For more than 170 years, New York Life has assisted people in need, and now Cheryl James is ushering in a new era of social good. From the New York City headquarters on Madison Avenue to the nearly twenty thousand agents and employees across the country, the associate general counsel wields the multibillion-dollar company’s resources to promote diversity and philanthropy across one of the largest life insurers in the world.
“Diverse life experiences create new ways of thinking,” James says. “You get such a wealth of information from different viewpoints, and when everyone has the opportunity to express themselves we can innovate and solve problems in the most effective ways.”
For four consecutive years, the Fortune 100 company’s inclusive culture has earned it a spot on DiversityInc’s annual Top 50 list—a testament not only to its values, but also its commitment to action through diversity-management initiatives. Recently, the National Association for Female Executives also ranked New York Life on its Top 50 list, and today one of its legal leaders, in particular, is ensuring broad cultural and intellectual perspectives continue to strengthen the business, as well as the community.
As the daughter of an attorney and a judge, James grew up in Brooklyn witnessing her parents pay it forward. James recalls how after church, members of the congregation would often approach her mother for advice, and she would always make time to answer questions and facilitate introductions within her network. “That lesson stuck with me,” James says. “My parents always taught me that it is my responsibility to give back.”
Inspired by her family’s positive impact, James earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at New York University and a juris doctor at the Columbia University School of Law. She launched and developed her litigation career at the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York. She also clerked for Judge George B. Daniels of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York for two years—an experience James says uniquely prepared her to be an insurance litigator at New York Life.
“As a federal law clerk, you handle all sorts of different cases,” James explains. “Observing the judge’s perspective on pending matters and tackling new areas of law in which I had no experience helped shape how I practice now—do your research, ask the right questions, and be open to creative solutions. With that strategy, I am able to approach any legal or business issue that comes before me here at New York Life.”
Drawn to the strong litigation practice and culture, James joined New York Life in January 2017. That year, the company launched its #InclusionMatters Challenge in which employees formed teams to complete inclusion tasks such as unconscious bias training and advertise unique experiences of colleagues on the company’s intranet.
Upon joining New York Life, James became immediately involved in the numerous service initiatives at the company. The legal leader helps coordinate activities for the company’s month of service and charitable giving campaigns, in which fundraisers such as bake sales and a charity bike ride raise money for community initiatives.
James is also a member of the pro bono committee that helps facilitate opportunities for members of the New York Life legal team to use their legal expertise to give back to the community. Her team reaches out to nonprofits that provide legal services in New York City and organizes projects that attorneys can jump into.
It’s all part of James’s motto to lead by example. For instance, James joined the Young Professionals Board for Breakthrough New York. The nonprofit organization prepares low-income middle and high school students for university. “It’s frustrating to see the discrepancy in the education of minority and underprivileged youth,” James says. “Facilitating their success is a cause near and dear to my heart.”
James is also a member of the core leadership team for the African American employee resource group. It is one of seven ERGs at New York Life, which also includes the Asian Network, Enable, Latino, NYL Pride, NYL Vets, and the Women’s Initiative. The group champions collaboration and professional development through company-wide workshops and events.
New York Life also launched the Coming Together Conversation Series in November 2016, an annual forum for open conversations about inclusion issues, from racial anxiety and hate crimes to free speech and gender bias, among others.
While New York Life has earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index and its diversity efforts are recognized by Forbes, Working Mother, and Latina Style Magazine, its top accomplishment may be the longevity of its workforce. New York Life is a company where people never want to leave, according to James. Its culture built on “doing the right thing” provides ample sources of pride for employees like James who are propelling New York Life into a brighter future.
Photo: Michael Benabib
Building a Community De Jure
When she’s not handling litigation or promoting pro bono opportunities at New York Life, Cheryl James is looking for other ways to pay it forward. Her involvement in the networking organization Corporate Counsel Women of Color is one of the ways she gives back.
“As a woman of color, there are barriers to feeling like you have a seat at the table—we all deal with a bit of imposter syndrome,” James says. “But this community really breaks through that. You are exposed to all of these phenomenal women of color who are at the top of their field—general counsel, law firm partners, and directors of nonprofits. They make you realize that you too can achieve great things.”
Since 2004, the nonprofit group has inspired more than three thousand women in the United States, Canada, Asia, Africa, and Europe to support mentorship and global diversity in the legal world.
It’s an incredible network of supportive women who are influencing each other’s lives,” James says. “As a junior attorney, I was fortunate to meet amazing mentors through the organization who encouraged me to pursue my goals and clued me in on the building blocks to success. Now I’m in a position to have those same conversations with women coming up behind me, and it’s been such a rewarding experience.”