from BOOM Jackson
When rambunctious 11-year-old Jason Goree, son of a recently divorced mother, Janace Harvey Goree, met the dean of the business school one Saturday morning in Cooley’s Jackson State office,he had no idea his life would change because of it.
Jacksonians couldn’t have had any idea the city’s business landscape would eventually begin to change because of that meeting, either.
William Cooley’s business finesse didn’t come by way of an aristocratic family who passed the family’s business from one generation to the next. His beginnings were humble.
Born to hardworking parents on sharecroppers’ plantation land in Hollandale, Miss., Cooley started working when he was a young toddler, picking cotton. Following his high school graduation, he attended Tuskegee Institute for a year. Then because money was scarce for tuition, he joined the Army. After more than 20 years in the armed forces (some of that time spent fighting in Vietnam) and finishing up the chemistry degree he began at Tuskegee, Cooley earned a master’s degree in industrial management from the University of North Dakota. By the time he’d finished his degree, he’d been offered two positions: one as a professor at Jackson State University’s newly formed business school and the other on the New York Stock Exchange. He chose the former. The professor went on to earn a doctorate in business administration from Mississippi State University, where he also taught, then returned to a 20-plus-year teaching stint at JSU and opened a consulting firm (or two).
Today Cooley—Bill, friends call him—is a giant in business development and instruction in Jackson. Goree pre-warned: “Doc is going to be really uncomfortable talking about himself. He doesn’t like the spotlight.”
But Cooley’s name belongs near the top of anyone’s short list of people worth illuminating. The shine from the spotlight he avoids beams on some of the most well-known business leaders in the city. And their lights shine on others.
Goree says about his first meeting with Cooley: “I’m looking at this man who’s, like, my height, and wondering what we’re going to do together. But every Saturday starting the next week for seven years after that, we spent together.”
Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. sharp, Goree’s mom would drop him off at Cooley’s office on the corner of Roseneath and Fourth streets, and he’d start his usual routine: sweep the floors, straighten up and hope for ice cream. By the time he was done with his chores, some influential person(s) would come to Cooley’s office for meetings about various projects.
“I didn’t know it, but I was meeting mayors and movers and shakers in the city. I would sit there, picking my nose, and Doc would be embarrassed and carry on with his meeting,” Goree says.
“I wanted to broaden his horizons,” the now- 80-year-old Cooley says of now-31-year-old Goree.
When Cooley first started taking up time with Goree, their interactions were supposed to ensure that the young and potentially misguided young man had a strong male figure in his life. Their relationship developed from one of benevolent dictatorship/subordinate to comrades.
Sitting for lunch at the University Club, Cooley and Goree share an immediately obvious history when their jokes fly, and the punch lines seem to be a secret for the two of them alone.
“I was pretty autocratic at that time,” Cooley says about the early days he spent with his mentee.
“I believed, and still do, that the biggest failure of a child is to let them do what they please. Jason and I had a formal relationship starting out. When he didn’t follow my rules, we … ‘engaged’!”
“He put the fear of God in me,” Goree says with bugged eyes, swatting his right hand in the air corporal punishment style to explain what Cooley’s use of the word“engaged” meant.
Engagement between the two became few and farther between as Goree got older.
“Everything changed when he stopped wearing that damn costume,” Cooley says, laughing uncontrollably as he described seeing Goree
dressed in his Jim Hill mascot uniform.
“You can’t take anyone seriously who’s wearing a tiger’s head on their head.”
By the time Goree was enrolled as a student at Mississippi State University majoring in business information systems, his relationship with Cooley had most certainly shifted.
“All I ever wanted to be in life (before that) was a son and to hear a father figure say, ‘I’m proud of you.’” Goree says Cooley took that role and before long, he was helping him figure out his personal systems—how he’d get from proverbial point A to point B.
Everything in life has a system—a way it operates and works, Cooley believes. “‘If you don’t have a system, your system is failure,’ Dr. Cooley would say. As I got older, he checked on my system,”
As he was trying to figure out what he would do after college, Cooley never told him what to do.
“I’d tell him what I was considering,” Goree says, “and he’d tell me four things—”
Cooley interrupts: “This is the right thing to do. This is the wrong thing to do. This is what I’d do. Now you do what you damn well please!”
“Our relationship shifted before I knew it,” Cooley says. “One day, you wake up, and you’re friends. Colleagues. You can talk about anything, and tell jokes you couldn’t have told before.”
After graduating from Mississippi State University, Goree moved to Dallas, Texas, and managed two insurance offices. Cooley proved to be the perfect sounding board and person to help him process decisions before making them.
After seven years in Texas, Goree and his family returned to Jackson.
As the University Club’s final patrons leave (Cooley eats lunch here regularly), its manager, John Hardy, 53, comes over to say hello.
“Sit down,” Cooley instructs Hardy. “They’re talking nonsense about me. You’ll tell the truth.”
But Cooley’s willingness and passion to teach what he knows is only affirmed when Hardy sat at the table. More spotlight. Cooley grows increasingly uncomfortable. “OK, guys. Anymore, and I’ll be dead. Let’s move on,” he pleads.
“There’s hardly a day that passes that I don’t talk to Dr. Cooley,” Hardy says. “I don’t make a major decision without consulting him even now. Even
when I know I’m right, I bounce it off him.”
Hardy and Cooley met when Hardy was a student of Cooley’s at Jackson State.
“Out of all the wonderful professors I had at JSU, for us to bond the way we did, I don’t quite understand it all. We had a special connection. You
knew he knew what he was talking about.”
