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James, Donna A.

Donna A. James


Corporate executive

Plenty of hard work, combined with her superior business and entrepreneurial skills, enabled Donna A. James, once a single, teenage mother, to climb the corporate ladder to become the first black woman executive at Nationwide, one of the country's largest insurance and financial services companies. From her position as vice president of human resources for Nationwide in 1996, through her appointment as president of Nationwide Strategic Investments in 2003, James was the first African American in the company to hold each of her titles, as well as the first African American to sit on the corporation's executive committee. She also was the first to head an operating division of this Fortune 500 company. She reported directly to two successive chief executive officers (CEOs). Her position at Nationwide enabled James to advocate for diversity throughout the corporate world.

Attended College as a Single Mother

Donna Anita Scott was born on June 30, 1957, in Washington, D.C. Although her mother, Bertha (Searles) Scott, had a high school education, her father, Herbert Scott, was illiterate, having only attended school through the third grade. Bertha Scott taught her husband to write his name. After a long career as a driver for a bus company, Herbert Scott opened his own successful car wash and reconditioning business.

When she was six years old, Donna Scott's parents divorced. Donna, her three siblings, and her mother moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. Although she remained close to her fatherwho remarried and had another childDonna lived in Greensboro with her mother and grandmother through her college years. Bertha Scott married Paul Hawkins, with whom she had two more children. In all Donna Scott has five brothers and one sister. Bertha Hawkins worked as a lab assistant in a textile factory until her retirement.

As a child, Donna loved the chemistry set that she received for Christmas and was fairly certain that she wanted to become a chemist. But her interests were wide-ranging. She liked to make things, she loved math, and she loved to read. She also loved being in charge and organizing people. Throughout her school years she was a leader in sports and student government.

As a single mother of a young son, Christopher Michael, Scott attended North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Although she considered becoming an engineer, the accounting department offered her more scholarship money than the engineering school. With her bachelor's degree in accounting and as a certified public accountant (CPA), James procured an auditing position with the large accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand in Columbus, Ohio.

Joined Nationwide Insurance

In 1981 Scott was recruited as an accounting specialist by Nationwide, based in Columbus. She became a one-woman accounting and finance office for Nation-wide's first heath maintenance organization (HMO). Over the following decade she moved rapidly up the corporate ladder, holding various management positions in accounting operations and compliance and in annuities, pensions, and mutual-fund operations for Nationwide's tax-shelter-products division.

In 1989 Donna Scott married Larry James, an attorney and later a full partner with Crabbe, Brown, & James in Columbus. Larry James's son, Justin Michael, was the same age as Christopher Michael, and they formed a close-knit family of four.

Donna James was named director of operations and treasury services in 1990. In 1993 she became executive assistant to Nationwide's chairman and CEO, Dimon R. McFerson. In this position she was exposed to the management of all of Nationwide's business divisions. Three years later she was named vice president of the human resources (HR) division.

Headed Human Resources

James was promoted to senior vice president and chief human resources officer in 1998, with responsibility for 290 employees and a $35-million budget. The following year she spoke with Dawn M. Baskerville of Essence magazine about her work: "My division oversees compensation, training and development, recruiting and staffing, benefits, executive development, EEOC compliance, and organizational management for the corporation's more than 27,000 employees. Understanding how a company works as well as the people who drive it are essential skills for effective HR management."

In 1998 James announced that Nationwide Insurance Enterprise would make a four-year $600,000 investment in the College Fund/UNCF (United Negro College Fund), a nonprofit consortium that raised money for historically-black colleges and universities. The Nationwide-funded scholars program provided scholarships, internships, and mentorships for undergraduate students in business management, financial services, and administrative sciences. James was quoted in the PR Newswire : "We are pleased about the opportunity to bring students into our company where they can learn first hand and help us build long-term partnerships with UNCF schools across the country.... This program will help to fulfill our mutual goal of preparing students for the changing workforce of the next century."

The Nationwide board of directors appointed James executive vice president and chief administrative officer in July of 2000. A consolidation put her in charge of corporate communications, human resources, information technology, and the Nationwide Services Company that included corporate real estate and philanthropy.

