Carlos Cotto: Higher (and higher) Education

Once a high school dropout, this alumnus now has his eye on a doctorate while touting the value of learning to the Latin-American community.

Carlos Cotto of BNY Mellon in Wilmington, Delaware | Photo by Susan Gregg

When he was 16, Carlos Cotto dropped out of Newark (Del.) High School midway through what he ruefully calls “my second attempt at 10th grade.”

To his adolescent mind, the decision made perfect sense. “I was working part-time in the warehouse at Sears in the winter,” Cotto says, “and in the summer I did construction work, and I was learning a lot about the business. So I figured, why do I need school?”

For a few years, it seemed like a good move. Intelligent and hard-working, Cotto went into the construction trade full-time and eventually was promoted to project manager. In 1993, at 21, he was married and living in a Newark apartment with his wife and 6-month-old son. His wages totaled about $35,000 a year — not exactly fat city, but enough for him and his young family.

Then he got sick.

“I began feeling ill about a month before my wedding,” he says, “but I went to work every day — if you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid, and I didn’t have medical benefits.” He gradually got worse, and was finally diagnosed with pneumonia. He spent three weeks in the hospital, then six weeks recuperating at home. His wife’s part-time job was their only income.

The illness left Cotto with a lot of time to think, and his mind drifted back to his childhood. He grew up in Newark with an older brother and younger sister. They were raised by their single mother, who had come to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was six months pregnant with Carlos. She was on disability throughout his childhood, and the family lived in Section 8 housing, moving frequently.

He says his mother did the best she could by him and his siblings. “We lived below the poverty line, but we were always her priority. We never went hungry and we always had a roof over our heads.”

But when it came to education, her life experiences and her upbringing conspired to set a low bar for her children. “She told me to get my high school diploma, but to forget about college,” Cotto says. “She would say, ‘college isn’t for people like us.’”

Fortunately, he also remembered some much more positive advice. “When I dropped out of school I moved in with a friend,” he says, “and his mother always encouraged me to go back to school and to think about college. I lived with them for a while, doing chores, paying rent, and she became like a second mother to me. We’re still very close.”

Cotto took the advice of his “second mother,” and began a journey in education that continues today; one in which Wilmington University has played a large part. What’s more, he’s inspiring others in the Hispanic community to follow his path.

“I grew up some while I was sick,” Cotto says. One of his first grown-up decisions was to get a two-year associate degree in Business Administration. With some tuition assistance, he enrolled at the Wilmington campus of Delaware Technical and Community College. Meanwhile, he held down a full-time job in construction. “My idea was to start my own construction company,” he says. “I knew everything about the business, inside and out.”

But soon after starting classes at Del Tech, he had a couple of revelations that altered his career plans. The first came in the classroom. “I discovered I had a talent for accounting,” he says. “I would be the first one done with tests, and I was always one of just one or two people who got A’s on the tests.”

And then he had an on-the-job revelation. With the hint of a smile, he says, “I noticed that there was almost no one over 40 working in construction.”

Not only did the work seem to be a young man’s game, it also took significant time away from family, and Cotto’s wife had their second child — a daughter — while he was enrolled at Del Tech. “I wanted to watch my kids grow up,” he says, “and I knew in construction I’d have to spend eight hours a day on the job and then spend another three hours trying to get the next job.”

That prompted him to join the management training program at Happy Harry’s (now Walgreens) pharmacy chain. “I took a big pay cut, but I got benefits,” he says.

Cotto went on to manage a few of the stores and got to know Alan Levin, who was then president of the company and later served as director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. “He called everybody by their first name, got to know you, and made everybody feel like family,” Cotto says. “That was one thing that kept me there.”

Says Levin: “I remember Carlos as someone who came into the management program looking for direction. He loved what he was doing, so he moved quickly through the ranks. It usually takes five to 10 years to make manager, but he made it in four. I’m not surprised at the success he’s had. A lot of people are content to put in a day’s work and go home, but Carlos never looked at it that way. He had a lot of drive.”

