A Black Woman in Corporate America: Blue Cross Sales Manager Shares Her Experience
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
- – Marian Wright Edelman
When Stacey Cooperwood’s family moved to an all-white Grand Rapids neighborhood in 1971, they knew they might encounter resistance.
As the first African-American family on the block, Cooperwood said her hard-working mom and dad did their best to fit in and not draw undue attention. Her construction worker father kept an immaculate lawn. Her homemaker mom minded Stacey and her siblings to make sure they weren’t a bother.
Still, the color of their skin was the offense their next-door neighbor couldn’t ignore. Even though her daughter had befriended the Cooperwood girls, snacking on their food and learning some of their family’s customs, the neighbor wasn’t happy about the situation.
“Her mom made it clear she did not like blacks and she did not want her daughter playing with blacks,” Cooperwood said.
The neighbor drew a line one summer evening as the children played in the yard.
Using a racial epithet directed at Cooperwood and her sister, the woman sharply told her daughter to stop playing with the girls and to come inside. Cooperwood’s mom stopped what she was doing and walked to the neighbor’s door. She calmly offered to pray for her and introduced her daughters by name, insisting “you will not call my girls anything but their names.”
Cooperwood said her mom’s guidance and example has shaped her life and career, with the guiding principle that you sometimes have to show people how to treat you in order to get the respect you deserve.
The sales manager for West Michigan health plan business at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan recently shared stories from her personal and career experience with employees at Blue Cross’s downtown Grand Rapids location as part of broader efforts and events to celebrate Black History Month.
With more than 20 years at Blue Cross in Grand Rapids and Detroit and sales stints at General Motors and other companies, Cooperwood said she’s experienced her fair share of discriminatory words and situations in the workplace. She drew on her parents’ example to meet hatred with love and respect and to always remember her self-worth and place in the world, despite others’ misconceptions.
She devours motivational books to keep moving forward and carries a card with her at all times of her favorite sayings and Bible verses. Cooperwood advised those hoping to move up in corporate America to constantly be open to learning opportunities on the job and off and to realize that the image you project in the workplace serves as your brand.
“How do you want people to see you,” she asked.
While great strides have been made, Cooperwood said people of color have a long way to go when it comes to representation in management and executive positions. Diversity in the workplace is important because it allows more voices and experiences to be at the table. It also shows junior employees that they have something to aspire to, which is why the quote at the beginning of this post is one of Cooperwood’s favorites.
For the employees who do see her and aspire to her success, Cooperwood urges belief in your own ability to do big things.
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Photo credit: Julie Bitely