DU Alumna Leads Superstar’s Charitable Organization
For Yvette Cook, there was no choice growing up but to serve her community. She says her civic-minded parents encouraged her to follow a path of altruism. Now Cook (BA, Political Science and Public Affairs ’82 and MA, Mass Communication ’85) heads up Usher’s New Look (UNL), an Atlanta-based non-profit started by the multiplatinum-selling performer at the age of 20. For 17 years, UNL has introduced students in underserved communities to leadership training that keeps them engaged in school and ready to make their mark once their education ends. Cook took some time to answer questions about her organization’s mission, why she left a high-powered position with United Way to join a smaller initiative, and how, despite time and distance, she has kept the University of Denver in her heart.
Question: Why did you decide to leave United Way and join UNL?
Answer: I’ll tell you what it was; it was the fact that this organization was focused on one particular project, and that project is working with youth from underserved communities and trying to change their trajectory so they can tell a better story. And that was inviting for me; that was fascinating for me. I am still a big champion of United Way, I’m still a United Way volunteer and server, but here at New Look we really focus in and we serve about 4,300 students a year.
Q: What has been your proudest moment since joining UNL?
A: I think one of my proudest moments was when I had a student who is a freshman in college come to the office, and we’re talking about her future, and she said she wanted to graduate and come work here. I thought that was really special, because we really teach our students a lot about service and serving in their community, and the fact that a lot of our students want to come back here and work, to come serve other students, really says a lot about the program.
Q: How inspiring is it that Usher started this organization at the age of 20?
A: To think that an entertainer had the foresight, the vision, to want to do something different. He was a product of the Boys and Girls Clubs, and he often says that they really made a change in his life. Basically, he and his mother wanted to pay it forward. So at first they started out by helping 10 students, and since that time, we’ve grown into helping more than 4,000 students annually. Yes, we thank him for his vision at such an early age.
Q: What advice do you have to college students and recent graduates who want to make their mark in the nonprofit world?
A: First of all, there seems to be a resurgence of students who are interested in being good corporate citizens and making an impact. I would say go for it! Follow your passion, follow your heart because we need more people who want to make a change, to really change the landscape of the world. Being passionate about a cause is really what I would say is the prerequisite for success. Find something you really love or get involved with something, and if you’re not sure, do some exploration and volunteer with a variety of organizations until you find out what really pulls at your heartstrings.
Q: What stands out about your time in Denver?
A: What stands out to me the most is some of the amazing friendships that I made. I’m still in touch with some of my friends from DU. I had friends from across the globe; it truly was an international school. In many ways, I think that helped shape me and my interest in value and diversity. From a cultural perspective, I think we’re a global world now, and I think DU may have been a little ahead of its time in giving some of its students that kind of exposure.