EDITH COOPER: You know, I always chuckled when someone approaches me and says, “I want to know, how did you get to where you are?” And I’m like, “That is so not relevant because first of all, you might be 10 times better than me.” Like you don’t want to hear, “And then I did this, and then I did that.” I always believed that in a mentoring conversation, that I would walk away with as much knowledge as hopefully I was sharing. And the reason I’m highlighting that, for those who are beginning their journeys, or looking to shift journeys and seeking advice, is that you should go into it, a potential mentoring conversation with that in mind, that it’s not just a one-way street.
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents, this is Race at Work – the show where we explore how race affects our careers and our lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a Wall Street career to start a company called Jopwell – because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their journey with race, equity, and inclusion. These are the conversations we don’t usually have at work. But this show is a safe place to share and learn from each other.
PORTER BRASWELL: More so than any other episode, this one is more personal for me. I started my career in sales and trading at Goldman Sachs, and one of my early mentors is this week’s guest Edith Cooper. Edith is the co-founder of Medley, along with being a board member of Slack, Etsy, and Grain Management. Previously, she was Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs. And when she was at Goldman, she played a pivotal role in driving the conversation about race at work. She also led initiatives that revolutionized the way banks in general think about recruiting and retention strategies. And she attributes her success to two of her earliest mentors – her parents.
PORTER BRASWELL: So, your parents grew up in the segregated South, they moved to New York to get away from the institutionalized racism that was occurring down there. So what were some of the major lessons you learned at home that stayed with you throughout your career?
EDITH COOPER: Well, I feel really fortunate, Porter, because I grew up with parents and family, where there was this expectation that it was our responsibility to first and foremost do well in school. Because when they looked at their experiences, it was really access to strong education that made a significant difference. They were from North and South Carolina respectively, both graduates of historically Black colleges. My mom Howard, my father Lincoln and dental school at Howard, and that really gave them this strong sense of what was expected and what the possibilities were. My parents instilled in me a willfulness, maybe it’s a bit of being stubborn, that if you want something, you have to go after it and don’t get deterred by other people’s expectations of what they think you’re capable of. Know what you’re capable of and commit to that.
PORTER BRASWELL: Well, you are now the parent of three adult children. What guidance or lessons have you and your husband provided to prepare them for the world that they will face as Black citizens and Black professionals?
EDITH COOPER: You know, it’s interesting when I listened to my description of what my parents instilled in us. I hope that we’ve done the same thing with our children. I also think that our children have seen that, despite my professional successes or my husband’s successes, that you never lose sight of where you come from. And the way that we relate to other people as people on the same level, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they’re doing. I would say also that we always welcomed our home, particularly as I began working at Goldman Sachs, to people of color. And we did it because it was important for us to show that we were welcoming, that the social avenues that were open to, often to the majority, that were limited for us, we could create. And I remember we had an event and it was a summer analyst and associate event, and my youngest was probably four or five and thought it was a great opportunity to use this as an opportunity to bounce his basketball around every human being that was at that event. And you know, at first I was like horrified, but then I realized that many of the people there were probably more entertained by him playing basketball than they were by the idle chit-chat. How do you create environments where people can just be real and comfortable?
PORTER BRASWELL: So you joined Goldman Sachs in 1996, and you made partner just four years later, and in doing so you became the first Black female partner and only the third Black partner in the firm’s 120-year history. So along that journey, what silent or not so silent obstacles did you face? And do you have a story that exemplifies a particular challenge that you may have come across?
