Dr. Iris Cooper A Glorious Success

It’s easy to imagine Dr. Iris Cooper’s life as a direct road to success, but she’ll be the first to tell you about all the hidden “detours” she’s taken.

Iris grew up in Evansville, Ind. Her older sister, Corinne, had been on track to graduate from college with a full fellowship to get her master’s degree when she died tragically at 18. When Iris was only 4, Corinne’s death in a car accident devastated her family. Iris hoped to alleviate their pain by emulating Corinne’s diligence. She strove to be an obedient child and an outstanding student. Iris finished college early with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and went on to pursue an MBA in marketing.

Charles Lazarus of the Lazarus department stores was her marketing distribution professor at Indiana University. As the only African American woman in the room, Iris wanted Lazarus to know she took the class seriously. She remembers sitting in the middle of the front row, answering any question she could. When she graduated, he offered her a job.

At 24, she became the marketing manager for the department store’s restaurant division. Sales in the restaurants went up 10% in her first year.

A few years later, Iris moved to California and transitioned to banking. She wanted to “learn the financial world,” she says, and began as a teller in the diverse community of Culver City. Despite their differences, she remembers discussing the same things among her female co-workers.

“There was this commonality that was so, so inspiring to me,” she says. “Women discussed family, career and caring for others as if there were no differences in ethnicity or age.”

Iris eventually moved back to the Midwest and got married. She was interviewed by four men simultaneously and hired as the first commercial lending officer at an institution in Dublin, Ohio. They asked her to handle all aspects of commercial lending. She demanded oversight to share accountability and responsibility. They hired a male supervisor, but when he left, Iris carried these responsibilities alone.

Despite her competence and integrity, Iris was surpassed by the man she’d trained. She was excluded from the loan committee, even though her loans were being reviewed. After four years, she threatened to quit, and they granted her a long-overdue promotion.

Iris recalls that, throughout her time in lending institutions, she was usually the only woman at the table. She worked hard to earn respect and meet the standard of her late sister set.

“There was not going to be any mediocrity in anything I did,” she says. “I was going to be the best or I was going to do something different.”

Two former co-workers from Lazarus contacted Iris, remembering her branding and marketing skills. These men wanted to create a canned soul food product line. Iris knew women were busy between entering the workforce and managing families, so she refused to provide her expertise unless the food was already seasoned and pre-prepared. They agreed and formed Glory Foods. Iris pitched the unprecedented idea of “heat-and-eat” soul food to Kroger representatives who were immediately interested.