DeRetta Cole | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

An Expertise in People Capital

By Karen Rosen

DeRetta Cole did not have to look far to find source material for her doctoral dissertation:  “Courage Under Fire: How Black Women Have Learned to Survive in Corporate America.”

“I ended up being a participant in my study,” says Cole, who joined First Data as Vice President, Human Resources; Financial Services in March.

She drew from her experiences as a leader, working as an executive at three major corporations – ADP, Ernst & Young (now EY) and Turner Broadcasting System -- while researching and writing the thesis from 2003 until 2010.

Cole also interviewed other women who examined their own reasons for persevering.

“I tell people all the time that I had to graduate, so I had to narrow it down,” Cole says. ”What I really focus on now is women in leadership, period -- just the challenges and the different opportunities that we face as women being leaders in any capacity.”

At First Data, Cole provides consultation on human capital and organizational development strategies for about 5,000 colleagues within the Financial Services Organization and Consumer & Network Services.

She said she was intrigued by the opportunity to work with Barry McCarthy, then president of Financial Services, whose vision was to make his HR executive a business partner.

“I’ve always viewed myself not necessarily as an HR person,” Cole says, “but as a business person with an expertise in people capital.”

With Atlanta as a  worldwide hub for transaction processing, Cole seeks to recruit and retain top talent.

“It is not hard to attract people to First Data at this point in time because we have moved from being just a transaction processor to being a solutions provider,” Cole says. “We are still looking for people that are very interested in innovation and in being with a company that is on the leading edge and making differences and changes within the industry.”

“Knowing that we are part of every transaction, both on the merchant side and the issuing side, I think people just automatically are like, ‘OK, I get it and I want to be a part of that,’” Cole says. “First Data sells itself. “As opposed to leaning in, you’re part of it.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Cole never envisioned being part of the payments industry. She was on the debate team and thought she’d attend a Midwestern university and become an attorney. Instead, the family moved to Georgia before her senior year at Douglas County High School.

Cole went on to the University of Georgia and graduated with a degree in hotel/restaurant management. An internship at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta would later become pivotal in her career. “I really enjoyed that particular industry,” Cole says.

She joined PepsiCo in the management training program, working in the restaurant division that later became Yum! Brands. Cole rotated through positions within the Taco Bell group, then began recruiting for one of the new restaurant divisions, Hot ‘n Now, opening in the Carolinas.

She loved the HR aspect of the job, but knew her education was not complete. Cole earned an MBA in marketing at Clark Atlanta University and interned in HR with United Technologies. She returned to Yum! Brands under the Pizza Hit division and was the HR leader for that group, supporting restaurants from Atlanta to Florida. Cole then had a short stint as capability manager at, losing her position when it was bought out by the ill-fated Webvan eight months later.

“That’s one of those things where you look around and you’re like, ‘What just happened?’ Cole says. “But it all worked out for the better because I ended up going to ADP, which was a huge, tremendous work experience.” Her various roles in a little over six years at ADP included Human Resource Manager, Human Resource Director and Diversity Director. Cole was instrumental in putting together a diversity strategy for National Account Services that led to ADP looking at a strategy for the entire company.

Yet even with her hands full as a mom and business executive, Cole still harbored a thirst for learning. “I knew when I graduated with my master’s that I wanted to go back and get my doctorate,” Cole says. “I didn’t know if it was going to get my JD and practice law; I also thought about psychology and about a PhD.” She consulted with two employment lawyers she knew through her HR work who told her in no uncertain terms that she was not destined to be an attorney. They said her creativity and interest in organizational effectiveness did not mesh well with a future in law.

So Cole decided to pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy in Adult Education at the University of Georgia.  She also knew the PhD would enable her to write research and teach. “It’s so funny because I say to people all the time that I did not go back to get my doctorate so that I could become something in corporate,” Cole says. “My vision of getting that doctorate was very personal. It was all around having the opportunity to be a lifelong learner because I love to learn. I also love to teach, but I feel like I’m learning more than teaching.”

