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Curious About Human Dynamics, She Now Leads HR at Disney

"Curious About Human Dynamics," She Now Leads HR at Disney

By Karen-Janine Cohen

Sonia Coleman (MSHRM '17), senior executive vice president and chief human resources officer of The Walt Disney Co., hadn't settled on a career direction after high school. So, instead of going straight to college, she hired on as a cashier at a Home Depot store in Santa Clara, California. There, her ease with both numbers and people was soon noticed. She was tapped to learn, then teach fellow employees about a new register check-out system.

"I was a technical trainer at first, then I got really curious about human dynamics," Coleman said. "I've always had strong interest in the intersection of people and business."

Those attributes, plus skills developed during her professional trajectory, have taken her to the top HR spot at one of the world's most iconic companies. Coleman is also proud of her record as an active leader in Disney's diversity, equity and inclusion programs and initiatives, which are part of her current portfolio.

She earned her BS in organizational leadership at Chapman University and later completed the master in human resource management program at FIU Business.

"Today's HR is light-years beyond seeking and hiring employees. The profession is integrated into overall planning and is a catalyst for success," Coleman said. "It includes all of the employee experience, from growth and development, benefits and compensation, to shaping policies while creating company-wide organizational strategies."

Her connection with Disney came in a serendipitous manner. The Children's Place recruited her to its HR team from The Home Depot's HR team. The clothing retailer had operating rights for Disney Stores. When Disney took those back, Coleman joined Disney itself and in 2010 was named VP of human resources for Disney Stores.

Since then, she has consistently taken on more responsibility. As senior VP of human resources for Disney General Entertainment and ESPN, her portfolio grew to include Disney's television business, including ABC Entertainment, ABC News, FX, National Geographic, Freeform, Onyx Collective and Hulu.

"I just wired myself to work hard, produce effort, contribute at a high value, be kind, care and, I'm curious," she said.

As the company's chief HR officer, she works with 4,000 human resources professionals worldwide, who cumulatively represent 245,000 employees.

"I would say my personal vision is to create an environment where our brightest can impact the business in the most effective way," she said, wanting people interested in a business career to know human resources is an impactful field. "It's truly beneficial to understand what the profession is and how HR is a strategic partner in the business."