EDITH COOPER: I benefited greatly, as every professional does, from sponsorship – not only my manager but from the organization. I would honestly say that in some ways, leadership of Goldman saw in me, potential that I hadn’t quite sort of crystallized in my own mind. At that point, I was a mom of three kids, my husband and I were trying to figure it all out, and I wanted to do well. Did I sit back and say, “I’m going to get to here by then?” No, not particularly. I just was trying to do a great job and make an impact. And I think there were some moments where honestly, if I didn’t have that support and sponsorship, I might’ve like stepped off that playing field, you know. When I had been there for a couple of years and had now management responsibility for the team, one of my peers was told basically he was going to report to me and he asked me out for dinner, and I said great, that was a thing, go out to dinner with your colleagues. And as we sat down, he said, “Listen, I just want to tell you that it’s clear to me that this is ridiculous and that I shouldn’t be working for you, and nobody thinks I should be working for you.” And I was like, “Okay.” And he said, “And by the way, I understand that if you don’t want to stay for dinner, because you want to think through this and think about what we should do about this.” And I looked at him and I said, “First of all, there’s nothing to do about this because this is it. You work for me, this is the structure. And by the way, I’m hungry, so we’re staying for dinner.” And I have to say, I don’t know where at that particular moment I got that moxie. But you know the truth of the matter is, it was just so ridiculous in my mind that I was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, you’re not going to try to pull that on me. As a Black woman you just had to endure the constant nonsense of quote jokes around, “Oh you are Black and you’re a woman, so people get double credit for you. Yeah, I saw you in there again with the boss, he’s really getting his diversity credit.” And that is, for so many of us, a real obstacle because what it does, and I think what the intent of it is, is to chip away at your confidence and to basically say to you, “No, no, no, no, you are not deserving.” And I again was fortunate to have my dad who I would go home and I would say, “This is ridiculous, and I don’t have to put up with this.” And he was an avid reader and he pulled out articles all the time, the first Black person who was a member of the New York Stock Exchange, who I would call Vernon Jordan, who is extraordinary human being and civil rights leader, who would listen and [say] basically. “Get on back there.” And so it’s sort of this story of resilience and again knowing that at the end of the day, you control you and you got to keep yourself pushing forward.
PORTER BRASWELL: So on that topic of mentorship, you mentioned Vernon Jordan as one of your mentors. How did those relationships, how did they kick off? Did you find them, did they find you? And who were some other of your mentors that have been impactful throughout your career?
EDITH COOPER: Well, each story varies, but I think the pattern is, I came across or I met Vernon as a result of a personal relationship, and he took an interest and he made it easy. I look back then and I realize like, “Oh my God, he had to work way too hard.” If I had this opportunity again, I would have been the one in the early days calling him and saying, “Can I get on your calendar?” Instead, he recognized that I had quite a bit on my plate and he would always touch base and see how I was doing. And there are others, Gary Cohn actually was my boss and mentor for much of the time I was with Goldman Sachs. And although at a certain point our politics, let’s just say, went in different directions. I would say he was a terrific mentor and sponsor, in that that he was constantly pushing me into situations that were a little bit beyond my current skill set. So they were risky, and I remember an example where it didn’t actually go particularly well. I moved my family to the U.K., had never worked outside of the US. I had a real problem, credit situation, that I was responsible for sorting out. It was way outside of my comfort zone, and he would check in as we do daily, “What’s going on with the business?” And I was just like, “Listen, you got the wrong person for this job, because I don’t have this background or that grounding.” And after two or three of these calls, he said to me, “How is your family?” “They’re great. Everybody is settling in.” “That’s good. Let me be clear, you own this issue, and there is no out of this, like if you want to call me every day to walk me through the next steps and the questions or concerns, I’m all for that. But I am no more having conversations around the fact that this is not something that you’re going to be responsible for.” And so that’s another example of mentoring. And then the final one that I’d share, Porter, is actually what people don’t expect, which is, I have gotten a lot of mentoring from people who are actually not more senior or in more powerful positions than me, but those that are coming at things from a different lens. I’m going to embarrass you a little bit Porter, because, for those that might not know had the opportunity to work together when you were a summer and then a full-time analyst at Goldman Sachs. And I recall you coming to my office saying, “You know what I got this idea. I’ve got this idea. I want to be able to give other students in universities access to the knowledge that I so benefited from. And I’ve written this book and I’m thinking about starting this company.” And I have to say I was a little bit, but what about this wonderful job you have at Goldman Sachs?
