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.
“We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she says. “We had nothing. This was all just a concept.”
After a year and a half of FDA approval, testing and focus groups, their first products went on the shelves in 1991. The company grew quickly.
“When black women and southern women heard about the new soul food products, they went to their Kroger and said, ‘We want Glory Foods,’” Iris says. “We didn’t have to do a whole lot of marketing; the women were our external sales team.”
Meanwhile, as a victim of domestic violence, Iris says she led a double life for years. At work, she was a boss, but at home, she felt like a coward.
One morning, she felt she had to leave her home to take charge of her life. She still never missed work, continuing the charade of “a strong woman.”
After spending 12 years in divorce court, Iris settled, losing half of her stock in Glory Foods. Most of her remaining ownership went to legal fees. Still, she says, her “true identity and personal freedom were more important than assets or dividends.”
She co-authored a book with her friend Melanie Houston, When the Devil is Beating His Wife, which uses fiction to describe the lives of abused women. Iris says the book offers guidance to women in these situations, helping them regain their lives “safely and strategically.”
Iris left banking after 27 years to pursue her business ventures, including a retail gift store and a mortgage brokerage. The unstable economy of 2007 weakened her businesses, so she went back to work to support her daughter in college and son in high school. She was hired by the State of Ohio to direct the small business department, and quickly promoted to the director of entrepreneurship and small business.
“It was truly the best job I’ve ever had, given the circumstances,” she says. “It was the best of times, but it was the worst of times because people in Ohio were suffering from the recession.”
Iris and her staff led Ohio from the 29th worst place to start a business to ninth-best in the nation and first in the Midwest, as ranked by an independent research firm.
“We had no money to lend,” she says. “It was just empathy, brainstorming, communication, innovative programs and connecting people to resources.”
Iris’s dedicated and predominantly female staff members still keep in touch.
Despite her success, the following administration promised her job to someone else. Iris was devastated, but began teaching and went back to school.
“When in doubt about your career, open your mind and start the learning process again,” she says.
After five and a half years, she earned a doctorate in business administration with a focus in entrepreneurship from Walden University. Since then, she’s been teaching, training and consulting.
There will always be “detours” in life, but Iris believes she is on an endless road toward success and restoration. It’s just like road trips from her childhood, she says. If her family got lost, they still reached their destination, “with no GPS.”
“God gives us roadblocks to redirect our path to circumstances that will help us grow and prosper,” she says. “No matter how dark the day, retreat or surrender is not an option. Even if you go a little bit to the right or a little bit to the left, or even pause for a while to think, you must keep moving forward.”