Saundra James and Renee Cooper Are Educating a New Generation of Inclusive Leaders
Starting their careers more than 25 years ago in the retail industry, Saundra James and Renee Cooper were usually the only women in the room. They were almost always the only Black woman in the room as well, a depressing statistic that has improved over time, but not nearly enough.
James and Cooper are both in agreement that the fashion industry needs to change because the world has changed. Their upcoming Global and Local Leadership course in the MPS Fashion Management program at Parsons aims to teach the next generation of fashion and retail leaders how to be successful in a constantly evolving industry, while also creating change so that the retail industry more closely reflects the world at large.
“For me, seeing what has gone on in the fashion industry, leadership has to change because the fashion industry has to change,” says James. “As we look at a global society, the world is a different place, and retail is very different now.”
The two educators created the course together, with a strong focus on leadership as it relates to what is going on in the world today, which means each module has a leadership component, diversity/inclusion component, and more. The course will also feature guest speakers from the fashion and retail industries, while students will engage in interactive activities including interviewing industry leaders, mini-simulations, and analyzing and discussing business cases.
“We’re giving the students an in-depth look at leadership from various perspectives, and teaching them important leadership characteristics,” says Cooper. “They will work on a project so that they can collaborate, and then meet with business leaders they’ve chosen in order to discuss the objectives of their project.”
Both Cooper and James are well positioned to teach the next generation of retail leaders, as they each have vast experience in both the classroom and their respective industries, and have helped pave new professional paths for both women and Black women.
Cooper began her career as a retail buyer, and then worked in manufacturing, where she oversaw product development through the supply chain process. She is now a full-time professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and has worked extensively with international programs. James has also been teaching at FIT for more than 10 years, in addition to her role as Vice President of Piccone Apparel. She began her career as a multi-store manager and department store buyer, and has spent the last 25 years of her career on the wholesale side of the retail business in various leadership positions.
“As the world has changed, women have become a bigger part of the C-suites,” says James. “We always drove retail but we were never a part of the business. I was often the only Black woman in the room, and that was a learning process for me. I had to embrace who they thought I should be as opposed to who I was.”
The two women see themselves as the ultimate collaborative unit, as they are each continually learning from each other, as well as the students they teach. For their first class in the MPS Fashion Management program, they both see tremendous opportunity as well.
“I’m excited about a new frontier, because I want to learn from and hear from a much more global audience,” says James. “I can’t wait to hear the different perspectives. Teaching makes me better during the day. The more I can glean from students the more I can bring to my day job and vice versa.”
“I’m really excited to work with graduate students, because there’s a different level of experience and acceptance,” shares Cooper. “This is a new, exciting opportunity for me.”