By Leo Adam Biga
Togo, West Africa native Philipe “Phil” Bruce came to the United States as a young man to pursue a dream of being a pilot. But he only found his true purpose once he pivoted to become an entrepreneur, community advocate, business coach, and instructor as well as motivational author and speaker.
He is the CEO of PODS Consulting LLC and of the nonprofit The BLOC, Inc creator of the 50 Over 50 Awards and the new 20 Under 20 Awards.
His book “Not Just Talent: The Millennials Redefining Talent and Human Capital Management,” was an Amazon best-seller.
Through The BLOC he is introducing a new mentoring program. The Personal Board Room will match some of the very community elders or “elites,” as he calls them, that 50 Over 50 recognizes with young people aspiring to be entrepreneurs.
Mentors have played a key role in his own journey, including fellow Togolese Karine Sokpoh, founder, of the Midlands African Chamber, and Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen and Deputy Secretary of State Cindi Allen.
An older sister who preceded Bruce to Omaha has been influential. She came in response to labor initiatives and has worked and raised a family here. He came for education, specifically to study at the UNO Aviation Institute. In Togo, he dreamed of serving in his native country’s air force, even getting accepted into its training program, until his parents forbid him from joining. Still, Bruce wanted something more for himself than what he saw around him.
“We lived well below the poverty line just like most of the population even though my parents were part of the working middle class. I have eight siblings and I was the first to go to college.”
His mother worked for the national newspaper and his father was an educator turned entrepreneur, yet the large family still struggled to get by.
“I do not remember the exact circumstances, but we didn’t have food for a couple of days as a child. Then my mother brought some home, but it was not enough. We made do with what we had. I went to school hungry those days and pretended everything was okay. I didn’t want to embarrass my family. I knew everything would be okay.” Things did improve but even more trying times forced him to grow up fast when political instability erupted into violence, forcing many Togolese, including Bruce and his family, to flee the chaos to neighboring Benin. He was about 10 years old at the time. Others went to Ghana and Nigeria. Thus, part of his growing up occurred outside Togo. That refugee experience made a deep impression.
Although he’s now lived in Nebraska longer than he lived in Togo, he said, “It doesn’t mean I have forgotten where I am from. I have been back but not as much as I would like. I am trying to teach my kids about my roots. I am taking them to Togo and other African countries this year. Hopefully, they will grow up interested in learning about the motherland. For me, moving back hasn’t been a thought. I am a Nebraskan. This is my home now. It doesn’t mean I have forgotten where I am from though.” Bruce is much traveled but he’s found everything he’s been looking for here, including his wife, veterinarian Dr. Brooke Bruce. The couple has two toddlers.
The longer he lived here, he said, “I found myself enjoying the people, the calm, the economy. Being involved in the community you see camaraderie and people caring for each other. At this point, I could live anywhere, but I prefer to live in Nebraska.” He feels he can and does make a difference here, whereas in other places he might not be as impactful. His sister in Omaha introduced him to the UNO Aviation Institute. To help pay for school he worked at Nebraska Furniture Mart. But he became disenchanted by the prospect of working his way up the aviation or retail ranks to get anywhere. He felt stuck and not on a path to living his best life.
“At different points, I was broke and seen rock bottom, with nowhere to go but up. The main thing I came to America with was hope and resilience and that has shaped a lot of my decisions ever since.”
It helped, he said, that there was a surprisingly sizable and strong Togolese community already in place in the metro when he arrived in 2004. He leaned into it. “I actually reconnected with some people that I knew from Togo.” Then he was reminded of what he was really meant to do.
“I love business. Back home, everything was based on entrepreneurship, on doing business, going to the market for resell, retail, and barter in a non-corporate, unconventional way. I decided if I’m going to work at Nebraska Furniture Mart and try to climb the ladder there then I will pursue another degree. So, I shifted and enrolled at Bellevue University. Diversity was part of the school’s fabric at many levels. They have done a good job with their international program.
