Mentoring Aspiring Professionals
Kenneth Cooke (ACCT ’92) pursued a business degree, dreaming of a big corporate office and a $30,000 salary that he thought would make him rich. But what has kept him in the world of finance for so many years is very different.
“I thoroughly enjoy working with my colleagues every day to tackle dynamic business challenges,” Cooke said. “Also important to me is that, in an environment where there are so few minorities in positions of authority, I can mentor young African Americans, encouraging them to join the business community and coaching them to successful careers.”
Currently, he has 10 “formal” mentees but mentors many others.
Cooke understands the value of mentors because he had several of his own. “It is invaluable to have people who will give you insights and independent viewpoints on your career and overall growth,” he said.
Cooke can also speak to success from personal experience. During his 28-year career, he has held positions at major companies, including Goldman Sachs, Genworth Financial, Philip Morris USA, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
From July 2013 to June 2016, he served as chairman of the board of the National Association of Black Accountants Inc.
In January 2020 he was appointed vice president in controllership at American Express, where he will support special projects for the global controllership and global accounting policy and advisory group and various other initiatives.
Cooke, landed his first job after graduation as an auditor at Coopers & Lybrand, which was a legacy firm before the merger resulting in PwC.
“Utilizing the Career Center services, I was invited by PwC to a Richmond Braves baseball game, which gave me an opportunity to network a bit,” Cooke said. It was there that he first met Kenneth Lemelin (ACCT ’84), a PwC partner who is on the advisory board of the accounting and information systems department.
“He interviewed me at Business Horizons and, because of the networking I had done at the event, I was very much at ease and really put my best foot forward,” said Cooke. “Later, I realized the initial interview was at the game!”
The Impact of the Hokie Spirit
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Cooke moved to Richmond at the age of seven. When it came time to choose a college, he gave up a full scholarship from the University of Virginia to attend Virginia Tech. “After visiting both campuses, I just felt more welcome at Tech,” he said.
But that feeling started to fade as he struggled as an engineering major.
Then he met Norrine Bailey Spencer, then Pamplin’s associate dean for undergraduate programs. “Having a faculty member who really cared about me was pivotal,” he said.
“Dr. Spencer not only talked to me but genuinely listened to me. I was already interested in accounting at that point, and my family fully supported my going that route. She helped me make the switch to Pamplin and recommended ways I could engage more on campus,” said Cooke. “Maybe even more important, she followed up with me throughout my years at Virginia Tech.”
“Having a faculty member who really cared about me was pivotal.”
Cooke worked a 32-hour week at the university bookstore all four years he was a student. “Books department manager John Boling took a chance on me, and I will always be grateful to him for trusting me with so many responsibilities and giving me a way to pay tuition.”
A few months before graduation, Cooke started donating money to Virginia Tech, because he had strong feelings about “investing” in the university that enabled him to enter the professional world.
“Simply put, I believe that every Hokie has an obligation to give back, because the degree we earn at Tech pays long-term dividends,” he said.
Another driving force for his continuing philanthropy: “I want to pay it forward — to help someone behind me not have to work as much as I did to pay for college.”
Cooke is a Pamplin Advisory Council member and serves on the alumni and engagement committees. He is the curriculum chair of the Accounting and Information Systems advisory board as well.
Pamplin’s Engagement Summit was a great opportunity to network and share best practices, he said. “It was a pleasure meeting people from different advocacy groups and learning where we have synergies and what we can do better.
“I hope one of the outcomes will be avoiding wasteful efforts and really focusing on how we can better engage our alumni and increase awareness of the excellent results that Pamplin has had across the board in its majors,” said Cooke.
“It is also important that we foster a true commitment to inclusion and diversity by attracting and educating students from across the spectrum — race, age, religion, identity, experiences — who will graduate, lead successful lives, and represent Virginia Tech well.”
– Barbara Micale