Gina Coleman ’91 does not recall many family conversations about higher education when she was growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. “I am the sixth of seven children,” she explains. “Everyone was busy working hard to get by.”
When a high school guidance counselor asked Coleman about submitting college applications, she realized she hadn’t even given it a thought. “I went home and asked my mom about continuing my education,” she recalls. “She said I could either live on a college campus or get a car and commute to classes. We couldn’t afford both. I chose to live on campus and Blanton Hall was my home away from home!”
“I applied to Montclair State University because it was close to home and became the first in my family to attend college,” she says, noting that her younger sister followed her lead, both becoming the first professionals in their family.
Coleman wanted to be practical about choosing a major, but she also wanted a little excitement in her future career. “The Recreation and Leisure Studies program taught me the business side of hotel and restaurant management, as well as events and sports,” she says. “It touched on the fun side of business, and I felt I could relate to what I was learning in class.”
Although she wasn’t completely sure where the major would take her, Coleman was learning that she enjoyed being around athletics. “I was working part-time at an area Boys’ Club and I just loved the sense of engagement and impact on youth,” she says.
Coleman launched her career as a sales representative for the New Jersey Nets, quickly working her way up to account executive for sponsorship services and finally director of community relations. “Montclair helped me into that first New Jersey Nets role through a pivotal internship,” she says. “It was a great start, and I was able to springboard from there.”
Coleman next tried her hand as an entrepreneur in the service industry, first with a unisex hair salon in Hackensack and then with a full-service salon and spa in Southeast Michigan. “Opening Green Room Salon & Spa followed a relocation to Detroit,” she says, adding that it was her salon business that opened the door to banking.
“I met a PNC executive while fundraising for a local nonprofit,” she recalls. “I had pivoted my spa business under a self-supported model, and had been thinking about what I wanted next, career-wise. The executive suggested banking, which was not even on my radar, but he invited me to talk more.”
“The only thing I knew about banking was my experience as a consumer and from a client perspective as a small business owner, but the executive thought I had the right skills for business development,” Coleman continues. “He assured me that I could learn the banking part.”
After eight years at PNC and rising to the role of senior vice president and client and community relations director, Coleman decided to pivot, again.
“It was a little scary,” she says of her decision to join MassMutual Great Lakes as the chief sales officer, while also serving as a strategic partner to The Collective Financial Group, the firm’s female-only group practice. “I had significant career growth at PNC, in a relatively short period of time, but as I turned 50, I felt I was at a crossroads. The move helped me to be less fearful of trying something new.”
Throughout her time with MassMutual Great Lakes, Coleman kept in touch with her PNC colleagues, as many had become friends. When the chief diversity role opened, she was already on the short list of candidates. After all, during her prior tenure at PNC, Coleman’s accomplishments included forming the company’s first employee resource group for women in their Detroit market, and she had helped lead efforts around diversity and inclusion locally.
“Diversity and inclusion – D&I – was just starting to gain ground at that time,” Coleman says. “I understood D&I as it relates to employee engagement, creating opportunities for development, networking and career mobility. I saw the value of pulling more diverse talent into leadership roles at the company. I leaned into it. As a result, I was tapped for a variety of initiatives and leadership development programs.”
Coleman is excited about infusing her approach to embracing diversity and cultivating an inclusive environment throughout PNC. “The upward career opportunities are not always accessible to people who come from underserved communities, both urban and rural,” she says. “This company, and every company or organization, can have much more positive impact when diverse talents and perspectives are included to build a culture of belonging, drive innovation and grow high-performing teams. I plan to maximize that impact at PNC.”
It is a philosophy that has its roots in her time at Montclair. “I don’t know if I would be on such a successful track if it weren’t for the affordable, accessible college opportunity I found at Montclair,” she says.
Although living in Detroit doesn’t allow frequent visits to New Jersey, Coleman is hoping to join her college friends at Homecoming 2022. “Some of my favorite Montclair memories involve attending Red Hawk sports games with my friends, and we are all still close today,” she says.
Coleman does, however, follow University events through the alumni newsletter, and she is excited to be sharing her story with students and alumni. It aligns with her mission to inspire others, which includes serving as board chair for Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan and board member of Beyond Basics, a literacy program in Southfield, Michigan. Coleman’s generosity and achievements have been recognized with the Michigan Chronicle’s 2014 Women of Excellence Award and with the 2018 PNC Performance Award, the highest employee recognition offered by the company.
She is also happy to have the opportunity to share her success story with today’s students. “Lean into those seats at the table where decisions are being made at Montclair,” she advises. “Join student organizations and get involved in where the University is going. And share your own story with others. Reach out to high schoolers who are thinking about what’s next and let them know what the University is doing for you.”