At a Glance...

Born Donna Anita Scott on June 30, 1957, in Washington, DC; daughter of Bertha (Searles) Scott (later Hawkins) and Herbert Scott; married Larry James, 1989; children: Christopher Michael, Justin Michael (stepson). Education: North Carolina A&T State University, BS, 1979.

Career: Coopers & Lybrand, Columbus, OH, auditor, 1979-81; Nationwide, Columbus, OH, various accounting positions, 1981-90, Operations and Treasury Services, director, 1990-93, executive assistant to Nationwide CEO and chairman, 1993-96, Human Resources Division, vice president, 1996-98, senior vice president, chief human resources officer, 1998-2000, executive vice president, chief administrative officer, 2000-2003; Nationwide Strategic Investments, Columbus, OH, president, 2004.

Selected memberships: YWCA of Columbus, board of trustees, 1990-97; North Carolina A&T State University, executive advisory council, c.1995; Bennett College for Women, board of trustees, 2002; Limited Brands, board and audit committee member, 2003; United Way of America, board of governors, chair of executive compensation committee, 2003.

Selected awards: YWCA, Women of Achievement Award, 1999; Columbus NAACP Freedom Fund Gala, honorary chair, 2001; Working Mother magazine, Diversity Award, 2001; National Beta Gamma Sigma, Business Achievement Award, 2004; Black Enterprise magazine, named one of Top 75 Most Powerful Blacks in Corporate America, 2005.

Addresses: Office Nationwide, 1 Nationwide Plaza, Columbus, OH 43215.

In 2001 James represented American business leaders in joining with National Urban League President Hugh Price to call on colleges and universities to deemphasize standardized testssuch as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)in college admissions. Such tests had proved to be a barrier to college admissions for talented black and other minority students. The Urban League commissioned a survey of top business executives to evaluate the importance of such tests in identifying future corporate leaders. James was quoted in Black Issues in Higher Education : "Long-term success is determined by an individual's ability to solve problems creatively," rather than by the results of standardized tests.

Elected President of Nationwide Strategic Investments

James became president of Nationwide Strategic Investments in 2003, overseeing several of Nationwide's businesses including GatesMcDonald, Nationwide Advantage Mortgage Company, Nationwide Health Plans, Nationwide Global Holdingsthe corporation's international armand Nationwide Mutual Capital. The latter business was Nationwide's $150-million venture capital division. James told Contemporary Black Biography that the purpose of Nationwide Mutual Capital was to develop and incubate new ideas, innovations, and businesses involved in financial services. The division developed innovative ideas and started new businesses, as well as investing in existing businesses. As examples, James cited "real life" problems that Mutual Capital was trying to address: individual healthcare costs, planning for healthcare in retirement, and innovative means of turning a home into a realizable asset, given that most people's major asset is their home.

James served on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards. In 2001 she joined the board of directors and the audit committee of Intimate Brands, Inc. (IBI). She served as chair of the special committee on recombining IBI with Limited Brands, the Columbus-based retailer and parent company of IBI. In 2003 she joined the Limited Brands board of directors and the audit committee. James also served as a board member of the Ohio College Access Network and was a member of the Columbus chapter of Links, Inc. From 1995 until 2000, James was a member of the board of trustees of the Wexner Foundation. In 2001 she was awarded the DeVry Spirit of Advocacy award for her work as an advocate for high-school women in science and technology.

James told Baskerville of Essence magazine in 1999: "Being a teenage mother without much money placed a lot of odds against me from the start. It was hard clearing those hurdles, as well as those inherent for all Black businesswomen, so I'm proud of where I am and how I got here."



Black Enterprise, November 2004, p. 78.

Black Issues in Higher Education, May 10, 2001, p. 9.

Ebony, October 2003, p. 10.

Essence, July 1999, p. 60.

PR Newswire, December 23, 1998, p. 9191; July 11, 2003.


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Donna A. James on January 10, 2005.

Margaret Alic

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