Cook Medical president creates roadmap for neighborhood renewal, calls other business leaders to action

Cook Medical President Pete Yonkman

Cook Medical President Pete Yonkman says it’s time for CEOs to get down in the trenches to help their neighborhoods.

Bloomington-based Cook already has helped boost the impoverished 38th Street and Sheridan Avenue area with a $15 million medical device manufacturing facility that employs neighborhood residents and will soon add a grocery store to improve food access.

The work will continue through the Sankofa Access Zone, a new initiative Yonkman announced Thursday at the Economic Club of Indiana luncheon that is designed to help the neighborhood deal with long-standing problems of crime and more. 

“What I’m asking for, what I’m advocating for, is a revolution… against the way we as business leaders, of companies both large and small, have been trained to believe that we aren’t responsible for anything more than our customers or shareholders,” Yonkman said Thursday.

For the past nine months, the Sankofa program has linked neighbors with Cook staff members to address areas that have been plagued by frequent crime: a business used as a headquarters for drug deals, a hotel that has become known for sex trafficking and an apartment complex had fallen into disrepair.

“I’ve been disturbed a little bit by the fact that these issues have been known, had been talked about for a long time, but it wasn’t until we amplified them that people started to take action. So it may not be right, but it’s reality,” Yonkman told IBJ ahead of the announcement.

The boundaries of the Sankofa zone stretch from 34th Street to 42nd Street between Sherman and Shadeland avenues. The area of 10,000 residents has a 28% poverty rate, but the area also touts a high percentage of homeownership due to longtime residents and well-organized, connected leaders, Yonkman said.

City-County Councilor Keith Graves, who represents the district, said that his community had begun a letter-writing campaign to convince business owners in the area to clean up and maintain their properties. A gas station that had become a boon for drug dealing was among the businesses his constituents wanted to be dealt with.

Yonkman said Cook Medical and concerned residents worked with the business owner and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to install b-link cameras, which allow officers to watch the space remotely. The collaboration helped run the problem off the property, neighborhood officials said.

Ron Gibson, Devington Communities Association President, said having Cook Medical on the side of the neighborhood also helped persuaed a Utah-based property owner to clean up a neglected apartment complex.

For the hotel, Yonkman said that Cook will seek a creative solution with other members of the Sankofa Access Zone group, rather than advocating for its closure. On Thursday, he said he recognizes that hotels like that one are often a last resort before homelessness.

Yonkman thinks it’s a model that other businesses need to mimic by not just offering philanthropy and advocacy for a community, but offering a convening space and staff expertise. On Thursday, he called for a revolution.

“Somewhere along the line, we began to believe that improving our communities meant joining a business association that issues reports about problems,” he said at the luncheon. “That advocating for a specific piece of legislation fulfills our civic duty to our fellow citizens.”

Yonkman challenged business leaders to follow his “manifesto.”

The first step involves meeting with people and not-for-profits, with the specific tasks of spending three days, or 24 hours total, out in the community and going on a ride along with the police department.  Second, business leaders need to amplify issues or solutions to the right people, Yonkman said. Lastly, he asked the luncheon attendees to mobilize their staffs to help with community initiatives.

Too often on the city’s east side, businesses might build a facility, throw a fence around their buildings and never interact with the neighbors or seek to solve issues in the area, Graves told IBJ. The Sankofa initiative flips the script and emphasizes direct community involvement by business leaders in partnership with the neighbors, an approach Yonkman hopes other companies will adopt.

The name “Sankofa” comes from the Akan language in Ghana. It represents the importance of looking back and learning from the past, Yonkman told IBJ. It was brought to him as an idea to reflect that initiative’s efforts to look back on the community’s past in order to shape the future.

Graves said the 38th Street corridor’s history is one of a thriving business district and the area at 46th Street and Arlington Avenue was once like a small downtown. 

“We lost some of that attention that cities would need to have on a continuous basis,” Graves said. “And unfortunately, that means, you know, some of the things that were needed—like health care, like access to food, like transportation, connectivity, feeling connected to the downtown—had fallen off.”

The area is experiencing an influx of reinvestment: a new Eskenazi Health primary care center, Cook Medical’s grocery store Indy Fresh Market, and the IndyGo Purple Line are all slated to be completed within the next two years. The grocery store is being built by Cook with the goal of using 100% minority contractors. Other partners in the collaboration are Impact Central Indiana, Martin University and Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana.

All the activity has left residents hopeful.

“I often dream, ‘how is this going to look in five years, 10 years, when the smaller shops and other companies and other banks and housing developments come?’” Graves told IBJ.

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8 thoughts on “Cook Medical president creates roadmap for neighborhood renewal, calls other business leaders to action

  1. Cook Medical deserves kudos for upholding its civic responsibilities in the community and the neighborhood where they employ people. More businesses need to embrace the example.

  2. The Cook legacy of helping continues. Thank you Mr Yonkman and your staff moving past the known issues and finding solutions with the people that know best.

  3. Growing up in that and the meadows area it’s disheartening to see how far it has sunk. A lot of companies have tried to make a difference in that area and failed. Hopefully Cook can collaborate with all the pertinent players to make a difference.

  4. This is a heck of a rebuttal to Milton Friedman’s old “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” essay.

    But it is also sad that neighborhood folks need a company owned by one of the richest people in the state to stand up for them to get things taken care of.

    1. In all fairness to Milton Friedman, his view on a company’s “social responsibility” of a business to “increase its profits” was focused only on companies with shareholders.

      In that regard, he was correct because if a business failed to provide returns on the investments of its shareholders, it would not be in business for long and, in turn, the shareholders would not be able to uphold their social responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work.

      Because it is a private, family-owned business with no shareholders, Cook Medical therefore is free to use family resources to contribute to social endeavors of its choosing and magnitude.