A requirement in one of Cooley’s classes that Hardy took was that students be paired with a local business and help with its day-to-day operations, as part of the collaboration between Systems Consultants Associates Inc. The consultancy firm Cooley started in 1977 that worked primarily with minority businesses in the Jackson area that needed “more structure and a lot more guidance.”
Hardy worked with Woodruff Plumbing. “We went in and got to do everything. We got Mr. Woodruff in a uniform. A sign on his truck. … Working so closely with him made us invested in the business. By the end of the project,” Hardy says, “it felt like our business, too. It was rewarding.”
That was Professor Cooley’s plan. He believes one of the best ways to learn about business is to operate one. That’s one of the reasons Cooley is such a vocal supporter of entrepreneurship and individuals branching out on their own in business. While Cooley’s mentoring and sharing his business sense isn’t exactly passing a family-owned business from one’s hands to another’s, passing knowledge along is essential in any entrepreneur’s success.
According to the Small Business Administration, only 30 percent of the United State’s 21 million small, family-owned businesses make it a second generation; only 15 percent make it to a third. These truths undoubtedly affect the nation’s economy.
The chief reasons for this epic failure is business owners’ lack of planning for the future and leadership.
Goree says Cooley sings a chorus about the indispensability of seeing things beyond the now and consequentially planning. “He’s taught me ‘Always see yourself doing great things.’ See yourself doing something bigger.”
While practicing greatness, Cooley not only teaches but also proves through his actions the importance of preparing someone else to be great.
“Right now, Doc isn’t trying to take on many new things,” Goree says, as Cooley looks at him with a “let’s-find-something-else-to-talk-about” glance. “He’s trying to get things off his plate. He’s passing the torch on—like to his daughter and, I guess, me!—now so he can know when you take over what he’s handed off to you, you can handle it. He’s always teaching.”
That’s leadership—an important form of it, at least.
“I believe in the Harry Truman form of leadership,” Cooley says. “Harry Truman said leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do and like it. Liking it. That’s the important part.”
John Hardy echoes, “And it’s taking people from where they are to where they’ve never been. It’s being able to be influential.”
“I always say if you’re leading and no one’s following, you’re just taking a long walk,” Goree adds. The trio laughs jocundly.
But leadership and teaching, Cooley says, are not one-way exchanges.
“We tend to be in silos, but we need to be vertical and horizontal in,” he says. “When we go from vertical to horizontal connections, it makes our communities and businesses stronger.”
These relationships, he says, keep him young, abreast and active. “I like to learn and move. I don’t want to sit still just yet. I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I’m dead.”
In Cooley’s West Jackson Leadership Academy, of which Goree is a part, it was crucial to the founder that junior and senior leaders are integrated. Otherwise, those who have knowledge—that should, according to Cooley, “flow both ways”—may not create or seek out opportunities to share it. Those who don’t share, Hardy says, are self-interested.
“It’s selfishness,” he says. “It’s an ‘I’ve got mine, so you get yours’ attitude.”
“And it might be a lack of trust,” Goree suggests. “I think some in the older generations don’t trust my generation. We haven’t made ourselves worthy to be trusted.”
Beyond that, he says, there’s an intimidation factor in play. “When Dr. Cooley taught me that everything has a plan—a system—he was teaching me to prepare to be great. You can’t be intimidated by others’ greatness. Do whatever it is you’re going to do, and do it well. I’d rather you be a great sergeant, if that’s what you’re called to be, than a lousy general.”
Cooley, John Hardy and Jason Goree all feel a call to be student teachers—mentors. “You don’t set out to be a mentor,” Cooley says. “I never did that but … when you know something, you share it. That’s what it’s all about”
That’s exactly what the two men who learned from Cooley are doing. Teaching others, paying it forward. “Doctor Cooley doesn’t just talk this thing; he lives it, and it makes those around him want to do the same,” Hardy says.
For the past several years, Hardy has worked within the Jackson Public School system, teaching them about the world of fine dining etiquette training, and the like. He averages 15 schools per year. He’s also recently taken up with a young boy whose parents have separated. “He’s a bright kid, wise beyond his years. I just want to encourage him, even at this young age.”
“I still have a lot to learn myself, but I want to share what I know, so I do a lot of peer mentoring,” the youngest of the three says in a separate interview. “If I’m talking to a college student, I want to know what’s your life plan. We all want to do things, but we don’t all have a thought-out plan. What’s your 10-year goal? Five-year goal? One-year goal? Write it down. Like that scripture that says ‘write the vision, make it plain.’ You’ve got to get it out of you. Then I can hold you accountable, and you can hold yourself accountable and go back and evaluate how you’ve matured or how you’ve gone backwards.”
For Goree’s 10-year plan, he’s determined to assist in the revitalization of West Jackson, where he was born and reared.
“West Jackson has the best transportation infrastructure in the state. The people there are great and want to see change, but most of them have lost hope and are wondering if they’ll ever see any change happen,” Goree says. “I want to help make that change happen for those people.”
And he is.
“Now when I walk in the room and sit down at the table, I’m sitting with some of the same people I met when I was a kid, hanging out at Dr. Cooley’s office every Saturday. They say, ‘Aren’t you Dr. Cooley’s boy?’ And I tell them I am. And I get that instant credibility because of my relationship with Doc,” he says modestly of the “few projects” he’s working on “off the record” in West Jackson with developers in the city. “But I have to work to maintain that credibility on my own. Because of Doc, I know just how to do that. … I prepare.”