Bridging the racial divide and promoting opportunities for all.
Earl “Skip” Cooper II has been ‘pivoting’ since the day in 1966 when he set foot in Vietnam as a U.S. Army medic and long before the term became part of the business lexicon. It’s taken him from college student to president and CEO of the Black Business Association (BBA) headquartered in Los Angeles, a role that’s enabled him to influence the minority business enterprise agenda for 45 years.
“The 1960s was a different day and time,” says Cooper, who assumed the helm of the 50-year-old BBA, the oldest active ethnic business support organization in California, in 1976. “Back then, I used to think that a successful Black-owned business was a liquor store. We’ve made a lot of progress for Black business owners since.”
The Oakland, California, native is the first to minimize the role he played in that progress. But he readily acknowledged that his personal journey started with a promise made in Vietnam.
“I’ve been talking to God since the third grade,” says Cooper, who admitted that while in Vietnam, his conversations became even more serious. Cooper had a natural interest in business and a nascent understanding of the vital role Black-owned businesses had in their communities. He also knew that African Americans had much to learn about becoming successful business owners. “I promised God that if I made it back home, I’d make a difference.”
Not long after leaving military service, Cooper, then attending Merritt College in Oakland, became one of the first in the country to earn an associate degree in the emerging field of African American studies. That was followed by a bachelor’s in business administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Tired of the Bay Area’s cool weather, he moved to more temperate Los Angeles to pursue an MBA at the University of Southern California.
President Richard Nixon’s 1969 executive order creating the office of Minority Business Enterprise spurred a national push for economic inclusion and opened career doors for Cooper. After a college internship at a Los Angeles-area minority business resource center, Cooper, in 1974, joined the staff of what was to become the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. As program manager, he oversaw a state initiative helping minority-owned firms secure purchasing contracts with public and private sector organizations. It also gave him a statewide platform and an introduction to the BBA.
His accomplishments during the next two years turned heads. One of them was that of media personality and honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant. During one of his weekly community service TV broadcasts, Grant recognized Cooper as one of Los Angeles’ leading experts on minority business enterprises.
The mid-1970s and 1980s proved a watershed for the organization and built on the accomplishments of previous BBA leadership, particularly in encouraging then-California Assemblyman Willie Brown to author legislation creating a small business procurement preference program for state agencies. That was followed in 1976 by Cooper’s first trade mission to Washington, D.C., where a BBA delegation pressed the Congressional Small Business Committee and other federal agencies to create national minority business and procurement programs. The trade mission was a BBA signature program for the next two decades. In 1987, the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, with urging from Cooper and the BBA, officially proclaimed an annual Black Business Day in Los Angeles.
Among his many accomplishments, there are two of which Cooper is particularly proud. The first is Public Law 95-507. Cooper and the BBA supported the late U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell’s efforts to push for national legislation setting aside funding for minority small businesses whose owners were economically disadvantaged. Mitchell’s bill passed. The second is California Assembly Bill 3678. Authored by the late Assemblymember Gwen Moore, BBA chairperson and a confidante with whom Cooper had a more than 40-year-long friendship, the bill required California regulated utilities with $25 million in annual revenues to establish a supplier diversity program. What became known as California Public Utilities Commission’s General Order 156 established the procurement model for utility companies across the country.
Under Cooper’s tutelage, BBA has built on those accomplishments, establishing training, networking and procurement partnerships with some of the largest corporations and government agencies in America. One of BBA’s longest relationships is with Southern California Edison (SCE), one of the nation’s largest electric utilities. In February, SCE named Cooper and the BBA as its 2021 Community Partnership honoree.
“The BBA is so much of who Skip is,” says Tarrance Frierson, head of SCE Supplier Diversity and Development. “He’s all about promoting Black businesses. He’s never missed an opportunity to make sure people know that Black businesses exist, that they are quality businesses, and that they make significant contributions throughout California and the nation.”
Recounting a story Moore shared about how seriously Cooper takes that commitment, Frierson explained that during BBA’s formative years, Cooper refused to accept any salary for his services, saying ‘he’d been called to do this work.’ “Skip comes from humble beginnings but he’s very rich in his commitment and service to others,” shares Frierson. It’s a commitment that extends beyond Los Angeles’ Black community: Cooper advised the Latin and Asian business associations during their formation.
Cooper and the BBA aren’t yet finished pivoting. As other organizations have done, BBA has transitioned its programs to a virtual format. Those include its annual salutes to Black history, Black women and Black music, as well as its twice-annual veterans’ procurement conference. The BBA also plans to launch its first e-commerce venture: a Black business shopping guide.
The actions of the last administration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and ongoing institutionalized, systemic racism leave the BBA with a full agenda. “Our challenge is to bridge the racial divide and promote opportunities for all Americans and all nationalities, creeds and religions,” says Cooper. “For our part, we’ll do that by doing what we do best: promoting the growth and expansion of Black businesses as a vital part of America.”
He adds, “We have a lot of work ahead of us but one of the lessons I brought home from Vietnam is that, despite it all, we really do have so much to be thankful for.”
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