for the machine and took it to the grocery store where Harris worked after school. People plunked change into the machine in droves. Harris joked that the store manager wanted a cut of the proceeds.
Just two years later, Harris Vending Services had gumball machines in 20 stores and eventually 30 more statewide. The business has since been sold, but the experience proved crucial in Harris’ development. By the time he was a junior in college, he was trading stocks. He says JSU’s instructors gave him the one-on-one attention he wouldn’t have found at other schools, citing one professor who worked with him after classes on sound stock-market investing.
“They gave me a lot of resources, intellectual property, for me to do the things I’m doing now,” Harris said.
While in school, Harris enlisted in the Mississippi Army National Guard and was commissioned as an Army Reserve intelligence officer after graduation. He landed jobs with Morgan Stanley and Northrop Grumman before beginning a nine-month stint in Iraq in 2010 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He later returned there as an intelligence analyst working for a private contractor.
Since returning to the U.S. last year, Harris has focused on real estate, buying tracts of land everywhere from Byram to Florida’s beaches. He serves on the board of the JSU Foundation, the school’s economic development branch.
Hoard says the school is making a concerted effort to keep more young alumni like Harris involved with the school. JSU has launched “Alumni In Motion,” in which graduates under the age of 30 donate at least $1,000 to the school. Harris, Hoard said, also shows students they can stake their own path from an early age and realize success.
“It’s great to have him as an example for other students to follow.”