Heeding the Siren Song of Service

Written

Heeding the Siren Song of Service

Chad Cooper left a fast-track banking career when the struggling Brooklyn Conservatory of Music called his name.
Chad Cooper in front of the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Credit: Cole Wilson
Although the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music is 121 years old, Cooper says it’s “in startup mode.” | Cole Wilson

Chad Cooper’s managing director position at Deutsche Bank in New York came with a substantial salary, bonuses, a generous expense account, and business-class travel. “I didn’t have 12 secretaries or people feeding me grapes or anything like that,” says Cooper, MBA ’01, “but it was the life of a banker.”

Two years ago, after a 16-year Wall Street career — and with the blessing of his wife, Claire Ellis, MBA ’02 — Cooper, 45, walked away from all that to take the executive director’s job at the nearly insolvent Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. In doing so, he willingly stepped off his chosen career path and into a subterranean office that doubles as instrument storage space in the conservatory’s five-story Victorian building.

“I realized I could continue on in banking for a while,” Cooper says, “or I could jump in and do something that was really calling to me.”

Since Cooper took the reins in August 2016, the 121-year-old nonprofit institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood has seen a 71% increase in individual donors over fiscal 2016 and a fivefold increase in attendance after shifting its development model from a single annual gala to a handful of special events. Assets have shown a net increase of $400,000 over fiscal 2016. Attendance at its flagship Community Music School is up 19%.

Those successes “mean we can do more of what we do best,” Cooper wrote in the conservatory’s 2017 annual report, “enriching New Yorkers’ lives and communities by breaking down the barriers that prevent anyone from learning, experiencing, and enjoying music.”

Cooper is also walking the walk: He recently started taking piano lessons himself.

After 16 years as an investment banker, you opted out. Why?

Even as a Stanford GSB student, my intention was to work in the private sector, then ultimately return to the social sector. But once you start down a private-sector path, it can be daunting to pivot. For me, the stars aligned when the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, this incredible organization whose board I’d joined, was in dire need of management skills I’d spent my career developing.

Where’d that impulse come from?

Before I went to business school I worked for four years for the city of St. Louis doing inner-city economic development. I also launched a grassroots nonprofit organization that helped mobilize younger people to take an active role in city revitalization efforts. That was a really big part of my life, so when I came to Stanford I had a strong sense of what I wanted out of business school, and I wanted to bring that back in some way to the nonprofit sector. I had planned for that, and tried to save up a little money to have enough security to take myself out of moneymaking for a while. I had a serious conversation about it with my wife just before my 15-year GSB reunion, and a lot of the people I talked to at the reunion were also in the middle of some big career change. It was validating for me, but it just took me a lot longer than I imagined.

What made you decide to finally act on that impulse?

I’d been serving on the board of directors at the conservatory for two years, and just after the business school reunion, the conservatory’s executive director resigned. Having served as the conservatory’s treasurer, I knew it was in dire financial shape. It was functionally insolvent, with no capital at all in the bank. All these things happened in tight sequence — the conversation with my wife, the Stanford reunion, the resignation. It all just came together for me.

Did you have a role model who inspired you to make that leap of faith?

I worked for a guy named Charles Kindleberger in St. Louis for four years — he ran the urban planning department — and I always marveled at how extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful and effective he was as a senior manager for the city. He could have been a great professor, or a lawyer, or businessperson. He would have been successful at whatever path he chose in life. But he had committed himself to public service, and I have great respect for people like Chuck. A lot of capable people commit themselves to service and do it their whole life.

You agreed to work the first two years at the conservatory for no pay. How were you able to afford to do that?

I send my kids to public school. My wife works full time. We don’t live an extravagant life. I didn’t walk away from my banking career with a huge amount of wealth, but there are a lot of people who get by with a lot less than I do in New York City and give of themselves in profound ways. They make it work. There are sacrifices involved, but I didn’t want to wait until the end of a 30- or 40-year career and then tack on the philanthropic portion of my life. I wanted to do it at a young age. And I don’t think you have to have millions in the bank to do something like this.

