Pete Yonkman is president of Cook Group and Cook Medical in Bloomington, Indiana, starting in 2001 as in-house counsel. Cook Group is a family of companies that share the common goal of empowering employees, customers, and communities. As a family-owned company, Cook has had the ability to explore its founder’s entrepreneurial interests, including establishing companies across the medical device, hospitality, and life sciences industries.
Pete is a born and bred Hoosier originally from Crown Point, Indiana. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University and earned degrees in psychology and philosophy. He graduated with his law degree from the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in 1998. Pete is actively involved in community issues, including adult education, substance use disorder, workforce development, fostering start-ups, and creating a business culture that supports entrepreneurs.
Pete’s experiences have led him to believe that businesses don’t yet fully understand the power they possess to make dramatic improvements in their community.
CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?
As a company, we believe in being active participants in our communities. We create deep and lasting partnerships with community organizations to remove common barriers that people face on the path to upward mobility. Issues like disability, lack of access to quality education, substance use disorder, and former incarceration.
And we firmly believe it’s possible to do good business while also doing good. The collective power and output of business far exceeds government in terms of spending, number of jobs and infrastructure. The business community has at its disposal the resources to be a much bigger agent of change than any other institution in the country. In fact, if businesses collectively decided to use their skills and job opportunities to uplift the communities around them, we could be the greatest tool for societal improvement the world has ever created.
Not only is conscious entrepreneurship good for our communities it also increases goodwill for businesses both in economic and practical terms. In the future, smart money will assess a business’s value not only in dollars and cents but also in its ability to survive crisis…its resilience. The more deeply connected a company is in its community the more successful it will be when it calls on its goodwill in times of trouble.
MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Bill Cook was the founder and the very first entrepreneur of Cook Medical. After his cousin exposed him to different devices used in hospitals for minimally invasive medical procedures, Bill became interested in the idea of manufacturing those devices and making them more widely available. In 1963, he started the company in the spare bedroom of his apartment, making needles, wire guides and catheters.
In his years, Bill started many different companies that were a reflection of his interests: medicine, technology, manufacturing, aviation, historical preservation and renovation. Since that time, Cook has grown into a $2 billion global medical device company with over 12,000 employees — all because of what he and his wife, Gayle, started in a small Bloomington apartment. Bill was the consummate entrepreneur.
I had the honor of working closely with Bill and I can assure you that as good as he was at starting businesses, he was even better at understanding people and what mattered to them and to their families. He was philanthropic and supported lots of good causes. But his core philosophy always boiled down to this: “the best thing you can do for someone is to give them a job.” That view is engrained in our DNA and today we understand that the pathway to a job must begin with education.
In the area where Cook is headquartered, over 29,000 people of working age don’t have their high school diploma, which means they are consistently in a cycle of jumping from one low-paying job to the next.
In August of 2016, we launched a program called My Cook Pathway to help change that trajectory. In this program, students work the morning at Cook and take classes in the afternoon to prepare for their high school equivalency exam. During this time, they get paid for full-time work. Once they pass their exam, these students are guaranteed a full-time job in manufacturing at Cook. In four years, we’ve had 165 graduates from our HSE program. Once at Cook employees have access to free additional education all the way up to a masters degree.
Over the years, I’ve personally talked to each of our gradates to understand their stories and the unique challenges they’ve faced. With ages ranging from 18 to 60 years old, there are many reasons why an individual didn’t finish their high school degree. Many of our students are women who were pregnant in high school and felt like they had to drop out to take care of their children. Interestingly, many of these women decided to go back to school because they wanted their kids to understand the importance of education.
Two incredible students shared their journey with me, and I hope that anyone considering implementing a similar education program will take a few minutes to listen. These women are some of the bravest people I have met.
CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story how you got involved? How did it make you feel?
Starting in 2020, there has been a lot of discussion around racial equity. Like most companies we are very clear where we stand on racism and bias. But unlike most companies we decided that we wanted to do more than just put out a statement or donate money. We wanted to take action.
