In My Reality, an editorial series from D CEO, North Texas executives share their personal experiences of diversity and bias. Cooper Koch, principal and founder of Cooper Smith Agency, shares how he overcame some of the challenges he faced in his public relations career.
“I am from far South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley in an area that is 98 percent Hispanic. I always joke that I was the tallest, gayest, whitest thing in three counties. I have been basically called a ‘fag’ my whole life. That’s something that pretty much any child who’s coming to terms with such things has to deal with. But I wasn’t really bullied that horribly because I was white down there. For better or for worse, that white privilege provided a shield of protection in a way. Very early on in my childhood, I decided, ‘This is just who I am, and I’m never going to fit in, so stop trying.’ That has always been a mantra of mine.
“My junior year of high school, I lived in Germany as a foreign exchange student, and my eyes just opened to the world. That was the single most life-changing turning point in my life—more than marrying my husband and more than having children. The trip opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know about different cultures. It opened my eyes to the fact that just because I have not experienced something does not mean that it’s bad, unworthy, or doesn’t have merit.
Stepping Out Alone
“After high school, I wanted to get out of the Rio Grande Valley as fast as possible, and I applied to Southern Methodist University. My parents were not in favor of it, so I got scholarships and paid for the rest of the tuition on my own through loans and work-study. I graduated from SMU in 1997, and the job market wasn’t great at the time for PR people. I got a job at Pottery Barn while I looked for other work. I did not have any shame in that, and I did not think I had failed. Looking back on the adversity of being teased or not fitting in as a child, I just always say, ‘You don’t have to do things the way that everyone says you have to do them.’ There’s no particular order to how you have to do things, and I’ve always carried that self-confidence with me about my own abilities.
“I eventually got a PR job at a major ad agency in Dallas but ultimately was laid off. It taught me a valuable lesson. Stress is going to be stress. You can either stress about having a job or stress about running a business. I would rather be in control of my life, and that’s when I knew I was going to go out on my own. My granddad always used to say, ‘If Cooper sets his mind to do something, he is just going to do it. We all have to either support it or get out of his way.’
“I’m a big personality. I talk a lot. I smile a lot and am very high energy. People who don’t want to subscribe to this show change the channel real fast. Occasionally, I have been in situations where I have been hired, done a wonderful job, and then someone finds out that I’m gay or thinks I’m a little too flamboyant. I’ve never been fired expressly for that reason, but sometimes it’s evident that’s what is happening.
“A couple of years ago, I was working on a commercial real estate project in a very conservative community. At one point, the developer, a man in his late 60s, started openly questioning whether or not I should be doing PR for the project because I’m gay and people around the area ‘didn’t like gay people.’ After I explained my role, and we completed the project, the man was very complimentary of me in the end. But he’s still one of those people that when he would say the word ‘gay’ would only whisper it.
The Tide Is Turning
“I think people appreciate authenticity and openness. I do not shy away from conversations about race, and I don’t turn away from conversations about gay rights. The tide is turning. The younger generation, millennials, and Generation Z are really helping change perspectives on what’s acceptable by pushing boundaries. When people are the most authentic at being themselves, they are their best selves for business.
“With the general conversation that is going on in society today and the dialogue that’s happening about racial issues and females in leadership positions, we are seeing people in different lights and ways that didn’t exist before. Some people are pushing back on it, but I think a lot of people are really leaning into it. That is why it’s super important to continue to make yourself uncomfortable. Continue to challenge your misconceptions about things or even just what your beliefs are.
“One piece of advice I have is to let humanity more into your interactions with people. I make it my priority to know my employees as people because it helps me understand them. People’s life experiences, all the way back to their youth, impact the way they think about things. It’s our job to understand that part of it so that we understand why they’re saying something or why they’re reacting a certain way.
The corporate job search process has become very inhuman. Companies, my company included, need to actively look for talent that does not look like us, think like us, or talk like us. Sometimes you have to go find people, and it’s harder. It takes more time, energy, and money, but, ultimately, it is better in the long run.”<
If you’re a North Texas business or nonprofit leader and would like to participate in D CEO’s My Reality series, please contact [email protected]