After a successful career in labor and employment law with stints at Time Inc., Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase, Deborah Collins ’83 came to Essex County to make a difference.
The Brooklyn native who went to Rutgers Law School in Newark supported by a Minority Student Program scholarship, Collins was initially hired to oversee a disparity study in Essex County and come up with a plan of action to increase procurement opportunities for county contracts to small, women and minority-owned businesses.
She did better than come up with a plan. In Dec. 2005, Collins became the Small Business Development and Economic Opportunity Officer and the county’s Affirmative Action Officer in 2007.
Since then, her department has hosted 45 business expos for small, women and minority business owners; helped launch a bonding readiness program that helps vendors become bonded or increase their bonding limits and also unveiled the very first vendor registration system to allow vendors to receive notifications of upcoming county business opportunities.
Initially reluctant to accept the county job, Collins recalled a friend asked her, “Don’t you want to make a difference in the lives of women and minority vendors?” Collins, the daughter of a union shop steward, resoundingly answered, “Yes.”
Collins’ efforts, under the leadership of Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, have paid off. In 2014, Essex County awarded $58.7 million, or 41 percent of its contracts to small, woman-owned and minority businesses. In March 2016, she became the Deputy County Administrator for Essex, the third most populous county in the state and home to Newark, its largest city.
“Promoting small businesses continues to be a priority of my administration, and Deborah Collins has played a key role. She has led our Office of Small Business Development and Affirmative Action since its beginning, and has created a valuable, one-stop resource for the business community,” said DiVincenzo.
Collins, who previously earned her master’s degree in Spanish from New York University and taught, for a time, on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, admitted she applied to law school on a dare. She chose Rutgers, in part because of civil rights leader Professor Arthur Kinoy. As a non-traditional student, Collins said Rutgers Law was the perfect fit, “Rutgers is a great place for older returning students past the age of 30. My study groups were made up of people like me. They had come from the military, or had other degrees. You build a network of people from around the nation who have had other experiences.”
Collins initially worked for a labor law firm, representing union members who were jailed after striking. Later, as an employment lawyer, she helped to investigate the transit police on behalf of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and its leader, former NYC Police Chief William Bratton. From there, Collins went to Time Inc., as the manager of employment law, worked for JP Morgan as vice president of employee relations – which involved serving on the diversity committee; before becoming a vice president of employee relations for Goldman Sachs.
Collins said today’s attorneys must be versatile,” You have to be multi-faceted and move among sectors. You have to prepare people to have as many opportunities as possible.”
A widely-sought after public speaker who has spoken at the New Jersey State Bar Association, the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School, and served as Moot Court Judge at New York Law School; Collins said she is looking forward to continuing to create positive change at the county level.
“My professional experiences have taught me that learning is a lifelong process,” she said. “It is my hope and expectation that my reach will always exceed my grasp.”