COMMUNITY BASED, NATIONALLY AWARE: As head of corporate affairs and chair of the Citizens Charitable Foundation, Barbara Cottam is the point person for the bank in its efforts to help solve problems in the region, often less with money than with creative thinking and persuasion.
There is no doubt that Barbara Cottam is an accomplished businessperson. She serves as executive vice president, head of corporate affairs and Rhode Island market executive for RBS Citizens Financial Group, Inc., a once-local financial group that has grown to considerable size across the nation. But speaking to Cottam one gets the sense that her business accomplishments are means to an end beyond the bottom line.
While Cottam’s role has undoubtedly been to help steer the continuing expansion of Citizens in the financial-services industry, she also has spent a great deal of her 20 years with the company directing its efforts to be one of the state’s major corporate stewards.
Not only is Cottam chair of the Citizens Charitable Foundation, she has forged countless partnerships across the public, private and nonprofit sectors in Rhode Island. Highlights include the Striking Out Hunger program in partnership with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Cox Communications and the Rhode Island Food Bank, wherein Citizens donates funds for every strikeout delivered by a PawSox pitcher (to the tune of nearly half a million dollars total); Champions in Action, which helps small and midsized nonprofits with sizeable infusions of cash and volunteer manpower; and the Growing Communities initiative, which has provided grants to 13 organizations to build a brighter and more sustainable future for the Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood. In her own time, Cottam mentors students from her alma mater – Providence College – hoping to instill in them this same sense of using business for the greater good.
“I see Citizens’ role – and my role – as being a convener in the community,” she said. “We apply creative thinking and human capital to try to bring unique approaches to issues. Money is necessary, but the ideas and willingness to make change are also necessary. You have to be creative and develop things that are sustainable and really work to solve problems.”
Cottam has had two decades to hone her approach at Citizens, but her passion for civic involvement – and her skill as a communicator and a connector – has origins that stretch as far back as high school. She spent a week in Washington, D.C., with a program called Project Closeup, which gave students an inside look at the inner workings of the federal government.
“I really fell in love with public policy and making a difference,” she said, bringing that verve back to the Lincoln School with her, where she began to participate in the model legislature and model UN, and eventually serve as senior class president. “Public service is a noble profession. And that feeling is hard to sustain when you see the cynicism of people weekly on the news. I believe that you need to be … actively engaged in making change, in fighting for what you believe in,” she said.
She saw one potential path toward making a difference: pursuing studies in business at Providence College, noting that “economics are really at the core of every issue.” She’d been a page on Smith Hill and was interning for then-Gov. John J. Garrahy doing research, writing and working staffing events. That turned into her first full-time job when she was offered a position in the press office. “I didn’t have any experience in media,” she said. “But if you know the issues, if you can write, if you can think logically, assess situations, be creative in your ideas, that’s what they’re looking for.”
Cottam was quick to prove herself. Soon she was offered a job as senior policy adviser and press secretary for then-Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., a post she held until she became director of communications and press secretary for Gov. Bruce Sundlun. By the time she joined Citizens in 1994, she had mastered the complicated art of bringing people together for the common good of the community – something that she knew Citizens was dedicated to. “One of my responsibilities has been enhancing and protecting that reputation as a leader in the community as a corporate steward,” she said.
In the work she’s done in the name of enhancing Citizens’ reputation, it is Cottam’s own reputation that speaks volumes out in the community. Lou Schwechheimer, general manager of the PawSox, first met her when they were in their 20s – he working as an intern for the PawSox and she working for Garrahy. The pair coordinated a “Pride in RI” night at the stadium, for which they planned to honor every living professional baseball player from Rhode Island who played in the major leagues.
Schwechheimer was so overwhelmed with Cottam’s commitment to the cause that when he asked her what he could do to repay her, she said she felt like an ice cream. Schwechheimer left the grind of the mailing at the Statehouse that night and returned with ice cream helmets for each of the volunteers. “That really kind of cemented our friendship,” he said. “From that moment on, I’ve admired everything she’s done. She’s all about community, about sharing ideas, about taking the initiative to make ideas reality.”