Norman Cole and daughters Chadley and Monique are living testaments to the precept that the family that prays together, and works together, stays together—longer and stronger. Collectively, they are the heart, soul, and life force of Cole Network System (CNS), a business-driven networking enterprise that has, for more than 35 years, brought people and ideas together, often resulting in the creation of business alliances and partnerships. Mr. Cole refers to CNS’ success and longevity as a “collaborative journey” supported by a long list of devoted individuals, who believed in the work his family was doing. Those people did their part to keep the wheels turning at CNS. But Cole places family, and the support of family, at the top of the list, primarily because he sees the family as a group–a collective–that can be trusted. For this reason, family, in the greater sense, has always been at the core of CNS, and, it is, essentially, what keeps the organization alive and growing.
I recently met with Norman Cole, at MIST Café in Harlem, New York, where the camera-shy businessman, (who normally avoids being photographed), acquiesced to my iPad camera, and then, partook in the following Q & A interview:
Sandhi: Mr. Cole, tell me a little about your family.
Cole: Certainly. Well, to be honest, I don’t know what I’d do without either of my daughters. But we all have specific roles in CNS. I will say that my oldest daughter, Monique, is the brains of the group. She is married, has a child, and works full-time. Chadley, my youngest daughter is also very bright, creative, and aggressive, and we spend a lot of time working together. As for me, I was employed for 10-12 years at LaGuardia Community College as a tenured professor. I am a workaholic who loves to travel. I am also a graduate of Baruch College, where I met and knew Routes publisher, Ronn Bunn), and Kings Borough Community College. As a matter-of-fact, it was by chance, that after so many years, Ronn and I recently ran into each other in the streets of New York. I guess everything does happen for a reason.
Sandhi: Mr. Cole, when and why was CNS created?
Cole: I launched CNS in 1985. It is the grown-up version of Venture Raiders, which is another creative program I started in order to bring people together, supportively. I was only 16 years old when I started Venture Raiders, and that was a very successful outreach program geared towards helping young people in the community. Even now, I still run into people on the street with their sons or daughters, who will introduce me as the person who kept them out of trouble by bringing them into the Venture Raiders program. So, CNS emerged as an off-shoot from that outreach program, but was directed towards a more mature segment of the population. Even at 16, I saw a need for more people-oriented, service-based programs that could offer information, assistance, and valuable relationships, especially for under-represented people in predominantly Black communities. Networking…bringing people together, is definitely something that’s in my DNA.
Sandhi: Are there any other local, national, or international organizations that are comparable to CNS?
Cole: None that I can think of. Certainly none that have been as visible and as steadfast as CNS has been. And we desperately need more organizations of this nature. Over the years, CNS has taken an holistic approach to networking, in the sense that we always interact with, and support other people, groups, and events. We share and exchange services, contacts and information, with and among others. And through our events, we create environments where everyone can benefit one way or another, be it establishing business relationships, partnering, or simply being enlightened. Our goal is to help people further their agendas, and grow their businesses.
Sandhi: During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Black-owned businesses were flourishing in America. Unfortunately, today, many of those businesses have gone under, or are struggling financially. To what do you attribute this decline?
Cole: We Black people do not recycle money among ourselves. And there is more than enough money in Black communities to do whatever we want to do. But sadly, Black people do not buy Black. Sometimes, I wonder if we even think Black. There are no excuses, because we have enough talent and enough money to do anything. We really shouldn’t have to beg for anything. We used to have what was called a “collective”. During the Civil Rights Movement, whenever there was a protest, there was also a plan put into action. Another thing we had back then was something called family, and it extended into the churches and the community. Our families were strong back then, and so were the communities. There were thriving youth programs and summer camps—all run by people from the community, people you knew and trusted. The community was one big family. Today, the family structure has fallen by the wayside. We need to borrow a line from Donald Trump. Get up everyday, and ask yourself: “What can I do to make America great again for Black people?”
Sandhi: What are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?
Cole: It may be the impetus to make Black people get up and work harder. Maybe this will awaken our people.
Sandhi: What kinds of social events, practices, and programs are employed by CNS?
Cole: CNS has a roster of upcoming programs, events, and opportunities, including our newly-launched campaign called “Black Business Matters”, wherein we intend to aggressively push, promote, and encourage consumers to support small, Black-owned businesses. I’ve been across this country, and I’ve seen how much Black lives matter. Basically, what it comes down to is, if you want us to do better and be better, spend some money with us. On September 17th, we hosted our “Circle of Brothers Expo”, with Black Awakening 2016, as its theme. This event is still developing and taking shape. But it offers an important platform based on strengthening the family unit, of making Black men step up to the plate, and getting back to their roots– family and community. Black women have carried the ball for too long, and our community is in serious trouble. We are becoming extinct. As an Expo attraction, we presented a starstudded Meet & Greet line-up: Karen Brown, Director of The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC); NEC Alumni: Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and Cleavon Little, among others. Then, on October 15th & 16th, our very popular and ever-growing “Circle of Sisters Expo”, will once again be held at Javitz Center in New York City. This is a major event for CNS, and we expect attendance to reach upward of 25,000. And in 2017, we will introduce our Off-Broadway on Broadway series of weekend plays and readings. So, we have quite a line-up of events and activities.
Sandhi: How does CNS plan to stay viable and in the forefront of Black business networking?
Cole: We plan to stay visible and active, which requires a tremendous amount of networking. But it’s all about connecting and linking people together…making things happen. And in order to do this, we will continue to host events, support other groups and attend various social affairs, where we can then encourage people to participate in our programs. It is a continuous practice of multi-tasking, of being aware of new ideas, new concepts, and engaging new people. CNS has always been about building bridges, and we will continue to do just that, at the local level, nationally, and even world-wide because we have to think globally today.
Sandhi: What are some of your favorite success stories?
Cole: The original Black Expo in 1990. We were a part of it from beginning to end. There were 400 vendors and 100,000 people who attended that event. That was something we will never be able to reproduce. Being featured on several television talk shows that highlighted CNS, including Positively Black and Best Talk In Town.
Sandhi: We will end this interview with words of wisdom from you, Mr. Cole.
Cole: Black Businesses Matter!