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Aisha’s Adventures: A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

July 10, 2014 1 comment

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up story to lift you out of the self=pity blues or doldrums then you’d be hard-pressed to top the story of Aisha Okudi, an Omaha woman who has not let anything stop her, including homelessness, from pursuing her entrepreneurial missionary purpose and dream.  This is my new cover story about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I did a previous story about Aisha and her path of inspiration and transformation which you can find on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Aisha’s Adventures:  A story of inspiration and transformation; homelessness didn’t stop entrepreneurial missionary Aisha Okudi from pursuing her goals

Her Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire line of beauty products serves African missions dream

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She’d been through worse.

Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she’s remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she’s come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at HyVee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane’s Health Market and select salons. She’s working to get in Whole Foods.

She’s humble about her success because she’s following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.

The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy officials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.

She says she’s tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work “a blessing.” In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.

 

Cover Photo

Aisha, left end, middle row, in Africa and displays of her products

She visited Ghana in 2012. She’s returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she’ll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.

“I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me.”

She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.

It’s a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn’t listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.

“There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, ‘I’m going to get out and get my own stuff.'”
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.

“I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn’t know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me.”

The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.

“I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way.”

 

 

 

 

 

She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.

“I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money.”

In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.

In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.

“I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night,” says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.

That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. “I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did,” she says. She felt sure she’d messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, “I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully.”

To her relief the judge didn’t give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. “I told the judge, ‘I will never do this.’ He said, ‘If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.’ I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn’t turn back. I got myself into treatment.” She’d been in treatment before but “this time,” she says, “it was serious, it wasn’t a game. I enrolled in school.”

Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, “I’m so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I’m doing.” Okudi’s learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.

Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.

She’s learned to forgive, but she’s only human. “Even though I’ve grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You’ve just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused.”

Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn’t get too high or too low, she doesn’t feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.

“When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'”

Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she’s meant to serve there.

“It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that’s where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It’s just a natural thing for me.”

She even speaks some native dialects.

She’s long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.

“Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?” she asked her grandma. “I didn’t know.”

Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. “And that’s how the idea for my business came up,” Okudi says.

Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? “I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It’s naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it.”

Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.

She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing’s processed. “All this stuff comes from God’s green earth — oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar,” she says. Nothing’s written down either. “I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too.”

 

 

After trying mechanized mass manufacturing, she’s back to hand mass manufacturing her products
Mass production of the New Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC Body Lotion!! Do you have yours?
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Sha Luminous by Esha Jewelfire, LLC's photo.
Aisha at a store display opening

Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business “started really growing and taking off for me,” she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She’s in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.

She says besides her line being “bomb diggity,” retailers and customers alike respond to “the mission purpose behind it,” adding, “It’s purposeful, its meaningful, there’s life to my company.”

Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production’s unfolded in her mother’s kitchen, in a friend’s attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. “My business is simple, it doesn’t really need a big plant or office.”

Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago “an angel” came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.

Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, “I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn’t resist investing.”

“He’s an awesome person,” Aisha says of Wolsmann. “We’ve become great friends.”

She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence “things work in mysterious ways – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve just got to be prepared.”

Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi’s opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .

“Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done.”

Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. “I asked God, “What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?’ I didn’t have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I’ve always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business.” Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn’t work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.

“It kept me focused on my mission. I’ve been called to be that missionary, so I’m not so upset anymore about why I’ve been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There’s a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God’s doing, He’ll turn things around.”

 

 

It’s why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn’t have right now.

“Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.

“God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there’s preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I’ve been through I’ve actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward.”

For the past year she’s earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.

Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:

“To persevere, period. I don’t care what your situation is you’ve got to keep going. The world doesn’t stop, time doesn’t stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, ‘Don’t stop, just keep going.’ The fight is not easy, the fight ain’t no joke, it’s a war, it’s a battle. You’ve got to put full armor on and fight. God don’t have punks in his army.

“You’ve got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to.”

She’s aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.

“It reminds me who I am and that when I don’t think people are watching me they are. I’ve always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, ‘If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there’s a God.’ Now, he’s stopped drinking. He’s reborn.”

 

Photo: Team Sha Luminous heading to Lincoln to knock out the HyVees there :-)!! Wish us luck and throw some prayers out there too! Thanks.
Aisha drives far and wide slinging her shea butter line

 

 

She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. “People who knew me in my past might say, ‘Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'” She acknowledges she couldn’t transform without help.

“When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I’ve learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who’ve already been there and done it. I’ve seen what not to do and what to do. I’ve learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it’s not about what I know it’s about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me.”

In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University’s Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.

“I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs.”

She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.

After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.

