DANBURY, Connecticut — Eric Holley believes in the power of role models. Not just the many he had as a young man growing up in Middletown and as a student-athlete at Western Connecticut State University, but also in the example he strives to set for others that helped earn him a 100 Men of Color Award.
Among his earliest role models were his parents, who separated when he was very young, but continued to co-parent and provide a sense of stability even when his older brother, Myron, was struck and killed by a drunk driver at age 10. Five-year-old Eric looked up to his older brother and his innate intelligence, which made everything come easy to him. “I have to work harder than he did, and it’s always been a very motivating factor,” Holley said. “He was a great role model for me.” Unexpectedly elevated at age five to the role of sole big brother to his twin brothers Shawn and Stepfan, and sister Shacara, Holley has set out to serve as a role model for them and everyone else he encounters. “To this day, my parents are my best friends and they remain a very integral part in every successful milestone I achieve,” Holley said, “and no matter what, they have both always stressed the importance of family to me.”
As a student at Middletown High School, Holley attended to his academics while participating in football, basketball and track. When it was time to look at colleges, he visited three of the four Connecticut State Universities.
“At Western Connecticut State University, I was made to feel at home by the coaches, staff and players,” Holley said. “Having grown up in Middletown and knowing almost everyone there, I wanted to go a little bit of a distance from home to where I didn’t know anyone – while still being close enough to home at the same time.” So, he enrolled as a Communication & Media Arts major and joined the football team as a cornerback at WCSU.
“Being a sports guy, my dream job was to work at ESPN,” Holley said, which is why he picked his major. He got an internship at WTNH through WCSU’s Career Success Center and also obtained an internship at ESPN on his own. At WTNH, he engaged in research for weather, history and special segments. It helped him learn the industry from behind the scenes, he said. Once at ESPN, he realized that working there wasn’t at all what he thought it would be.
Upon his graduation in 2003, Holley took a job at Aetna, using his research skills to verify provider credentials. When his supervisor became a director of project management, Holley started asking a lot of questions. He decided to pursue a master’s in Organizational Communications at CCSU while still working at Aetna and coaching the Middletown High School track team on the side.
This led to his involvement with Aetna’s Leadership Development Program, which provided Holley the opportunity to rotate through the project management, sales and billing departments, exposing him to all aspects of the business from an internal and external client perspective. At the conclusion of the program, he elected to work in Aetna’s sales division in a customer-facing job that allowed him to travel and further hone his professional communications skills.
It wasn’t long before his original boss at Aetna became the AVP of Project Management and asked him to come work in that area. Always looking to “carry himself up,” Holley pursued a Project Management Certification at Charter Oak and went from a project manager to a senior project manager, overseeing Aetna’s business in the Washington, D.C., area.
The simple act of updating his LinkedIn profile to reflect his Project Management certificate and new position at Aetna caught the eye of The Hartford, which had bought some of Aetna’s business lines. Shortly after joining The Hartford, Holley was offered the opportunity to be a Digital Process Owner and partner with IT to manage staff, budgets and more.
More management-level certificates followed, including Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Product Manager (CSPM). The inevitable LinkedIn update once again yielded recruiters, and soon Holley found himself being interviewed by an AVP at Mass Mutual.
“The associate vice president of Digital Operations who interviewed me told me I had amazing credentials, but what caught his eye was that I was a volunteer basketball coach,” Holley recalled. “He asked me a whole bunch of basketball-related questions about teamwork, meeting one’s potential — and told me all of my coaching attributes were totally transferable to business.” Holley was hired as a senior director to lead a Mass Mutual team as the result of that interview.
Three months later, Middletown High School posted an opening for a varsity basketball coach. Holley’s younger brother Stepfan encouraged him to apply, citing all the community service work and volunteer coaching Holley had done with the Connecticut Basketball Club, an AAU program that provided young athletes the opportunity to play travel basketball against top talent in front of college coaches.
“The sports system created the person I am today,” Holley said. “I wanted to teach young men to leverage all the opportunities available to them, just as I utilized all of my opportunities as a student-athlete at WCSU such as learning discipline, maintaining grades, being on time and being accountable.”
In his first year as head coach, Holley took the Middletown Blue Dragons to a 15-5 record and the team made it to the state quarterfinals. “It’s been very humbling,” Holley said.
These days, in year two of his job at Mass Mutual and as Middletown High School varsity basketball coach, Holley still finds time to give back to his community by hosting Books & Basketball events to read to first graders, holding free middle school basketball clinics, and honoring alumni who have found success after participating with the Connecticut Basketball Club or Middletown High School basketball team.
For all of his success in the corporate world and his dedication to team sports and community service, Holley was named a recipient of the 100 Men of Color Awards in 2017 and was invited back in 2022 as the keynote speaker. The role model to his younger siblings is now quite clearly a role model to all.
“You have to feed what feeds you,” Holley said. “You help yourself by helping other people. It’s really important for me to help kids understand the importance of community and of giving back.”
Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high-quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals and leaders in a global society. Our vision: To be widely recognized as a premier public university with outstanding teachers and scholars who prepare students to contribute to the world in a meaningful way.