PORTER BRASWELL: Along with my parents.
EDITH COOPER: And you were killing it – killing it in a positive sense. You were doing well and you were really starting to move through the organization. And I remember so vividly when you were in my office and that last conversation, and you said, “Edith, I really care about this work. It’s like my purpose.” And I think for once, I stopped talking and I listened and I said, “I’m starting to hear you. I’m starting to hear you in a different way.” And I highlight this as an example because I think about that moment often, particularly in the years that followed, because I was hearing from others that it was not just about climbing the ladder of Goldman Sachs and the economics or the professional attributes that went with that. It was really understanding purpose of your work, really knowing that you were intended to do things, and that going after those things was something that created one’s best self, and it increasingly was Goldman Sachs’s responsibility to create environments where people could be their best selves.
PORTER BRASWELL: Well, I appreciate that. And I’ve learned countless things from you, and you’ve been the one consistent mentor I’ve had throughout my professional journey. And I know how fortunate and lucky I was to be able to have you as a mentor at such a junior stage in my career. So for those listeners that are more junior and they are professionals of color, what was it that enabled you to invest your time in a junior person? Because oftentimes it seems like this Herculean task to get a senior person to take interest in somebody more junior.
EDITH COOPER: I always believed that in a mentoring conversation, that I would walk away with as much knowledge as hopefully I was sharing. And the reason I’m highlighting that, for those who are beginning their journeys, or looking to shift journeys and seeking advice, is that you should go into it, a potential mentoring conversation, with that in mind, that it’s not just a one-way street. And therefore it really is wonderful when you develop relationships with people and do a little bit of work beforehand to understand what is it that I can learn from this person and how can I be helpful to them? And how do you do that? Do your homework and get the basics out of the way. And so, for example, I always chuckled when someone approaches me and says, “I want to know, how did you get to where you are?” And I’m like, “That is so not relevant because first of all, you might be 10 times better than me.” Like you don’t want to hear, “And then I did this, and then I did that.” What you really want to understand is something that relates to experiences that will give you insight as to the things that you might encounter as you progress. And so, I’m less interested in telling someone how to get the promotion. I’m more interested in understanding who you are and what you are looking to achieve. And if you talk to anybody that’s ever had a conversation with me, you will hear that she’s going to want to ask you your story. And it’s not a complicated question, so what’s your story? Because I’ve got your resume, particularly in the construct of working at Goldman Sachs, but I don’t know how you got your resume and that’s what interested me. But other people might be way more tactical. They want your rank and serial number, they want where you went to school and when you graduated and what you were there for. But just do a little bit of homework going into that, and then make it easy for the person to maintain a relationship. Because these people are unfortunately usually oversubscribed and busy, so try to make the conversation easy. And, by the way, if someone doesn’t reply to your email, don’t take it personally, take a bit of a step back and try again.
PORTER BRASWELL: So while you were at Goldman, you made some big changes to recruiting. Looking back, what were some of the most important changes you made and what outcomes did they create, as your legacy at the firm?