Working full-time, Cotto took six years to earn his associate degree in 2000, but he graduated with no student debt, thanks to scholarships and Pell Grants.

A construction career no longer on his radar, Cotto decided to make use of his newfound talent for managing debits and credits. He went to a career fair in Wilmington and landed a job in the accounting department at PFPC Financial Services Group. He rose quickly in the company, becoming a supervisor and then manager within a few years.

Still, he was restless. “The work started getting easy,” he says, “and I wanted to move up. I had the experience, but I felt my two-year degree was holding me back.”

Enter Wilmington University

Taking advantage of his company’s tuition reimbursement program, he enrolled in 2006 at WilmU and got his degree in accounting two years later.

He continued to chafe at the bit, looking for bigger challenges, but he was required to stay with the company for two years after receiving tuition assistance.

Then, in 2010, The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., commonly referred to as BNY Mellon, acquired the company. Founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1784, Mellon is the world’s largest custodian bank, with more than $29.5 trillion in assets in custody.

In Cotto’s mind, the acquisition created exciting opportunities. “When Mellon bought us,” he says, “it was like a brand-new company.”

To take full advantage of those opportunities, the man who had quit school at 16 decided to go for his master’s degree. Again, he enrolled at WilmU.

“I considered the University of Delaware,” says Cotto, “but because of UD’s tuition cost and our annual reimbursement ceiling, it would’ve taken me twice as long.”

He also went back to WilmU because, he says, “I had a great experience when I got my bachelor’s degree. The quality of the teaching was impressive. I especially enjoyed (Adjunct Professor) Ed Snyder’s class in leadership. Before that class, I thought of leadership as just a word you could look up in the dictionary. Ed Snyder really lived it, and I learned that you could make a career of it.”

In fact, Cotto is so taken with the subject of leadership that he’s writing a book about it. He started working on it several years ago and now has a 12-chapter outline and a writing schedule, which he hopes will lead to a finished, self-published book by the end of this year.

At BNY Mellon, where he is vice president of Alternative Investment Services, his personal leadership style is to focus on the people.

“If you focus on them,” he says, “the work gets done.”

Aside from his family (he and second wife Rebecca have been married for 14 years, and he is close to his two adult children from his first marriage), Cotto’s other passion is promoting education, especially in the Latino community.

“What my mom told me years ago still resonates, I think, with Latinos,” he says. “Too often, the attitude toward education continues to be ‘that’s not for us.’ Factory jobs are OK, but what if you want something more? I want them to follow their passions. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning, you should be happy about where you’re going. I think I can speak to that.”

Cotto is delivering that message through several organizations. He has been president of the Delaware Chapter of ALPFA (Association of Latin Professionals for America) since 2014, and he holds leadership roles in ASPIRA, which is dedicated to developing the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth. He also serves on the Delaware Hispanic Commission and last year he was appointed to a four-year term on the Delaware Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

He hopes that raising the educational bar in the Hispanic community will lead to more civic and government involvement. “We want to get more Latinos into leadership positions,” he says. “We want Latino legislators, Latino board members.”

Might a run for public office be in his future? “I did consider running for office, but I’ve found I’m more effective as a behind-the-scenes person,” Cotto says. “I like that I can work on things all year round and move in and out of circles as needed. And I don’t think I have the patience to campaign. I think I would feel like a caged animal during the periodic breaks needed to campaign.”

While political office may not be in his always well-thought-out plans, a doctorate definitely is. After enjoying the Christmas holidays, he began looking at prospective schools in January. WilmU is high on his list.

“I want to be in a doctoral program by 2018,” he says. “That also gives me time to finish writing the book, which I plan to use as my thesis.”

A book and a doctoral degree would’ve been unlikely goals for the impulsive 16-year-old who dropped out of 10th grade nearly three decades ago. But they’re sure bets for the man that Carlos Cotto has become. WU

– Bob Yearick