Story by Mary Ann Cooper
There are some basic elements that contribute to lifelong success. You can come from a supportive family and obtain a great education but fall short of their personal and career aspirations. So what is the secret sauce that makes the difference – especially for Hispanic professionals? One way to crack the code is to ask a successful Latino what it takes to stand out in a crowded field of talented individuals. One such individual who would make any honor roll of highly successful Latinos is James Cotto, Senior Vice President - Wealth Advisor for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. For him the roadmap for success begins with a thirst for knowledge.
“Life is a never-ending learning process,” Cotto recently told OutlooK-12. “You realize that every day you can learn something new to make your life better. When I was younger, I thought I knew more. I thought I knew it all when I was 17. I realized when I was 25 I didn’t know it all. When I was 40, I was willing to listen. Now at 53, I really don’t know as much as I thought I knew, and I am willing to learn.”
Cotto’s roadmap started in the Bronx where he was born. His father was a postal worker by day and owned a bottle club in the west village. His parents then decided to move to a New Jersey locality where everyone was white and Italian. Unlike young James, his parents were well aware of the possibility that a Puerto Rican family might not be warmly received in that neighborhood.
“My parents were very supportive of me; they told me you can be anything you want. You can be a doctor. You can be a lawyer. And I really believed in that,” Cotto explained. “But they also told me something every time I left the house. Don’t tell anyone you’re Puerto Rican. I asked why, and they said it was better not to. So I went to school, and all this time I kept it on the down low until one night I was hanging with my friends, and we were watching ‘West Side Story,’ and they were singing ‘we’re the Jets all the way,’ and they said ‘why aren’t you singing?’ And I said, ‘because I’m a Shark.’ That’s when I realized that I needed to stop hiding. I had to accept and embrace [my ethnicity].”
From that time forward Cotto’s focused on personal and professional success, as well as serving as a mentor and advocate for Hispanic professionals.
Cotto began his career as a financial advisor in 1988 at First Albany Corporation before joining Merrill Lynch in 1991. In 2001, he decided to move his practice and joined Wachovia Securities as a Managing Director, Investment Officer. In April 2009, he joined Morgan Stanley. From 1995 to 2004, he assisted the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (“OMRDD”), the nonprofit corporation servicing this state agency and families of children with disabilities. As a result of his efforts, Cotto was formally appointed by Merrill Lynch as the spokesperson for their “Families of Children with Disabilities” program. In 2009, Barron’s Magazine recognized Cotto as one of the top 1,000 advisors in the nation and ranked him in the top 65 financial advisors for the state of New York.
Cotto is a big advocate of networking. He feels that once Hispanics achieve success and get a seat on the corporate board, they should enthusiastically lobby for fellow Hispanics to join them and give full-throated endorsements of individuals at every opportunity. “Every time I meet incredible, successful people from my business relationships, I always try to promote them to be on the board because I am a great believer that we don’t have enough sponsors. If we don’t promote each other internally and externally, we don’t create our own sponsors. Otherwise, we are never going to break that ceiling and get to the next level.”
Networking is a great way to gain new knowledge, but Cotto finds that his clients provide him with insights that excite him. “Being a wealth advisor and being able to meet successful people allows me to get an education while I am providing my expertise to them. There are so many different and interesting things going on, and I just find it incredibly interesting to hear how people provide for their family around this country. I am a sponge for that knowledge.” But you have to listen with no preconceived notions. “I think people need to clean the slate of what they think they know and be very open-minded. And I think a young American Latino looking to get into the business world or start his own business has to realize that every meeting is a possibility to learn something.”
Being intellectually curious is only one aspect of Cotto’s formula for success. You also have to put in the time and effort to stay the course.
“I do give a lot of speeches, and people ask me how do you define success. I take it from Winston Churchill. I really believe it’s going from one failure to the next with enthusiasm. To me it’s the realization that hard work pays off. When people say what really works in our business, they believe phone calling, networking, doing events, maybe giving seminars. I don’t believe that those things work individually but cumulatively. I believe the effort you put into what you’re committed to is the key. If I do everything all the time in a disciplined and organized fashion and relentlessly, I will be able to provide for my family,” Cotto explains. “I had this realization because I had a successful moment with a wonderful opportunity on a Friday at 3 p.m. when usually Friday at 3 p.m. people are reorganizing their desk to leave at 5 p.m. I think it’s activity level. It came to me that my most important thing to me is my activity level. I think that transcends everything from parenting to being a good spouse to having a successful career. Creating an activity that you’re comfortable with and that you can maintain and doesn’t burn you out is what is going to make you a successful individual in all facets of your life.” •