EDITH COOPER: Well, Goldman Sachs, and it’s true with every organization, is in the talent business. And the success of Goldman Sachs hinges upon our ability to attract extraordinary people. But that’s not any different than any firm, everybody wants that. And I think first and foremost, is that we knew because of the brand we could attract, but we actually hadn’t done a lot of work and understanding what it took to retain people. And then, not just retain, but create an environment where people could flourish. So let’s take them in those three categories, attract. We were literally recruiting people out of university, in the same way we had done probably 10 years prior. We’d print out people’s resumes, we’d put them in books, we’d send them to the teams of individuals who went to those schools to flip through the book to identify people who would be interesting to talk to. Now, you can see so many flaws in that. First of all, we’re talking about, at this point 2010, 2012, technology was a thing at that point. And so the whole idea that we were not actually leveraging technology just to look at more applications was fraught with all sorts of issues. Secondly, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have people from schools, interview people from schools, like likes like. So the minute you sit down with somebody and you notice that you were on the same team or lived in the same dorm, it’s a different conversation. And it really is varied based upon your connections to that person, whether you’re the first interview or the last interview. I mean, it’s a bit of a random walk. Now, the reality is the person comes in, interviews with more people. But then we really started to look at the data and we wondered, if our ultimate goal is to get the best people and we are not truly attracting a balanced group of people to apply. If 50 percent of the applicants on campus, students on campus are women, then we should know that 50 percent of our applications should be women. If 8 percent of the students that are at a majority college are Black, then we should strive to get 8 percent of our applicants. And so we really got way more granular, as we were running a talent business, with respect to setting up our expectations and our goals, and then creating a more balanced way of assessment. As an organization, we had professional recruiters, we put recruiters in positions to do their jobs. We got rid of the in-person meet-and-greet interviews, and we started to do virtual video interviews, because we felt like that was an opportunity for people to not have to look at the person that they walk in, get that expression, react to whether the person is having a good day. So we basically took an outdated approach to identifying talent and we leveraged technology to bring it forward, to really get at the best candidates. The second step to that is retention. And you asked me specifically about recruiting, Porter, but the retention piece is just as important to recruiting because information flow is instantaneous. If you are recruiting extraordinary people, particularly people of color who go into these conversations, who go into work understanding that their experience is going to be somewhat different than the majority, if it’s not actually what you promise, people will know instantaneously and the candidates that you’ll be able to access will be more limited. The other thing that was most important was that we were just looking too narrowly. And so we just kept going back to the same core schools, and then we’d sprinkle a couple of historically Black colleges in there, to ensure that we were really getting at a more diverse population, and that was very, very important. But what we weren’t really doing was breaking it down and making it more accessible so that a student at City College could see that there was an opportunity. And we really weren’t doing a good enough job at helping people understand, not just the rules as they were articulated in our information sessions, but how do I present myself? How do I express my ideas?
PORTER BRASWELL: Do you think that the financial industry will ever really crack the code and get it right? To see the type of retention of under-represented communities that we all want to see?
EDITH COOPER: The great ones will. Great financial firms will crack the code and then have to reinvent and respond to the current code because it’s not a monolithic situation. I mean, Black people and people of color are not going to be the same today, tomorrow, 10 years from now. And organizations are going to have to be in line, in thinking that as the environment changes, as the economics of businesses change, so too will be the product of those environments, i.e. people who are coming into the workplace and wanting a say. And so, I believe great companies, not only will have to, but will make it the economic imperative for their success, that it should be.
PORTER BRASWELL: Let’s go back to 2016. That summer was oddly, and unfortunately similar to this past summer, and in just two days two unarmed Black men were shot to death by police. Goldman responded by holding a company-wide dialogue about race with then CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, and several of the firm’s senior leaders who were Black, and of course you were one of them. Can you tell us what you hoped to achieve by talking about race at work? And looking back, what did you achieve?