“I got my bachelor’s degree in leadership and organizational development. I loved it. Everything I was learning was relevant to the job I was doing. Right after I graduated, I went for my master’s at Peru State College for organizational management.”
Up until then, Bruce said it was unclear how the scattered skills, knowledge, experiences, and lessons he had accrued might work together. As he soon discovered, “In the right circumstances they all align together, and it becomes a straight line where you can make the connection. Once that happens, you cannot go back. It kind of fuels you. You feel this empowerment.” Making himself an asset to others, seeking their own purpose, and realizing their own potential became his pathway to fulfillment and success. “My ability to connect with people and to get them to see what I see became a very strong point. From that point on it was a no-brainer.”
He launched his PODS business consulting firm. “I learned enough to start teaching people in the community how to do things, such as write a business plan, form an LLC, build this and that. The more I learned and helped, the more I felt good about it.” He leveraged what he learned into writing books that further positioned himself as an expert.
“I started writing about what I was learning and that’s how my whole career came about.” A three-page college paper he was assigned to write turned into 13 pages. “My professor said, ’It sounds like you have more to say, so if you need to get it out, do it,’ so I slowly did my research and put things down, and that became my first book. I got the help I needed to get it published. It was very well received.” Beyond his wildest expectations.
When he got word, that it was a bestseller, he said, “It was one of those moments where you’re like, wait, what is going on? The book’s success opened doors. “That gave me a lot of opportunities, speaking engagements, and consulting gigs with companies in Europe, Africa, and around the U.S. I ran with it. I learned what I could learn and took what I could take from it. It was a great experience.” His next book, “The Entrepreneur’s 10 Steps to a Viable Business Plan,” focused on helping young people take that leap and jump into the entrepreneurial world, he said. He started another book, but he’s put that project “on pause” to start his family.
“PODS was born shortly before the breakout success of my first book but when it caught fire it launched me on a whole new trajectory,” he said. Through PODS he became a University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor in its Nebraska Business Development Center, conducting seminars and teaching organizational management classes.
Another opportunity to contribute to the community came from his networking. “Attorney Karine Sokpoh told me about her vision to build a chamber of commerce that caters to the African American and African communities. Most minority groups have a chamber and there wasn’t one specifically serving this population. She saw a lot of different initiatives geared to these groups but not one entity helping connect the dots. I loved her idea, and I asked if she needed help to let me know. Sure enough, she needed help setting it up, so she brought together about a dozen of us, and we founded and designed it, built the programs, and started it up, and I’m glad it’s still going strong.
“It took a while to get the community on board, but as Midlands African Chamber co-founders, we made things happen. We all pitched in. After the first year, there was no stopping it.” Bruce sees the chamber as a unifying force for the area’s African diaspora community through its economic development efforts and celebration of business success stories and the shared struggles of integration, access, and separation from loved ones.
He also considers the chamber a resource for bridging divides between the African and African-American communities. He said past tensions stemmed from “misinformation and disinformation,” adding. “It’s taken a toll on the Black community.” Conversations to get past myths and stereotypes, he said, are now happening. “From 20 years ago to today I’ve seen a tremendous change in how African Americans and Africans work together. In business, more collaborations are happening. The chamber can help foster more of that. I have faith that in a few more years any divides will be history.”
In 2020 Bruce and colleagues from the community formed The BLOC in response to pandemic closings, strictures, and shortages that disproportionately impacted nations and communities of color. The name, he said, comes from its mission of wanting to be a building block in the community. “The first project we did was in collaboration with a lot of people from the diaspora to feed people in Africa.” Efforts then shifted to local needs.
“We were able to raise a lot of money for COVID-19 relief that provided meals and masks and mental health services. We focused on seniors and youth. At the height of the scarcity of masks, we provided masks to Boys Town to cover their summer youth camp programs. We fed members of the Intercultural Senior Center in Omaha at Thanksgiving. Those are just a few examples of how we intersected with community.”
As the pandemic waned, Bruce and his team sought new ways to do good and formalized The BLOC by establishing a board. The nonprofit became a certifying organization for the President’s Volunteer Service Award in Nebraska.
