History-makers seldom have an example to follow; they make a path for others to follow them. Taking on an industry that didn’t see people like her set Ernesta G. Procope apart from the very beginning. Having a successful business as a black woman in the ’50s was rare; establishing a profitable venture on Wall Street in 1979 was an even greater accomplishment. Procope blazed a new trail not only for African Americans, but for women. Black Enterprise’s A. G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award “recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit and the guiding light of an individual who has established an extended and consistently distinguished record of success.” Who better fits that image for the company’s highest entrepreneur award than Procope.
Building on a needed commodity, specifically in the black community, Procope saw an opening that would help her business. At that time, insurance companies shunned the predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, although the area was full of beautiful brownstones. Thus, in 1953, in that same area of Brooklyn, New York, she started her new business, the E.G. Bowman Co., a private insurance company that offered insurance to the residents of the predominantly black neighborhood. Based on a suggestion by her late husband, Albin Bowman, a successful real estate broker, she started the business after he persuaded her to get her broker’s license (at the Pohs Institute for Insurance and Real Estate) so she could learn the real estate business and to insure his properties as well. The company began as a homeowner and auto insurance agency storefront. She sold insurance but also focused on real estate development, rehabilitating and selling brownstones in Brooklyn. Speaking about that time, “I never operated with a complex—as a woman, as a black woman, as a black. But instead, as a person in business,” Procope said. “We knew there were problems, but I could not let that be a deterrent to me.”
As the real estate market succumbed to a cyclical recession, Procope had to persuade insurance companies to insure her customers. She hired limousines and brought insurance executives from Manhattan to Brooklyn to show that properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant were valuable and insurable. “They didn’t know that Bedford-Stuyvesant had substantial, middle-class homeowners, blacks and whites, who needed and deserved coverage,” she said. “They were shocked.”
In 1968, Procope was influential in the creation of the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan, when insurance executives, after the riots in the mid to late ’60s, started to pull out of urban neighborhoods en masse and began redlining minority neighborhoods. Knowing how that would hurt minority residents, she used her political influence and took this issue to New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and persuaded him to support legislation to make homeowners insurance available to all in the state.
Undeterred in her quest to obtain bigger corporate clients, she put in a bid and won a community development program started by Robert F. Kennedy, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. It became the company’s first major commercial customer. But she didn’t stop there. As she went after corporate America, she won the account to insure PepsiCo and added companies such as Avon Products, Philip Morris, Time Warner, Tiffany & Co., and General Motors, plus government agencies and nonprofits that still remain clients today. From there, the bigger companies started rolling in. The company even became the agency of record for the U.S. portion of the Alaska Pipeline and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program through the U.S. Information Agency. In fact, E.G. Bowman was ranked No. 15 on BLACK ENTERPRISE’s first list of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses – then known as the Top 100 – when it was unveiled in the June 1973 issue. Procope became the first woman to earn the distinction of being a CEO of a BE 100s company.
As its president and chief executive officer, Procope made history in 1979 when she relocated her business from the streets of Brooklyn to 97 Wall Street in the heart of the financial district of New York City. That move made The E.G. Bowman Co. the first African American-owned business to be located on Wall Street. Given the title of ‘The First Lady of Wall Street,’ Procope led E.G. Bowman to earn $40 million in premiums in 2004 and lured big-name clients such as IBM, Time Warner, General Motors, and Philip Morris. She is also the founder and president of Bowman Specialty Services L.L.P., an extension of her business that provides engineering and safety services.
As Procope stated in National Underwriter Property & Casualty-Risk & Benefits Management, “I feel that I have an advantage because I am a black female. I don’t let being a minority or being a woman deter me. I have no complexes about being a woman or being black. I turn that around.” And in the New York Amsterdam News, “While a few women have broken through the ‘glass ceiling,’ it is imperative that the insurance industry be made aware of the talents, credibility, exceptional training, and experience of women who are ready to move forward with all deliberate speed.”
Procope has honorary doctor of law degrees from Howard University, Adelphi University, and Marymount Manhattan College, as well as a doctor of humane letters from Morgan State University.
She has received numerous awards. In 1993, Ernst & Young named her Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2003, 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. In 2010, she was a recipient of the Black Enterprise Women Of Power Legacy Award. Other awards and honors include Essence magazine’s 2004 Power Award, Turner Broadcasting System’s 2002 Trumpet Award, Business Insurance’s Leading 100 Women in the Insurance Industry, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year, and the Institute for Community Development’s Community Leadership Award.