DeVona Wright Cottrell
February 25, 2020
During Black History Month and all year long, we celebrate local individuals who are paving the way for the next generation of community leaders of color. Looking to get involved and make a difference? Learn more about the work of United Way's Diversity Leadership Society, Boys & Men of Color initiative, and work in Reducing Barriers to Employment for local, diverse individuals.
Attorney DeVona Wright Cottrell knows the importance of mentorship in helping young people of color succeed.
“I knew since middle school that I wanted to be a lawyer but I wasn’t sure how to get there,” recalls DeVona. “I didn’t know any lawyers.”
Her experience as a student at a local suburban high school through the section 220 voucher program didn’t help. “Our school counselors were not interested in helping African-American students,” said DeVona. “They didn’t think we were going to go on to college, so they had no desire to meet with us.”
Luckily, she had a supportive family, neighborhood, and network. “I grew up in the 53206 zip code of Milwaukee, and it seriously took a village to help me get through high school,” said DeVona. Her best friend’s mom was instrumental in helping her forge her path. “She was the first person I knew who had gone to college, and she said that if college was something I wanted to pursue she would help me get there.”
Now Associate General Counsel & Director at Baird, DeVona takes every opportunity to mentor young people looking to move up in their career field. In fact, helping others is what drew DeVona to law in the first place.
“My mom always talked about giving back, not going at it alone. She told us stories about when she was a sharecropper in the south and when she would complete her quota for the day she would then help her sister or her friends finish theirs,” recalls DeVona.
This drive to give back is what helped DeVona decide to say “yes” when asked to become a co-chair of United Way’s Diversity Leadership Society. The Society’s signature initiative, reducing barriers to employment and advancement for local, diverse individuals, is something DeVona has been working on for a long time.
“I started a free legal clinic at my church about 20 years ago,” said DeVona. “People would come to me for help with things that created barriers to employment, like getting their driver’s license back.”
Through the clinic, DeVona partnered with the Department of Transportation, the Social Development Commission, and the Circuit Court Warrant Withdrawal program to help even more people.
“The mission (of the Diversity Leadership Society) is so aligned with my own,” said DeVona. “What made the difference was that someone asked me to step up to be co-chair. All I had to do was decide if I could commit the time. I don’t do anything halfway.”
When asked her secret for overcoming the challenges she has faced on her path to success, DeVona keeps it simple: “there is always going to be barriers to your success. I learned early on not to take things personally. You just need to gain the necessary skills, figure out a way around it, and find yourself a mentor who can help you navigate those challenges.”