What's it like to be a black executive in America? A Q&A with Samaritan's CIO, Will Cooper

By Samaritan staff  ·  Jan 25, 2021

Editor’s Note: As a Christian community with numerous ethnicities, cultures, and denominations represented, Samaritan Ministries celebrates the diversity of the Body of Christ, while embracing the unity of our shared faith in Jesus. In this month’s newsletter we recognize Black History Month and the blessing our Black brothers and sisters are to the Body of Christ and Samaritan Ministries. We are incredibly grateful for our CIO, Will Cooper, and his leadership in our IT department, and we asked him to help us understand his experiences as a black Christian executive and our role as Christians in honoring and representing the dignity of every person.

Samaritan Ministries: Will, having worked in the business world for three decades while also serving as a pastor for many of those years, you brought a lot of experience to your role at Samaritan Ministries. Can you tell us about your experiences, particularly in the business world?

Will Cooper: God has shown me tremendous favor by blessing me with a successful career as a corporate executive for major Fortune 100/500 companies, like Bell Labs, AT&T, Verizon, Unisys, Comcast, Amdocs, Digex, Intermedia, and even running my own company. In my roles I have operated and managed large service delivery organizations and led teams in developing some of the most innovative products and services in technology and telecommunications. I sold over $1 billion of products and services, developed corporate strategies, and worked on major mergers and acquisitions. My work has taken me around the world, allowing me to meet countless warm-hearted people I now call friends.

I consider all of this to be God’s grace and kindness in ordering my steps.

Samaritan: Corporate America has its challenges for any follower of Christ. It also has common challenges for those of specific demographics, whether Latinos, women, or African Americans. Can you speak to some of the challenges you faced as a black executive?

Will: While I am incredibly grateful for the many friends I’ve made and opportunities I’ve received, it’s not been an easy journey. In many of my positions, I would be only one of two black executives in the entire company, so there wasn’t much sense of shared experience with my colleagues. Plus, I was a Christian. But I knew I was called to serve and lead in these roles and sought to benefit and prosper my companies and colleagues.

This may seem strong, but, as a black executive in corporate America, I could not be myself. I’m a big black man—6 feet, 4 inches, 285 pounds— and that alone was regularly perceived as threatening. Some days could be more stressful than others, when you have to carefully manage and be mindful of your emotions in ways that reflected the racial landscapes that you work in.  I was told by one of my bosses that I was too blunt, aggressive, and scary because of my stature as a big black guy—not because I was actually too blunt, aggressive, or scary.

While working on various assignments, clients initially would confuse me, the head executive, with my subordinates because of our color. The client would introduce himself and extend a handshake to the other person but only say “Glad to meet you, Will,” to me. The other guy was my deputy. He was white.

Unfortunately, I have been excluded from meetings relative to my job and passed over for growth opportunities when I have been the highest performing candidate based on exceeding goals and objectives. One manager would meet one on one with others on my team who were not black but would not meet with me. My colleagues would use racially insensitive language around me.

"While I am incredibly grateful for the many friends I’ve made and opportunities I’ve received, it’s not been an easy journey."

At one point in my career, I was “white” enough that people in my group were comfortable with me as long as I didn’t call too much attention to my blackness, but I was seen as black when they needed me to shed light on the black experience.

But you need to understand, I am not unique. All African-Americans face some type of racism, no matter what their socioeconomic level or denominational affiliation. In all things, I seek to “believe the best” in why others say what they do, but it’s hard to describe how it feels when my identity itself as a black man is perceived as threatening.

Samaritan: What were some of your experiences when you would travel or conduct business outside of the office?

Will: Because of my size and stature, I would get dirty looks and be treated with disrespect at airports or passed over to catch a cab. I have to be very cognizant of what I wear. I typically wear suits when I travel or conduct business outside of the office so that I do not appear as a threat. One manager told me never to wear black suits, because it made me look intimidating.

If I went to the gym or headed out for a walk during a business trip, I would typically pick an outfit that would have the name of my alma mater, Johns Hopkins, on it and wear some type of workout shoe that was different and not seen as a fad type of sneaker so people would know I wasn’t a threat. I’ve been pulled over multiple times without any cause in my own neighborhood, and the officers would treat me more respectfully if I was wearing a suit. When I would be in casual clothes, they would be more suspicious—even in my own neighborhood.

Samaritan: As a Christian and pastor facing these challenges, you have had a source of strength and perspective to respond to these circumstances. What role has the Lord played in all of this?

Will: Even though things were unfair to me in some situations, they made me stronger. God’s love for me made me stronger. My faith made me stronger. Keeping God first in my life made me stronger.

Through all of my experiences, it was my God, my faith, my family, and my network of people who cared, and my willingness to never give up that kept me on my path to success.

I also knew that I was part of Jesus’ Church, and so I had a calling to make a real difference in this world. By my words and actions, I could display a better way to others.

"Through all of my experiences, it was my God, my faith, my family, and my network of people who cared, and my willingness to never give up that kept me on my path to success."

Samaritan: What’s your prayer for the Church, Will? What is our role as Christians in such circumstances?

Will: I pray that the Church would show that same love to brothers and sisters of all colors. We are one body! The Church has been important throughout the civil rights movement, which was actually born out of the Church. That’s what made it so effective—by responding to injustice like Christ did, they showed a better way, and racism was clearly seen as repulsive.

But today, the Church has lost some of its prophetic voice and fervor. I want us to get that back—and we can’t turn the Gospel into politics, like so many are doing.

Like everyone else, I’m tired and fed up with the hatred and division in our nation. I know sin is the core problem and the Gospel is the answer, but everything can be exhausting. Recently the Holy Spirit reminded me that Christians have the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). In Acts, God brought together Hebrews, Italians, and Greeks. African men were being baptized by Hebrew men! In Christ all the racial hostility and prejudice can be torn down. God has done it before, and He continues to do it today.

I give God thanks because He called me—and you—to be ministers of reconciliation. So, as fed up and frustrated as I am about what is going on in this nation politically and racially, I must stay in this space as a witness to the unbelieving world and as one with the Body of Christ.

Samaritan: How can we do that?

Will: The answer is love: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another” (John 13:34). I said it last summer, and I’ll say it again,

Everything we do needs to be done in love. We need to love our neighbor and understand our neighbor’s perspective. Remember, we don’t all have the same experiences. However, all of us deserve to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect.

Let’s keep lifting up Christ and be part of that reconciliation.