I’ll never forget that day in 1986 when my dad told me he was quitting his job at the Pentagon to go full time with his side business. It really resonated with me because I was leaving for college in a few weeks, and I suddenly got nervous. I asked him, “How are we going to pay for college if you leave your lucrative position with the Department of Air Force?” As I reflect on that moment, I can’t help but laugh at how spoiled and entitled I must have sounded to him. He responded by confidently telling me he needed to devote his full energy on his business venture as president of the new national publication called, Black Issues In Higher Education. He felt he was on the verge of something very special this time.
My dad was the consummate entrepreneur, a risk-taker who always followed his dream and passion to be financially independent. He was also always confident in his ability to succeed. He and Frank Matthews saw an opportunity to solve a real problem – the information and resource void for Black higher education professionals, and fulfilling the need that Blacks sought for opportunities for advancement in higher education. With their mission in place, they decided to take matters into their own capable hands by creating a company and resource that would address those needs. No other national publication was providing information in the real, hard-hitting, edgy, and authentic way that would resonate with Black professionals in higher education as they could. “Let’s just write it ourselves” they would often say to get the inspiration. It was ground-breaking. I vividly remember the enthusiastic feedback we heard from higher education professionals who could hardly wait to receive their next issue in between editions.
I remember my first few years at college feeling so proud of what he was accomplishing as president growing and leading the business, coupled with Frank’s brilliant vision creating and publishing content, laser focused on the hard-hitting issues as publisher. Then, growing the business to new heights with their entree into live satellite video conferences. It was during my college years when the business was establishing itself and building its foundation. Interestingly, I was studying engineering at the time and ultimately graduated with a degree in mathematics from Tuskegee University. I had no interest or plans to join the family business. I thought that the work he and Frank were doing was rather boring at the time. “Who’s actually reading this stuff about Black issues?” I was a subscriber, but mainly to support and collect the magazines as keepsakes and to share with my friends.
Once I graduated college, I followed my passion for statistics and was hired as a statistician. Again, no thoughts or desire of ever joining the family business. I was carving out my own career path, advancing through the ranks of my cushy government job.
Then, I’ll never forget that fateful day in 2001 when my dad called and asked if I wanted to come work with him and grow the family business. I was already seven years into my own career and was growing fatigued with my position at the government agency. I gladly agreed to come on board and join him and Frank. Little did I know what I had signed up for. I worked directly under my dad, learning so much about the business and the business of higher education. I quickly learned the difference between my dad, “the boss” at the office, compared to the dad I’ve known all my life from our household. I remember attending the early conferences and not knowing a soul, following him around, getting introduced and feeling intimidated by higher education’s elite thinkers and brilliant leaders. Nothing intimidated him though. He navigated each event effortlessly and immediately drew attention. I always admired the respect he and Frank commanded from their colleagues at these gatherings.
I spent the first few years learning all aspects of the company. We were approaching our 20th anniversary. We decided to commemorate this milestone with our 20th Anniversary Conference and Gala event in 2004. I vividly recall keeping under wraps the pending name change from Black Issues to Diverse during the conference celebration. Little did our attendees know, but we were still working through the final internal discussions and debates over the decision to rebrand. I had anxiety over this decision since I was responsible for bringing on the consultants who recommended changing the name, among other things. I recall asking myself in sadness, “what have I done?”, after the company released the news to the world amid negative feedback from our loyal and die-hard followers.
Lessons learned: My dad taught me so much about leadership, emphasizing the difficulty of making decisions, but not dwelling too long making decisions. He and Frank agreed with the consultants, sharing the same vision toward the future and the broadening academic landscape of diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns. It was time for the name change and the rebranding of our most revered publication. It was a decision they stuck with and was my first lesson in understanding the difficulty in making consequential business decisions.
I watched him closely. I had empathy for his position because he made difficult decisions over the years, some that were unpopular. I’ve always associated loneliness with leadership because of this. Always confident, once he made his decision, he quickly moved on.
I developed a deep passion and appreciation over the years for the mission and purpose of Diverse. I cherish the time I had learning from my dad. I fondly refer to those years as being enrolled in the Bill Cox Business School of Hard Knocks. He had his ways, but he always led with passion and purpose.
My dad is one of the greatest influences in my life. He was always supportive, involved, caring, and generous. He loved his family and was so proud and excited about his grandchildren. In spite of his illness, he never officially stepped down as president. I often refer to his last few years as having stepped away for a well-deserved rest from the day-to-day management of the company. I would debrief him on the status of business affairs. He often told me he was proud of me and was always encouraging. I always responded by letting him know that he taught me well and that the company was going to be fine.
They simply don’t make them like my dad anymore. He’s from a unique generation that came from the Jim Crow South. He had a different take on life. He leaves behind an amazing legacy, both for our family and for the higher education community. I’m so honored to play a role in continuing his legacy and eventually creating my own for my two children. It’s an awesome responsibility and not to be taken lightly.
The future is bright for Diverse. The second generation is now leading the company and learning to navigate the competitive media space. We are laying the foundation for new programs, new platforms, and “must read” and “audible” content that will resonate throughout academia for years to come. Never one to rest on laurels and complacency, my dad constantly kept my head spinning about the need to be innovative with ideas and thoughts about growing the business, staying relevant, and creating the next great resource for academia.
Bill Cox was fearless, inspirational, and visionary. He was my hero, a legend and trailblazer who was larger than life, and I’m so proud to say he was my dad.
William E. Cox Jr. is vice president of Operations & Advertising for Cox, Matthews, & Associates, the publisher of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.