EDITH COOPER: As you’ve pointed out Porter, it wasn’t an unfamiliar story then, and it certainly isn’t an unfamiliar story now. I would say that then the role of companies to be engaged in conversations about these atrocities was not a given. And at Goldman Sachs, I would say the firm had done a good job really tackling gender, had jumped into LGBT rights, specifically as it relates to marriage, because Goldman felt that it was key to our business, i.e. if people are not able to marry who are same sex, they will not be able to have the same benefits, they can’t be placed around the world, et., etc. So it became a business imperative. And I remember a conversation vividly, with Lloyd Blankfein who was the CEO, who said, “You know, Edith, you know personally how I feel about this.” And we had had many conversations over the years. But as the CEO, is it really my place to be engaged in these conversations?” And at the time, there was only, I think one or two CEOs out there who felt it was important to make a statement. So we, with the firm’s support, wrote the piece, and it launched a series of conversations externally and internally, to the point where you mentioned Lloyd [Blankfein] personally hosted a conversation with several of us Black partners. I remember looking in the auditorium and it was packed, people standing in the aisles, and it was a real game changer. It was also supplemented and reinforced by conversations with Professor [Mahzarin] Banaji at Harvard on blind spots, unconscious bias. But I have to say, and for me, felt like, “All right, now we’re really making strides.” Let’s fast forward though to this spring, where again, same, same horrible circumstance. You know, I think people were raw, and the upswell of frustration and anger prompted by George Floyd’s death, Breonna Taylor, and others, really took it from let’s talk about race as a good thing, nice thing, to something that I felt was way more powerful. And CEOs were not, they were not staying silent, but they realized that they needed to have a point of view, as a CEO of an organization, about how it was wrong to kill unarmed Black people, and it was wrong to not aggressively support organizations whose purpose were to focus and fight for equality on a number of different dimensions. And so, the conversations and the statements were quite direct. The dollars started to come out of organizations to support really important thinking, anything that really made them feel like they were contributing to changing thinking. I think what really has made a difference is that it is a movement, and it is a movement fueled by younger people understanding that it’s their future, and I think a big part of why so many leaders have stepped up is because you all are not having it. And as we were all asked to have extensive conversations around the experience of being Black, I had to think about how to respond when someone says earnestly, “You know, Edith, I don’t see you as Black. I don’t see color. I don’t see race.” And to have to actually hear that, and respond and continue to engage. To have friends that you’ve had forever call literally sobbing saying, “I had no idea how hard it was for you.” But you know what, we’ve endured, and we have educated, and therefore the level of accountability I think is much greater. I remain incredibly optimistic, not because I think the work is done, I think it’s just beginning. This phase is, we’ve got a lot to do. But because I think that you all and society will not stand for anything short of real action, and that is going to make a difference.
PORTER BRASWELL: I think what also feels different this time around, it’s not just the Black community calling for change, it’s the majority community, as well. And people are taking notice of all the injustices and inequalities that have always existed. And so it does feel different this time. Back in 2016, when you decided to have this conversation? And then if so, how did you get them on board?
EDITH COOPER: Well, I think this is where it’s really important to have representation at all levels of the firm because at that point I was on the management committee of the firm. As executive vice president, I’d built relationships throughout the organization. So I had a voice, and I leveraged my seat and my relationships and experience over a period of time to get people to really understand and own the responsibilities that we had as leaders to create an environment where everyone could perform with their potential, specifically people of color. I had a seat at the table because of the barriers that had been broken down by leaders before me and therefore it was my responsibility to use my seat to continue to move the focus on racial injustice and opportunities for people of color forward. And so we’d been working on focus on the Black experience for probably five to seven years before that, at a different level. So this wasn’t like we just started from ground zero. Everything that we did across the talent organization, we did it with a lens of creating opportunities for everyone to perform to their potential. And you just have to be intentional and never ever take your eye off of that Regardless of whether it’s a good economic year or a bad economic year, you have to hold yourself accountable at all times for moving the culture forward.
PORTER BRASWELL: So you left Goldman in 2017. At that point, how would you describe the culture you entered into and the culture that existed when you left?
EDITH COOPER: So 20 plus years. I think the core of the culture was accountability and clients first, and I think that that remained throughout. And the reason that I’m bringing that up is because, at the end of the day, you can have all the chit-chats you want, diversity dinners, mentoring, sponsor, but if you don’t really hold yourself accountable, it’s not going to make a difference. And so I think that the culture of understanding cause and effect, holding ourselves accountable for results was really important when I joined and increasingly became important and applied to talent functions in the same way. I think that that’s the biggest change from when I joined. And as I left at the end of 2016, I would say that I started to see a real shift, that we saw the negative repercussions of when you treated things like judgment and operating in gray as soft skills, being a strong manager and leader as soft skills, and the reputational business hits that we took as a result of sort of losing a sight of those things. We had a different level of accountability and understanding around how the Goldman Sachs culture that we were so proud of actually was not as inclusive as it needed to be, and we understood why. You know, I’m seeing really interesting new ideas that are being put forth. And I know for sure that the work that I did with my colleagues within human capital management and as a leader of the firm provided foundations to that.