“I’ve gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don’t want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I’ll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I’ve been following I’ll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company.”

 

 

Photo: Happy Birthday󾔑 Esha I love you enjoy your day!!!!󾦈󾠣󾆕󾠨󾓕󾁀
Her younger sister put together this montage of Aisha for her birthday

 

 

She’s determined to complete her mission.

“I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don’t let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There’s nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There’s no light in them. I’m not about that, I’m about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I’m at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I’m a very favored woman in all things I do.

“I haven’t been at a standstill. I’ve come a long way and I continue to grow. I’m still transforming, I’m still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in.”
She suspects she’s always had it in her to be the “apostolic entrepreneur” she brands herself today. “Sometimes you don’t discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn’t embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, ‘I’ll show you,’ and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.

“I’m a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now.”

This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.

For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.

 

One of Aisha’s many different looks

Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

May 23, 2014 1 comment

Big Birge Plumbing in Omaha proves anything can be made sexy, even that grimy blue collar labor dedicated to cleaning clogged drains, sewers, pipes, and valves and keeping sinks, baths, toilets, washers, water heaters, and the like working right.  The couple behind the company, Brad and Lallenia Birge, are having a lot of fun with a marketing campaign that plays off their good looks and a whole 1950s-era theme riffing Hollywood movie, television sitcoms, pinups, and  pulp novels.  It’s one part naughty and two parts nice and all around cleverly executed.  Read and see for yourself in my Omaha B2B Magazine story below.

 

 

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Couple gives plumbing a sexy new turn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha B2B Magazine
Plumbing has never looked like this.

An Omaha couple is turning heads with online teasers for their Big Birge Plumbing Company and gaining new customers in the process. Brad and Lallenia Birge lend their killer smiles and buff, model good looks to Pop Art-style ads that emphasize primary colors, tongue-in-cheek graphics and sex appeal dynamics.

The company logo features an illustration of Brad’s flexed arm, adorned in a rolled up red and black flannel shirt to expose a bulging bicep. His burly hand grips a red wrench. In a profile pose they stand back to back. He’s dressed in the iconic working man’s garb of THAT shirt, blue jeans and work boots, an oversized wrench dangling from one hand. Lallenia’s attired in a blouse, shorts and heels as she holds a plunger. In some shots she wears a red and white polka dot dress and in others a tight fitting white sweater with a blue or red skirt. In still more poses she clutches a giant wrench or a frying pan in an oven-gloved hand. Her expressions range from mock distress to amour.

In these fanciful turns he’s the strong, dependable man and she’s the woman in need of rescue. The retro campaign echoes vintage television situation comedies, Technicolor romantic movies, comic strips, pulp novels and pinup glossies. It’s Betty Page exotica meets Doris Day-Rock Hudson fantasy meets Li’l Abner-Daisy Mae shtick.

Completing this throwback homage is the tagline: “Honesty, quality, American craftsmanship. Old-fashioned values reborn.” The alter-ego personas are exaggerations of the couple’s real selves but the expressed values are how they live and do business.

“We take it very seriously,” says Brad. “We stay true to what we say we are. I can’t stand bad service. The way you treat somebody is everything. It’s totally how you present yourself. On any job I do I try to make it a positive experience for clients.

“We do have a lot of repeat customers and there’s a reason why – we treat people right. We give people good a price and good service. Our clients become our friends.”

He’s a master licensed plumber with years in the trades. She’s a personal fitness trainer who’s opted to devote more time to their son Wyatt and to the business. Her entrepreneurial skills have proven invaluable. She conceives the marketing herself and executes it with help from his mother and photographer Justin Barnes.

 

 

“She’s turned out to be a really big part of the company,” Brad says of Lallenia. “Without her backing me and giving me feedback and throwing ideas out and putting it into play the business wouldn’t be where it is today. As far as our image, it’s all her.”

Lallenia, who enjoys finding frilly props and playing adult dress-up, says it’s all about finding creative ways to make Big Birge stand out.

“When you see other plumbing ads it’s all guys. I was like, ‘We need a woman’s touch here.’ It’s just fun for us to do our own thing right now and to be ourselves. People think we shell out big bucks for our marketing, but we don’t. As long as we can do it ourselves, we’re going to continue doing it.”

The couple says their business website, bigbirgeplumbing.com, garners high traffic and positive feedback. The same is true for their Facebook page and for YouTube videos they’ve made. Their eye-catching promos extend to T-shirts, yard signs and company vehicles.

Coming soon is Lallenia’s own website, “The Plumber’s Wife.”

“It’s about wives helping their husbands as entrepreneurs,” she says. “I am a plumber’s wife and I’m darn proud of it. I want to keep us strong.”

