Who’s That BOSS: Tarrah Cooper
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Tarrah Cooper is the press secretary for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Cooper began working with Emanuel during his mayoral campaign where she served as the primary spokesperson and helped to craft, manage and communicate his strategic vision and priorities for Chicago. Previously, Cooper worked in the Obama Administration at the Department of Homeland Security where she helped manage the messaging for national incidents including the H1N1 epidemic, attempted Christmas bombings and the BP oil spill.
The BOSS Network: Walk us through your journey to success. How did you get to this point?
Tarrah Cooper: From a very young age, my parents challenged me to channel my optimism and empathy to change the world. Whether it was serving dinner at a soup pantry or tutoring children at a neighborhood after-school center, those experiences were formative in shaping my commitment to public service. Being naturally inquisitive and drawn to other people’s stories, I became fascinated with journalism early on, particularly the ability writers have to give a voice to the voiceless and tell the stories that otherwise go untold.
While studying journalism in college, I had the opportunity to intern in newsrooms across the country, and while I enjoyed these experiences, I still felt there was something missing. I did not feel like I was doing enough. Through journalism, I often had the ability to expose injustices, but I didn’t have the ability to solve them, and that was unsettling. Then I was given the unique chance to intern on Capitol Hill with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Seeing first-hand how legislators worked to create policy that affected Americans’ lives and helped those most vulnerable was a defining experience. I discovered that journalism and public service both ultimately aim to empower people with the information and resources they need to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
TBN: What do you do to stay on top of your game professionally?
TC: We are only given 24 hours in a day and I try to make the most out of every second. Reading is power and I read everything in sight. I get the best ideas while reading. While I’m extremely fortunate to have friends, colleagues and mentors who are like-minded, I constantly force myself to explore unfamiliar environments. For example, I recently began taking a coding class because I wanted to know more about the tech field. Is it intimidating being one of only two women in a class full of web developers? Sure, but that is the point of challenging yourself. I always believe that your reach should exceed your grasp and if you aim above the mark, you are more likely to hit it. Most importantly, nothing replaces hard work and determination. My grandfather, who migrated to Chicago to escape the Jim Crow South and later worked as a CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] bus driver for more than 30 years always reminded me, “There are two ways to make a living in America; you can work with your back or work with your brain. You’ve been given the opportunity to work with your brain; use that to ensure that those who are less fortunate than you don’t have to work with their backs.”
TBN: How do you balance your personal life with your professional?
TC: I’m fortunate to have a career that I love, so my professional life is very personal. For me, “balance” means being a balanced, whole and healthy individual, with balanced, whole and healthy goals.
TBN: What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur or career woman?
TC: There are 10 rules I live by:
1. Be competent, committed and authentic.
2. Cultivate meaningful relationships with mentors and colleagues.
3. Have a plan, but be prepared to change course.
4. Never be afraid to ask questions, but never hesitate to try to answer them on your own first.
5. Take notes, written records can be a lifesaver.
6. Find a professional accountability partner; set quarterly goals and regularly check-in to discuss your progress.
7. Focus on the task at hand and do it well. Don’t spend time worried about other people. Your only competition is yourself.
8. Take criticism seriously, but not personally.
9. Take chances. Don’t be afraid to fail. You’ll be knocked down, we all are, but the only way to succeed is to try just one more time.
10. Pay it forward.
TBN: What’s been your biggest accomplishment since working for the City of Chicago?
TC: For years, Chicago’s schools had the shortest school day and year of any major city in the country. Immediately upon taking office, Mayor Emanuel made a commitment to lengthen the school day giving children more time for quality instruction in the classroom. As a product of public schools, I felt a direct connection to those children as well as a sense of unfairness that they were not receiving the quality of education they deserved to fulfill their God-given talents and potential. It was a long and uphill battle, but in the end we were able to achieve one of the largest increases in classroom time for Chicago’s children. Being even a small part of a giant change like that, one which will shape the future of our city for years to come, profoundly demonstrated the impact and importance of public service. Reflecting on that great success continually renews my energy and enthusiasm for this job, and reminds me of the tremendous privilege I have to serve my city.
TBN: What does being a BOSS mean to you?
TC: BOSSes are tenacious, persistent, authentic and unapologetically ambitious. They work tirelessly every day to leave the world a little bit better than how they found it.
Follow BOSS Member Tarrah and view her profile at The BOSS Network.