Noting that there were local community platforms to recognize young adults but nothing for older adults, the idea for the 50 Over 50 NE Awards was born. Individuals over age 50 are honored for their achievements in any one or more of five categories: business, community, healthcare, nonprofit, and innovation. A call for nominations goes out to leaders and peers make the selections, thus 50 Over 50 honorees comprise a Who’s-Who of Nebraska doers, makers, leaders, and influencers. A lifetime achievement award is also presented. This year’s lifetime recipient is former Nebraska state senator Patty Pansing Brooks. Past lifetime recipients are No More Empty Pots founder-CEO Nancy Williams (2022) and North End Teleservices founder-CEO Carmen Tapio (2021).
The BLOC created the platform for the awards and maintains a website devoted to it. A deep well of sponsors (AARP Nebraska and Home Instead) and partners (Midlands African Chamber, 402Legal, Afro Swag Media & Magazine, Leadership Lincoln) help make the awards a reality.
This year’s 50 Over 50 gala happens Oct. 14 from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in the Old Market. “The first 50 Over 50 in 2021 got a great response,” he said, adding that the annual event has become the state’s premiere vehicle for recognizing mature talent. The awards event also recognized Up and Coming Trailblazers.
Coming out of that inaugural year, he noted, “the mission of The BLOC transformed to where we are today and to where we’re going.” In the process of recognizing older adults, he said, it became apparent these elites represent the leaders of their fields. “I call them elite because they do what they do very well based alone on all the experience they have doing it. No matter what they do they are the best at what they do, whether it’s in the business, community, healthcare, nonprofit, innovation spheres.” It also became apparent there was a gap in connecting their wisdom to youth.
Bruce believes seniors are an untapped resource with valuable gifts and experiences and he’s determined to share their expertise with youth through the Personal Board of Directors mentoring program. A board or cohort of mentors, each with different strengths will be matched with a youth. Mentors will be drawn from the 50 Over 50 honorees, many of whom have expressed interest in serving youth in that capacity, he said.
“We have these senior leaders that constitute an accumulation of knowledge that could be transferred to the younger generation,” he said. “We want to create that opportunity and direct line for the youth to learn from and to be mentored by the elites. I don’t know of many young people who have that direct line to a veteran CEO to ask them questions. We think we are in the right place to make that happen. “That is the direction The BLOC is going to take – to be more of a professional development organization fostering the knowledge and legacy transfer from seniors to youth.”
Bruce knows first-hand what a difference having role models and mentors can make. “If you don’t find yourself around people doing certain things you won’t think those things are for you. I’ve been that person. Before I came to America, I didn’t see myself as someone who could potentially run an organization. My frame of reference was my family and friends – they all worked company or government jobs, they retired, they got their pension, and that was it. Then when I moved here and met more people and saw more things, it changed to, oh wait, I can run the organization. I began to believe making an impact is something anyone can learn and pivot into. But you can’t get to that unless you’re exposed to it. Then you learn the mindset and pathway that get you past barriers to entry. Otherwise, it seems unattainable.”
To help catalyze the mentoring program, The BLOC is introducing its first 20 Under 20 Awards this fall at an 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. luncheon at Yates Illuminates. The BLOC is housed at Yates. Candidates for the awards, which recognize achievement in academics, athletics, leadership, entrepreneurship, and community engagement, are being curated from schools and youth-serving organizations. Awardees may be among the first cohort of mentees matched with 50 Over 50 mentors.
Community building work is where Bruce’s heart is, especially in preparing the youth to be the next cohort of leaders by pairing them with masters. “It feels good to be part of something bigger than oneself,” he said. He attributes his own sense of wanting to contribute and serve to how others have supported him and his endeavors. “When people help you in Nebraska it’s not because they want anything in return. That has marked me. I feel that giving back is part of my identity. I want the next generation to do better because they will be building the community, the state, and the nation. If they can act early on, the better for all of us.”
For 50 Over 50 Awards dinner tickets, visit https://www.50over50ne.com.