'Never Compromise Your Values'

Alumnus Kareem Cook discusses successfully changing corporate cultures and the importance of being intentional

December 15, 2020

When Kareem Cook was pursuing his MBA at Fuqua, he was part of a program for students supporting the dean’s office, including jobs like staffing guests and high profile speakers.

Cook remembers vividly escorting then CEO of Bear Sterns Alan Schwartz from the airport to campus for a Distinguished Speakers Series talk.

Twenty years later, Cook’s Fuqua experience has come full circle. Cook recently shared his own leadership journey as part of the same series with Dean Bill Boulding.

Cook is the managing director of Towerview Capital Management as well as co-owner and chief marketing officer of Naturade, a nutraceutical company started in 1926.

As an entrepreneur who has used business to improve society, Cook shared a wide range of insights, including how to create an entrepreneurial mindset, using business to improve society and the reality of addressing systemic racism in business (see full video above).

Knowing your value as an entrepreneur
Cook told a story of how one of his earliest investors, a well-known Wall Street financier, challenged him on a salary issue. Rather than retreat from the hard questioning, Cook and his partner saw it as an opportunity to highlight the value he brought to the venture. Cook explained it was an early lesson on the entrepreneurial mindset.

“Have confidence in who you are," Cook said. "Know your worth and know your value. And never ever compromise your values and who you are.”

Changing a company’s culture
After acquiring Naturade, Cook quickly received a hands-on lesson in change management as he sought to make the company more diverse and inclusive. He first tried to reassure employees that layoffs were not part of the plan, but a new direction was coming.

“The first thing we had to do was make everyone feel safe," Cook said. "But we asked the employees to buy into the new vision and culture.”

Ultimately, Cook said, not everyone got on board and some people left the company.

“We explained that we were going to be diverse and the first thing we are going to do is hire women to the C-suite, because 80 percent of our products are purchased by women," Cook said.

Cook said the experience taught him to appreciate the nuances of changing a culture in the acquisition of a company, versus establishing a culture as a founder.

Addressing racial challenges in business
Cook spoke openly about the challenges of being Black in business.

He said he initially struggled with the choice of designating Naturade as a minority business enterprise (MBE). His early thinking was that because his is a Black-owned business, a segment of the population would never accept it.

“After two years, we realized this went against who we are," Cook said. "We need to be bold in who we are, and it’s time for the world to know what we are doing.”

No sooner had Naturade acquired MBE status, than it got deleted from the vendor list of a major retailer for embracing the designation, Cook said.

“We had a choice: to litigate this company and bring it to national attention, or just go on," he said. "Happy to say that we went on, rebounded, and got into Costco, which has a much different philosophy.”

On another occasion, for a Naturade pitch, Cook said the decision-maker told him that the only reason his company and its products were being considered was “because you’re Black.”

“It was a moment where I had to decide if I should blow up the ship just to make a point, or take what was given to me, do well, and then this person is in no position to mess up my destiny.”

Ultimately, Cook decided to proceed with the deal. But he plans to follow-up with the individual later in an effort to educate.

“I can still have a subsequent conversation about how her words made me feel and advise her to find the words to better describe the way she feels," he said.

Cook said he is encouraged by the recent national awareness of racial inequity and he believes some suppliers are taking action to do their part in trying to dismantle systemic racism.

“We are getting to see, right before our eyes, why people have been angry for so long," Cook said. "White people are turning on the TV and are now able to see why their Black friends are always complaining.”

Having been able to successfully grow his various businesses while overcoming racial barriers, Cook feels it’s his job now to open the door for others.

Being intentional
Cook says despite the challenges of 2020, there is tremendous opportunity.

“2020 is the best of times and the worst of times, in that we are getting hit by COVID, but now everyone is seeing how the world is changing," he said. "The world we are in right now requires intentionality. Be intentional in everything you do and be bold. Know what you will accept and won’t accept. We have no time to deal with anything else.”

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