What have been the upsides of that choice?

There are sacrifices involved, but I didn’t want to wait until the end of a 30- or 40-year career and then tack on the philanthropic portion of my life. I wanted to do it at a young age. And I don’t think you have to have millions in the bank to do something like this.
Chad Cooper

I really love what I do. I’m totally energized going into the office every day. I’ve always been motivated by the idea of building something and, even though we’re 121 years old, we’re in startup mode at the conservatory. I inherited an organization that really needed fundamental change, and it’s enormously motivating and exciting to come to work and to have that intense focus and energy for turning a place around and building something for the future. We provide music therapy to 1,500 people, including those with autism, and kids whose parents are incarcerated, and seniors with dementia, and I see how transformative their experiences are. It’s gratifying to see the work we do with 6,000-plus New Yorkers every year who otherwise would have no access to music education. That’s enormously motivating to me.

Any downsides?

I work really hard. When I originally thought about taking a couple years off, I’d envisioned more balance in our lives, but that is definitely not the case. I work my butt off, and it’s an extremely complicated business — being both an educational and cultural institution. We have countless obligations. We’re open seven days a week, with 200-plus concerts and events a year, plus board meetings and planning meetings. We have 185 employees. It’s a 24/7 job. I love it, but it’s intensely demanding.

Describe your office now compared to your office on Wall Street.

There are 15 of us crammed into this warren that’s partially underground, often with three or four people sharing an office. I have my own office, but there may be a tuba or music binders for the chorale stored in there. I used to work in a gleaming modern high-rise on Wall Street. Our floor at Deutsche Bank had more square footage than the entire conservatory, and the table in my office there couldn’t even fit in my office at the conservatory. But I don’t miss it. I’m very at home where I am now.

How does the pressure compare?

It’s a high-stakes job. The decisions we make can have huge implications for hundreds or thousands of kids around New York City. It’s very tangible. If we can’t come up with the funding for a particular school, 350 kids won’t have any music at all. Full stop. We know how valuable that is and how incredibly impactful that can be for the rest of their lives. Then take that number and multiply it by 60 or 70. So it would be a terrible tragedy for thousands of people if this organization went down on my watch. It’s vitally important to be able to make a case every day for music education and for the conservatory as an important institution in the life of this city. It gets me out of bed and makes me excited to attack the day. I think that’s the right kind of pressure.

Why do you think arts education is so important?

Music can truly transform people’s lives. I’ve felt it in my own life, and I’ve seen it over and over again at the conservatory. We have nonverbal music therapy clients who have learned to speak through singing. We hear all the time from parents whose children and teens are channeling their anxiety or frustration into creative self-expression through music. Music education fosters not only joy and fulfillment but also empathy, self-confidence, discipline — fundamental skills people need to succeed — many of the same skills you learn in business school.

Got a specific example of that?

We just started a Jazz Explorers ensemble for girls. There’s enormous attrition among women in the professional jazz world. There’s parity among boys and girls early on, but by the time they get to middle school the young women start dropping off. So we identify and recruit young women to the conservatory. We had 16 girls who showed up for the inaugural seven-week workshop, and all 16 continued into the one-week summer jazz camp. The first year of that camp we had 11 boys and no girls. But this year we had 32 kids, with 16 girls. And they’re amazing.

Any particular Stanford books, professors, or classes that you found particularly influential as you considered changing careers?

I loved James VanHorne, the legendary finance professor. But I think more than the classes themselves was the idea that the school doesn’t make any value judgments about what someone’s career aspirations are. It’s in the DNA of Stanford.

What would you say to someone considering a similar career change?

Trust yourself and make the leap of faith. You don’t have to have a vast amount of money. Just do it. I did plan for it, and that’s important, but it’s incredibly fulfilling to just go for something you’re really passionate about.

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