The history-making real estate magnate who established a profitable enterprise on Wall Street in 1979 was named “The First Lady of Wall Street” by BLACK ENTERPRISE. She was respected for her audacity to succeed when it was rare for Black women to climb the corporate ladder.
Ernesta Procope‘s rising influence throughout corporate America came at a time when only a handful of Black women filled seats in boardrooms of the nation’s largest companies. From board directorships with Avon Products and Chubb Insurance, she went on to set up a storefront insurance agency, E.G. Bowman Company, in Brooklyn’s Bedford- Stuyvesant neighborhood and catapulted it into the mainstream of the American economy.
“I never operated with a complex—as a woman, as a black woman, as a black. but instead, as a person in business,” she said, as per BLACK ENTERPRISE. “We knew there were problems, but i could not let that be a deterrent to me.”
From Bed Stuy to Wall Street
Celebrated as the first female on BLACK ENTERPRISE’s “BE 100 list,” Procope is a Black history legend who holds numerous honorary doctorates from Howard University, Adelphi University, Marymount Manhattan College, and Morgan State University. The AG Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award winner’s 1953 establishment of E. G. Bowman Co. broke ground as the first minority-owned insurance brokerage firm located on Wall Street in 1979.
At the encouragement of her late husband, Albin Bowman, a successful real estate broker, Brooklyn-born Procope received her broker’s license so she could learn the business and also insure his properties.
She would eventually launch a business dedicated to homeowner and auto insurance policies for those in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn neighborhood she called home.
Procope saw an opportunity no one else did and expanded her focus on real estate rehabilitation and development. She would go on to renovate and sell about 500 brownstones in Brooklyn from 1955 through 1970. Featured in Ebony as “New York’s Lady Builder — the First Negro Woman to Build Homes in New York State,” Procope’s success proved to insurance companies that Bed-Stuy was full of stunning owner-occupied brownstones for financially stable middle-class families.
When the real estate market fell victim to a recession, Procope was dedicated to convincing insurance companies to insure her customers. She served as the mastermind behind the idea of renting limos and ferrying insurance executives from Manhattan to Brooklyn to put a spotlight on the valuable and insurable property in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
However, after the urban riots of the mid- and late 1960s, insurance companies began “redlining” minority neighborhoods, so Procope decided to take matters up with then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. She proved effective in persuading Rockefeller to support legislation to enact the New York FAIR Plan that guaranteed the availability of homeowners insurance in low-income neighborhoods. As a result, 26 other states passed similar legislation.
In response to the beginning of affirmative action, Procope secured her firm’s first major commercial customer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant restoration Corporation, a community development program started by Robert F. Kennedy. One of the firm’s first big-business clients included the PepsiCo giant.
Procope blazed a new trail for the legacy of Black entrepreneurship while paving new paths for cost-focused liability coverage.
The accolades of a Wall Street insurance pioneer
Among her many accolades, Procope was featured on the August 1974 cover of BLACK ENTERPRISE’s history-making issue dedicated to celebrating African American female executives. She was also a recipient of the Black Enterprise Woman of Power Legacy Award in 2006 in honor of her work helping women thrive in business.
In 2021, Procope died at her home in Queens, NY at the age of 98.