We had on our plate an opportunity to expand our manufacturing capacity by 100 employees. The question was where to expand. We could add on to existing facilities, build a new facility or we could outsource the work out of country. In the end we decided that we would use the opportunity to not only do good business but to also to try to do good in our community.
Sadly, we knew that there were many communities in our state that had lost their manufacturing jobs over the years, that suffer from high unemployment and poverty and that were primarily black. We spent countless hours meeting with and listening to residents, preachers, community leaders, social workers, educators, and business owners. And we found the perfect partners.
We found a community that was highly connected, passionate about its history, filled with people who care about each other and want to see their neighbors succeed. From them we learned that there were already resources in place ready to support local growth and that what they wanted was a partner who would respect the community and add a spark to the energy that was already building. They wanted a partner who would build with them, not on them.
Jobs equal opportunity and hope. But too often in communities with high rates of poverty, residents have barriers that are stopping them from getting on a path to a career. Could be issues like lack of education, housing instability, transportation, mental health, or childcare. With the right partners, these obstacles can be overcome.
So rather than just dropping 100 jobs onto a site, we decided to engage our partner network. We started with Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana. Goodwill’s mission is to remove barriers to employment and education so that people can reach their full potential. We have a long relationship with them, and they are very good at delivering on their mission.
THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?
I think companies need to develop deeper connections with employees, customers and communities. It goes way beyond philanthropy or corporate social responsibility; it’s about being actively engaged, listening and understanding people’s problems more deeply and getting involved in solving the problem.
I’m frequently frustrated by the fact that other companies won’t dive in to do the hard work. We share our approach and ideas with other companies, yet they just want to give money or write a check to improve their brand.
Cook is different in that way: We get our hands dirty. We get down in the trenches. We listen, get involved, get our employees involved, and work with other organizations. It’s that deeper connection that companies must develop in their communities. It’s not about putting your name on a pledge.
ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?
For an aspiring entrepreneur, or really anyone looking to achieve a significant goal, your greatest assets are the people and connections around you. For Cook, we’ve seen a lot of success when we partner with other companies, non-profits, and government agencies, etc. We couldn’t do a lot of the things we do in a vacuum; we rely on the sharing of resources and ideas to get things done. Collaboration is key to meaningful work because you can’t succeed alone in these efforts.
I often hear people say they don’t have the resources to make a big impact. In my experience its exactly the opposite. One person working to improve just one other person’s life has a ripple effect that is far larger than we imagine. I have seen it over and over again. The person that spends their time mentoring a neighbor’s high schooler in math because their parents are working nights. The teacher that reaches out to a student who is struggling to read and spends that extra time to make sure they don’t fall behind. The neighbor who secretly drops off food to a family down the street because they might not have enough to eat. I know the ripple effects because I have heard them from people who work at our company and say they wouldn’t be where they are today without those acts of kindness. These are the same people who are now working on our projects to give back to their communities. Karma is not just a mystical concept. It’s practical in nature too. What you put out in the world certainly comes back to you.
And if you don’t know where to start then you aren’t using your lunch schedule the way you should. Offer to buy lunch for people in the community who are doing cool work. You’ll be surprised by what assets you can uncover together and the opportunities to use them in new ways. And if it feels hard or intimidating? It’s all character building. Jump in.
CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours? Can you share a story?
Finding humor in the everyday and looking for ways to have a creative outlet is important for everyone, especially in times of stress. Not too long ago, we started a rumor that our hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, had started its very own minor league baseball team, the Bloomington Beagles. We created a logo and merchandise, made a Facebook fan page, announced imaginary games with imaginary rivals. We even got a local distillery to be our featured sponsor for meetups. It was all the fun of a minor league baseball team except for, you know, the actual team. Maybe someday someone will see the idea and bring us a real team. Now that would be fun.
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Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:
Conscious entrepreneurship for me is about building a sustainable business that values and respects the resources used and makes an effort of giving back to society.
I believe we need entrepreneurs to really get involved in the causes close to their heart.
This is why I reach out to entrepreneurs that aim for more than generating profit. With this interview, I aim to share entrepreneurial purpose-led passion to inspire others.
Looking forward to learn from you. Reach out to me via LinkedIn.