Cole’s grandmother and both parents hold degrees in education, “so although I was fighting it kicking and screaming not to follow that,” she says, “I ended up doing that and have been very thankful for the journey that it took me through.” During her doctoral interview process, Cole said one of the UGA professors, Dr. Juanita Johnson-Bailey “indicated to me this program will change your life. I was like, ‘Are you kidding, it’s just school. I’ve done this, right?” Not quite. During the seven years in the program, Cole made three career moves, got divorced and lost her grandmother, who had been very instrumental in her life. “It’s one of those things where life is going on while you’re still going through this process,” she says. “Although I had people that said I probably wouldn’t, I always knew that I would finish.”

While she was at ADP, Cole received one of the phone calls which have since shaped her career. Larry Decuir, who had hired her at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta years before, saw her distinctive name – Cole is named after her father DeRay -- and remembered her. He wanted her to come to Ernst & Young and work on diversity. Cole supported the Southeast region for EY, which also included the Caribbean at the time. She focused on inclusiveness and flexibility, “making sure they were developing women and people of color to partnership.”

On her watch, Ernst & Young held its first diversity leadership conference specific to the Southeast with the support of the Diversity Council Executive Sponsors; Malcomb Coley, Office Managing Partner (Charlotte) and Oscar Suarez, Partner; Florida Market Leader.

While Cole says her work in the field helped with her thesis, “Diversity is not where I ever wanted to be pigeonholed. I felt like I could be so much more impactful if I was in a business role and I could bring diversity along with it. That’s because I’m in the right room and having the right conversation and I can bring up the right things as it relates to diversity and inclusion.”

Another phone call brought Cole to Turner, where she stayed for six years. She began by supporting the newly appointed CFO John Kampfe as HR director. During Cole’s tenure, she supported finance and accounting, properties, security, legal and technology.“ I did pretty much all of the back office which supports the organization,” says Cole, who was promoted to Vice President of Human Resources supporting Global Technology Operations. She introduced different ways to coach Turner’s executive leadership and also helped implement the “100 Technology Hires in 100 Days” initiative.

Cole even found time to become an adjunct professor at Clark Atlanta University for two years. She taught professional leadership development, under the guidance of Dr. Dennis Kimbro in the business school to freshmen and sophomores. “It was the opportunity to be able to pour into others,” she says. “It was a tremendous experience and I hope to do it again.”

Last year Cole had a four-month stint in Hong Kong to work on bringing organizational effectiveness where the business model had changed. Cole says her time in the Asia-Pacific region gave her a much more global view. “Although I have supported global organizations for a very long time, to have lived there and to have been a part of it and be entrenched in the culture of not only the organization, but of the city and the country, made a huge difference,” she says.

“This is why I love learning. Learning just opens up things and views that you would have never had if you hadn’t gotten that exposure.” Cole says there is never a finish line with organizational effectiveness. “It’s always evolving,” she says. “If you have an understanding of both the growth of the organization and the trajectory of the organization, making sure you’ve got people in the right place to help with that growth is what makes a difference.”

Cole says what has made a difference in her career are the mentors and sponsors who have guided her. She is proud that she has been able to do the same for others. “The one accomplishment that’s always been important to me is hopefully I have given at least one person that back,” Cole says. She is still working on writing, researching and publishing. She is currently looking at “women leaders as bullies and how we need to create communities with each other.” She hopes to publish by next spring.

Cole is also using her dissertation as a springboard to another project. “The women that spoke to me each wrote a letter to a young black professional,” she says, “and I want to take that and create a book out of that.” Cole, who was nominated for The Pegasus Award for excellence in Human Resources, is a popular keynote speaker. Her next event is the Marcus Evans HR Summit taking place in January 2015 in Las Vegas. “My topic is going to be the HR business partner as an evolving role,” she says. “I talk a lot about HR leaders being trusted advisors.”

As part of the International Leadership Association, Cole is chair-elect for the leadership development group and will take the reins next year in Barcelona. She is also a board member of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta and member of the Business Education Council for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Cole lives in Buford, Georgia, with her two sons, ages 16 and 14, and enjoys traveling, particularly to Napa, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.

In her daily life, Cole follows a personal motto:  “Always be yourself and follow your true north- everyone appreciates authenticity.” “You wake up with yourself every morning, so every decision that I make is a decision that I have to be comfortable with regardless of what’s going on around me,” she explains.  “And laughter is always very important because nothing is ever that serious.”


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