More than fifty-five years ago, Ernesta G. Procope formed E.G. Bowman Company, Inc., in Bedford Stuyvesant to provide auto and homeowners insurance services to her underserved community. Thanks to her energetic entrepreneurship, the agency grew and prospered.
But by the middle of the 1960s that growth was being hampered by insurance companies' reluctance to write business in the area. In 1966, fearing riots amidst the Civil Rights Movement, insurers canceled 90 of the agency's homeowner clients in one day.
"This wasn't a neighborhood at risk," Procope said of the cancellations. "These were well-built, owner-occupied brownstones."
But Procope fought for her clients. She went straight to the top and approached New York Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller demanding a solution. Her efforts led to New York becoming the first state to enact FAIR (Fair Access to Insurance Requirements) Plan legislation. As a result of Procope's efforts, 26 states have adopted FAIR Plan legislation.
At the same time, Ernesta also hired limousines to bring insurance executives into the neighborhood to show them that the properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant were valuable and insurable.
She succeeded in finding a company to write the risks. By the end of the decade, the agency began to add commercial lines to its repertoire. One of the company's first commercial accounts was the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a community development program started by Robert F. Kennedy.
Another major account followed when the agency was named broker of record for the Northern Pipeline Construction Project. The project was an enormous undertaking — insuring a gas pipeline 42 inches in diameter and 800 miles long that went through five states and connected to the Alaska Pipeline in Calgary, Canada. By the time the '70s were coming to a close, E.G. Bowman had succeeded in landing 25 Fortune 500 clients.
Still, despite these successes, the company's Bedford Stuyvesant address presented challenge after challenge for the agency's efforts to integrate into the mainstream. So, in 1979, the agency moved to one of the most famous streets in America and the capital of the financial world — Wall Street. The agency is still there today.
The move proved to be a good one for Procope, as additional Fortune 500 companies entered the Bowman fold. Their impressive portfolio of clients includes IBM, Avon Products, Philip Morris Companies, Heinz, Pfizer, General Motors and AOL/Time Warner. Prestigious local accounts also came on board, including Dime and Apple Savings Banks, Inner-City Broadcasting, Tiffany & Co. and Con Edison.
Meanwhile, E.G. Bowman never deserted the loyal customers who had been with the agency since its days in Brooklyn.
"We have continued to insure and service the people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community," said Procope.
Ernesta Procope has received numerous awards recognizing her contributions to the community and her entrepreneurial spirit, including a presentation of the "Woman of the Year" award in 1972 at the White House by First Lady Patricia Nixon. In 1993, Ernst & Young named her Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2003, Ms. Procope was inducted into the African American Hall of Fame and in 2006, she was named to the Minority Business Hall of Fame and Museum.
Procope and E.G. Bowman have served as an inspiration to many for breaking down barriers and in calling a new era of equal opportunity.
"Unfortunately," she admitted, "there remain vestiges of racism and sexism that continue to make our job more difficult than it should be. But significant progress has been made over the last 50 years. We look forward to an America where people are only judged by their abilities and talents and willingness to work."
Ernesta G. Procope, we salute you and honor your vast contributions.
*Sources: By Dennis H. Pillsbury for RN Magazine, patch.com