Opening Doors, Especially on Wall Street, Is No Easy Task, but Ernesta Procope Managed It

updated 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/18/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is only four miles from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Wall Street, but the real distance between Brooklyn's squalid ghetto and the financial center of the worlds has to be measured in light-years. Only a few weeks ago Ernesta Procope completed that journey, walking into her new executive suite at 97 Wall in a moment of triumph rarely given to a man—not to mention a woman who is black.

Procope is founder and president of the largest black-owned insurance brokerage firm in the U.S., E. G. Bowman Company, Inc. For 25 years it was headquartered in Bed-Stuy, growing from a tiny home-and-car insurance office with three employees to a company with a staff of 33 (several of them white) and commercial accounts with 35 of the Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors, IBM, Kraft and PepsiCo.

The move out of Brooklyn became inevitable. "I honestly felt I couldn't stay in Bedford-Stuyvesant and operate the kind of business I think I'm going to have in the year 2000," Procope explains. "When I think about integrating into the economic mainstream, I can't necessarily depend upon the black consumer market for the product I have to offer." Another difficulty of operating in the ghetto was recruiting the kind of personnel expansion would require.

Her present staff is highly qualified, she quickly points out, noting with pride that there are only eight black CPCUs (chartered property and casualty underwriters) in the country and she has two of them, one a woman. Both earned their accreditation while working for Bowman. Even with the move to Wall Street, Procope has kept an office in Brooklyn. "I would never turn my back on Bedford-Stuyvesant. I was born and raised there."

The fourth child and only daughter of immigrant West Indian parents—her father was a chief steward for the Cunard White Star Line—Procope first aimed at a musical career. She started piano lessons at 9 and attended the High School of Music and Art. But after a year as a music major at Brooklyn College, she dropped out to marry Albin Bowman, a real estate investor. At his insistence, she took and passed the state exam for insurance broker in 1950 to help him in the business. "The longer I stayed in it," she recalls, "the better I liked it." Four years later Bowman died, and Ernesta resisted any temptation to sell out. A year later she married John Procope, now 46, publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, the nation's largest weekly newspaper for blacks. He also serves as chairman of the board at Bowman. "I often seek my husband's advice," the 50ish Ernesta says. "When I have problems I can't solve I bounce them off him and we have a dialogue. He does the same with me."

The Procopes, who have no children, make their home in an affluent section of Whitestone, Queens. For vacations they jet to their house in Barbados. On weekends they relax in a pool and sauna recently installed in their home. "I do a lot of creative thinking in the sauna," says Ernesta. "That's my narcotic."

Her success has not gone unnoticed. She sits on eight boards, including those of Avon Products and Cornell University. Named 1972's "Woman of the Year" by black newspaper supplement Tuesday at Home, she was also the Ford-appointed U.S. representative to Gambia's 10th anniversary in 1975.

She won't discuss Bowman's sales ("I am not a public company and I think the information is proprietary") but estimates run as high as $19 million a year. She does admit feeling that she's prepared to take on the big insurance companies now. Bowman and they already have something in common. "We are all," she says with a smile, "equal opportunity employers."

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