PORTER BRASWELL: I appreciate that. Since leaving Goldman, you’re still very active in corporate life. You serve on the board of directors for Etsy and Slack amongst others. What’s been your experience as a Black woman in those spaces, and do you still find yourself being the only?
EDITH COOPER: Yes, I’m the only Black person on every public board. I am not the only Black person as an advisor to Grain, which is a private equity firm – by the way, founded by an extraordinary Black person, David Grain. I have, over the decades, come to realize that these “onlys” are really a competitive advantage for me, because I think about things differently, and that’s a product of every experience that I’ve had. You know, again it’s not the first time I’ve been in a situation where I walk into the room and I’m like, “All right. I got work to do.” But that’s my DNA. I get inspired by having work to do. I have gotten comfortable being uncomfortable. We all have to get really uncomfortable, at times, to stay relevant and to stay current and to stay ahead of the game. I’d also say, all of the boards that I’ve chosen to be involved in have shared value system and strong cultures. And that’s not an accident. I chose to join boards that had leadership and a culture that resonated with me.
PORTER BRASWELL: So I do want to touch on your startup, Medley, which you launched with your daughter, Jordan Taylor, this past summer. Can you talk more about the company and the problem you’re looking to solve?
EDITH COOPER: Sure. So Porter, much of what we’ve talked about in our conversation today is centered around how are people connecting with each other. If you’re a junior person, you’re joining an organization, how do you connect with other people that could be helpful to you in your pursuit of your professional goals? I always had an open-door policy for people who sought my counsel on anything and everything. But I found that over time, just to try to be accessible, I said, “I’d love to spend time with you, but if you’d bring three or four people with you, you get to decide. We could try to meet once a quarter.” And I did that because I felt like, yes I had things to offer, but actually what we really needed to do was to try to create these connections and conversations that were not tactical. And that’s what we’ve created with Medley. My daughter, Jordan Taylor, and I have created an organization whose sole principle is to create human connections with others – ideally with people that are outside of your day-to-day lane. So we curate groups of eight people with a professional, a certified coach, to meet on a monthly basis to talk about things across personal and professional priorities. You know, Medley is about connecting with other people in meaningful ways. I come at it, having spent a career as a person who’s always done better with others, and as a leader who realizes that everybody needs a coach, everybody needs a mentor. And mostly the people who get it in the corporate world are the most senior people. And the people who could benefit the most and as an investment, are those that are up and coming in their career.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s incredible, and it’s a really important company that can make a lot of impact. So this is my final question, and this is a question that we ask all of our guests. Should race be discussed at work?
EDITH COOPER: Yes.
PORTER BRASWELL: And why?
EDITH COOPER: Because it is the core underlying dynamic for our society that needs to be reckoned with. And if you don’t talk about it at work, you are basically asking people who understand how critically important it is to everything in our society to put it on the back shelf. So you’re basically saying, not inside our commercial entity, and you’re ignoring the fact that when you look at the society, decision-makers, people who are spending money, et cetera, are increasingly going to be people of color. And if you don’t reflect that you have an interest in understanding the experience, the conflict, the challenges, you will not be relevant as an organization. If you don’t create environments where people can bring their true selves to work, people will not want to work at your organization. And your answer to that might be, “Well, that’s okay. We’re doing just fine.” I’d like to almost see you write that down and the date, and we’ll come back at you in a couple of years. We’ll see how you ‘re doing.
PORTER BRASWELL: Well, I appreciate it as always from every conversation we’ve ever had, I continue to learn from you. Thank you for all that you do, all that you will continue to do.
EDITH COOPER: Well, I really have appreciated the conversation. So thank you for the work that you’re doing as well.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Edith Cooper, co-founder of Medley and previously Global Head of Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs. This episode was produced by Amy Chyan and edited by Anne Saini. I’m Porter Braswell. Thanks for listening to Race at Work – part of the HBR Presents network.