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Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN – Brian Cooper wants to break into the cannabis industry in New Jersey and he also has a message about the need for Blacks and other people in the STEM field to be supported.
As he waits to see if his fledgling company Ganj-A-GoGo will receive two critical state licenses to open a cannabis business in the Garden State, Cooper told FRNJ Extra how to he got to this moment in time – the rocky road to earn his doctorate degree – to explain why he is so passionate about what he's doing.
"I firmly believe that the reason my foray into the world of science and tech was so fraught was because there was a lack of diversity in these spaces," said Cooper, who formerly worked at tech giant Intel. "The more of us that are there, the easier future black and brown aspiring scientists and engineers will find it is to traverse their chosen paths.
"This popular cash crop provides our people a real chance to promote economic development within our own communities, while driving money from other communities into ours at the same time," he added.
South Philadelphia Born and Raise
Cooper was born in South Philadelphia. He said his parents, who were both born in the segregated South and attended HBCUs, taught him the value of hard work and the determination needed to overcome adversity. He learned those lessons would come in handy later in life.
He lived with his mother in the Philadelphia projects but excelled in academics. He cemented his love for learning in high school and attended New York University on a partial scholarship. By the second year, though, he could no longer afford school and left.
There, his schooling was stifled because the university held on to his transcripts because of his outstanding debt. He was 26 when he attended the Community College of Philadelphia and then applied at Temple University.
There he met physic professor Dr. Chyanlong Lin who became one of his most important supporters. At Lin's behest, Cooper negotiated payment terms for the money he owed NYU so he could graduate with Lin loaning him the rest of what he had outstanding.
"To this day, I still cannot get over this act of generosity and faith in my abilities," Cooper said of Lin. "This Asian man from Taiwan up to this point had been a huge cheerleader, but giving me the money to pursue my future was something I never imagined anyone would do for me.
"He told me, 'You will do great things and it is incumbent upon you to help other African-Americans after you get there,'" Cooper said "Take this money and pay your debt and don’t worry about paying me back until you’re in graduate school and your finances are stable."
Cooper said Lin's words and action continues to resonate with him. Cooper, though, had not informed Temple of his predicament with NYU. Temple threatened to charge him with academic dishonesty before Lin and nine other professors came to his defense, ending the threat.
As the only African American in his Ph.D. program in condensed matter physics at Penn State, Cooper was met with resistance from the start from at least one professor and even fellow students.
"I was denied opportunities that I knew I had earned with my research, and that is when I realized that I would never be allowed to go into the Academy (actively pursue a career in physics research)," Cooper said. "I had very little support at the school, but thankfully, in my 5th year I was awarded a Sloan Fellowship."
He credited Dr. Jainendra Jain, a theoretical condensed matter physicist, with support in passing his Comprehensive Exam, which allowed him to complete his degree.
"The Black Graduate Students Association of Penn State is where I found support from other brothers and sisters in graduate programs within the university. Mostly science students in other departments, I found out that my experience, though at the extreme, was not unique."
He worked in research and development at Intel and after initial resistance, he said he made significant contributions with the company. He lost his job when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Cooper said he saw it as a chance to look into other opportunities and learned about New Jersey's effort to legalize recreational marijuana.
"I contacted my father in Atlanta and asked if he knew anyone who might be interested in partnering with me to start a business here in New Jersey," Cooper said. Now, his business includes a cultivator, two cannabis processors, a group of young ladies that have a small CBD infused business, and others which fill various roles.
Value of Role Models
When talking about the need for role models, especially for African Americans in the STEM fields, Cooper said he takes the responsibility as seriously as the "proverbial heart attack."
"I have always shied away from the spotlight, but I realize the importance of our youth seeing other Black people in positions of prominence in various enterprises," Cooper said. "This is why my STEM initiative is also at the forefront of the community engagement portion of our business.
"Cannabis has the ability to drive funding from our own businesses into other areas in which African-American participation is too low. If I have to stand as a role model, I would like to represent what a Black kid born to a poor family in the projects can do with their life with determination and hard work," he continued.
Cooper said his own personal story exemplifies that it is not how you start, but how you finish.
"It's about showing others that we are stronger when we work collaboratively to raise the standard of living for our people in this country," Cooper said.
"It's about saying 'no' to the unethical/dog eat dog forms of capitalism that have been practiced in this country and abroad for decades. Not only preaching the virtues of giving back to our communities, but demonstrating that virtue and facilitating a transition in the thought about this concept to our people in general," he added.
QUESTION: Do you believe America's growing legal cannabis industry will give a fair shot to Blacks and other minorities in terms of employment and ownership? Why or why not? Answer in the comment section below.
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