The Eleventh Annual Minority Business Leader Awards Program, presented by the Philadelphia Business Journal, will have a distinctly local flavor this year, in the person of Haddonfield resident and architect Benita Cooper.
Cooper was one of 25 nominees selected by the publication and is set to be formally honored on Thursday, Aug. 15, during a cocktail reception at the Ballroom at the Ben in Philadelphia.
“I was so honored to be nominated for something so prestigious. To be chosen by a journal that’s part of a national network, it’s got a certain level of prestige. It’s huge. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. I think of it in terms of the three words: minority, business and leader,” she noted during a July 24 conversation with The Sun.
Cooper and the remainder of the field were considered for the award based on, according to the Journal’s website, “demonstrated business success over the past 12 to 18 months,” as well as community leadership, philanthropy, awards and milestones.
Other conditions for eligibility were: ethnicity being majority American Indian, native of Alaska, Hawaii or Pacific Islands, Asian, African American, Hispanic or Latino or Middle Eastern, who must have their headquarters in the eight-county greater Philadelphia area, the whole of South Jersey as well as Kent and New Castle counties in Delaware.
Those who have been honored for this program in the past three years are not eligible to receive the award.
Cooper’s leadership extends to a pair of entities: her primary business, Benita Cooper Design – established in 2008 with footprints in Philadelphia and Haddonfield – and the non-profit “The Best Day of My Life So Far,” which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year.
“Leadership is something I think about often. I think about how I need to communicate and interact with clients and collaborators and supporters. I also think a lot about mentors I wish I had when I was their age. I looked around and I saw that the older generation didn’t make much time for younger people. I didn’t want to get so caught up in pursuing my own goals. The goodness people have given me, I wanted to pass on,” Cooper said.
According to data released from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, in the whole of the field, only 17 percent of women can be found in leadership roles, while only 12 percent are of non-white or Hispanic backgrounds.
In addition, according to the Building Movement Project, studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director or CEO role within the nonprofit sector has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years.
Fighting an uphill battle to establish herself in the city hasn’t stopped Cooper from gaining recognition for her talents, vision and amiability within the borough.
“I hired Benita for a redecoration of my historic home in Haddonfield. We wanted to refresh the kitchen and bathrooms for a 21st century family in a 19th century home. We really liked that she respected and maintained the historical nature our house but also pushed us a little to think outside the box. Over the course of my project, we became friends. Benita is such an active member of the community, and we share many interests,” resident Jessica Lucas said.
Doug Rauschenberger, president of the Historical Society of Haddonfield, brought Cooper on to help craft a new archive center that is expected to debut in the spring.
“I must say that I did not know of Benita before she was hired to do interior design for us. But she was highly recommended by one of our board members. With our project, because we’re so focused on the macro of the building, the functionality, we hadn’t thought enough about designing the space to make it look as wonderful as the building is. I can say from the get-go our small committee felt instantly comfortable, was easy to work with and enthusiastic. It’s been a happy association, and with Benita I’m sure we’re going to have a great product and a special space for the public,” he added.
Cooper made it clear that, although she is an Asian-American woman working in a male-dominated industry, her mentorship, leadership and career advice are not intended solely for a female and Asian audience. She wants her example to be followed by men and women of all backgrounds as they advance through life.
“I’ve never let my identity limit what I believe I can do. And so I’ve always loved life and work, and have always had a certain drive within me. Growing up, I was always aware, but I never let it distract me. I never want to readjust my life to make a statement (about diversity), but it makes me focus harder on whatever I’m doing,” Cooper said.