Colette Holt represents public agencies and private firms on issues related to civil rights, public contracting and affirmative action. She has broad experience in conducting defensible disparity studies, consulting and testimony involving expert witnesses, drafting legislation and policies, designing programs, managing initiatives, defending affirmative action programs and counseling private firms on compliance with diversity requirements. She serves as general counsel to the American Contract Compliance Association and is an author and frequent media commentator on these issues.

Holt received her B.A. in philosophy from Yale University and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. She was a law clerk to the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Prior to developing her own practice, she was associated with a large law firm, assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago and chief operating officer of the Chicago Park District. She is a former adjunct professor at Loyola University School of Law and the John Marshall Law School. Among her professional honors are Women Business Champion of the Year from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Advocacy Award from the Women’s Business Development Center and the President’s Award from the National Black Chamber of Commerce. She is married to David Wood, and they live in San Antonio, Texas.

What inspired you to major in philosophy?
I was interested in the history of ideas, and philosophy seemed like a way to study the broad swath of great thinkers. I also thought it would be good preparation for law school, which it was. I still believe in the liberal arts concept that college is not a trade school, and that has served me well.

What led you to law school?
My father was a lawyer, as were several other relatives. I saw it as both intellectually interesting and a way to work towards social justice. I never seriously considered doing anything else.

What was challenging about government work? What was especially satisfying?
The biggest challenge about working in or for governments is the lack of resources, both financial and human. During the last 40 years, government has been demonized and downsized, and it has become increasingly difficult to recruit and keep good people, get the funds to competently deliver services and address the ever more complex problems facing our world. While a governmental agency certainly can’t do everything, there is no private sector substitute when there is a need to act collectively. The current pandemic has made this so sadly clear. What is satisfying is when work leads to a better situation for our community, when that collective power is harnessed to solve problems and provide needed services or support.

What have you enjoyed about teaching?
Helping others see things in a new way or to move to action to effect change. I have been teaching about supplier diversity law and program best practices for almost 30 years, and I have watched people move up and take leadership roles in our industry. It’s exciting to know you have transferred your knowledge and experience to the next generation.

How did you end up focusing on affirmative action programs?
I come from a family of civil rights activists, so I knew I would do something related to civil rights. I was an assistant corporation counsel for the City of Chicago in 1989 when the Supreme Court handed down a very conservative decision that turned civil rights law upside down. Local governments were suddenly required to conduct extensive statistical and anecdotal research to establish that discrimination remains a barrier to fair access to government contracts and that any program is narrowly tailored to that evidence. These research projects have come to be known as “disparity studies.” I led the city’s Law Department team to enact the first Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Ordinance for Chicago in 1990, and I have been doing this work ever since. I founded my own law firm in 1994.

Were there people  or activities at Parker that influenced choices you’ve made since graduating?
Everything about Parker has influenced my entire life. I often say it was the most important thing that ever happened to me: lifelong friendships, academic preparation, professional networks and, most important, my values.
What are some of your favorite Parker memories?
Big Brothers and Sisters (I actually recognized my 1st grade big sister when I saw her at O’Hare around 20 years ago); “This concludes the Morning Ex”; County Fair; Class Day; our 6th grade trip to Cassopolis, Michigan and our 7th grade trip to Starved Rock; debating in Mr. Markwell’s class; trying to please Mrs. Stone; Brigadoon and Guys and Dolls; springtime in the courtyard.

How do you spend time outside work? How are you coping with quarantine?
I have been involved with politics all my life so I spend a lot of time working with candidates and policy issues. I ran as a delegate for Amy Klobuchar, who is my friend from law school at the University of Chicago. I also love to cook, which has been good since we are locked down in San Antonio. I have worked from home for almost 25 years so this wasn’t any major change in our business. We got a Shih Tzu puppy in January so we hang out with Colonel Charlie Parker and our cats, Selma, Montgomery and Cookie Monster.

Anything else you’d like to share?
If I had had a child, she would have gone to Parker!
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.