James Cottrell ’77 speaks on his contributions to diversifying the uniform field of finance


James Cottrell ’77 uses his experiences from around the world in his diversity pursuits. (Photo courtesy of Holland & Knight)

By Lucie Lagodich, Editor-in-Chief

HoThe finance industry is one of the least diverse industries in the United States. James Cottrell ’77 has been fighting the imbalance since his graduation, long before the Securities and Exchange Commission approved a requirement for companies to hit certain diversity targets this past April, according to MIT.

Last Tuesday, Cottrell spoke over Zoom on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce and his personal efforts to increase DEI throughout his career.

In April 1977, Cottrell decided to pursue an MBA in finance and accounting at New York University.

“[The program] convinced us that we had skill sets that brought this diversity of thought. That brought a different way of looking at problems,” Cottrell said.

With majors ranging from engineers to physical education, Cottrell explained that diverse thought and backgrounds was an important aspect of this program.

“We go into the class, and they’re teaching you how to be an auditor, and…the Dean comes in, a woman,” Cottrell said. “At the time 1977, you have to understand how big a deal it was that there was a partner who was a woman that was coming in to talk to us. We were supposed to be this diversity of thought, so it made an impact. The fact that I can still remember that forty-four years later is a big deal.”

After graduating, Cottrell went on to live in China and Hong Kong for 11 years, London for four years, Tokyo for two years and Amsterdam for a year.

“[In the early 90s] I had really decided how I could focus on what diversity would mean and how it was going to be impacting on me because I was living in different parts of the world, I was listening to different people,” Cottrell said.

In 1993, Cottrell joined Deloitte, an industry-leading multinational professional services network, around the time the company began to focus on increasing diversity among its ranks. By the time he left, he was the chief ethics, integrity and governance matters officer.

“Just before I left, I started a program that embraced bringing women into more senior levels of Deloitte Touche,” Cottrell said. “A lot of people said they disagreed with the quotas, but fifty-nine percent of the staff in our organization were female, and less than four percent were partners. I wasn’t the only one that was concerned about it, but I was the one that was banging on the tables.”

Another program Cottrell helped start was an initiative to bring more people of color to the company.

“Everybody has to be qualified, but also sometimes you have to reach out and give people the opportunity to be qualified. You got to reach out sometimes and provide the background for people to be able to have different kinds of experiences, to allow them to be able to contribute,” Cottrell said.

For the past four years, Cottrell has worked for the United Nations and as director of the global law firm Holland & Knight, where he continues to pursue DEI.

“I’m still doing the work for the UN, that’s all my humanitarian work and the pro bono,” Cottrell said. “I get the opportunity to have a platform to do the other things that I enjoy doing. And it all comes back to a decision I made in April of 1977 with a liberal arts background to go and do things a little differently.”