Call Big Birge for an appointment at 402-575-0102.

 

To code or not to code: New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

May 23, 2014 1 comment

I am so not a techie.  That doesn’t preclude me from writing an occasional piece about a tech-based venture.  And in that spirit is an Omaha Magazine story I did on a new bootcamp for aspiring web designers called Omaha Code School and its co-founder, Sumeet Jain, who has taken as its model a similar school in his native Calif. he taught at.  He’s very much a part of a growing young entrepreneurial and creative class in Omaha that’s adding a new dynamism to the scene here.

 

 

Cover Photo

Omaha Magazine

 

To code or not to code
New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine
Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to provide aspiring web developers an immersive bootcamp experience and employers entry-level-capable programmers.

The Calif. natives are partners in their own web development company, Big Wheel Brigade. Gupta rode the dot com wave before coming to Omaha and at his urging Jain followed suit. Since forming the school Gupta’s moved to San Francisco but Jain’s remained in Omaha to run their new educational endeavor in Midtown Crossing.

Thirteen students began the school’s inaugural “intensive” 12-week course Feb. 24. Jain, the lead instructor, promises the May graduates will leave with a hireable skill set for jobs paying an 80K median salary.

The OCS curriculum structure is based on a bootcamp model popular across the country and one Jain’s familiar with after teaching a web development course for General Assembly on the west coast. He says he was skeptical students could go from novices to job-ready in three months until he helped facilitate that happen. The experience convinced him to try it in Omaha, where he says “a frequent complaint of companies is that there’s not enough talent – not enough developers and not enough qualified developers,” adding, “I thought we should have something like this in Omaha, so I came back, put the pieces together and we launched in November.”

It’s an opportunity for Jain to combine his two loves – web development and teaching. He ensures students are trained in relevant, real world programming languages and techniques most colleges and universities ignore.

Interested students must complete an online application that includes a timed coding challenge. While no prior programming experience is required, students must demonstrate an aptitude for the field, namely logic and problem solving.

“The course is for beginners but this isn’t for hobbyists,” says Jain, a self-taught web developer. “This is a class for people who are looking for a career trajectory change and that comes not just at a cost (tuition is $6,000) but with great personal investment and effort. We want to ensure the highest possible caliber of student.”

Jain says it’s no accident the school’s website and application process emphasizes the intensive curriculum, which features individual and collaborative work on real live projects every day.

“It’s really hard to sit and program for 12 hours a day,” he says. “It’s just mentally draining. Keeping that pace up for 12 weeks is a sprint students need to get through. We do our part to hedge against that weariness by holding events that let them let loose and bond and have a break.”

There are field trips to tech-based local companies and guest speakers presenting on special topics. OCS holds a job fair staffed by representatives from companies in its Supporting Employers program.

“We want our students when they graduate to have connections,” Jain says. “Such a big part of any industry is to know people.”

A mentorship program makes area experts available.

“Another commonly cited problem in Omaha is a diffracted membership model,” he says. “If somebody wants to get help there’s no single great place for them to go or no list of people to consult. We’re really excited our mentorship program will create a conduit for people to get help.”

Mentors range from non-tech to tech-savvy wonks. A yoga instructor conducts twice-weekly sessions to help students de-stress and find balance. A corporate recruiter offers job search insights. Web designers school students in collaboration. Software developers troubleshoot problems students confront writing programs.

Jain’s encouraged by the supporting companies on board and he’s proud that membership fees go toward scholarships for underrepresented minorities in what is a white male-dominated field. Each of the three women in the course received a $2,500 scholarship.

He’s also satisfied by the buzz the school’s produced.

“Support has come in a variety of different ways, most fundamentally in the form of curiosity. People want to know about us, they want to know what we’re teaching, they want to know when our next class will be offered (late summer). The interest is there, we won’t have any trouble filling our second class. I’m very confident about that.”

Jain says he’s also confident that “within six months to a year every one of our students who wants a job should be able to get one. That’s going to speak volumes because these students all took a risk on me.
If our students aren’t succeeding there’s really no reason for somebody to trust us again.”

Follow the bootcamp at omahacodeschool.com.

 

 

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Patique Collins has got it going on.  She is a high achieving African American woman with an alluring combination of physical besuty, spiritual enlightenment, business savvy, and passion for her life’s calling.  The Omaha, Neb. fitness trainer loves empowering people to positively chnage their lives.  In the short time between leaving a successful corporate career to starting her own buisness, she’s expertly branded her Right Fit company to grow its client base and to garner media attention.  I discovered her through her heady, consistent use of Facebook as a social media marketing platform that gets her name and face and brand out there, not just through the usual promotional methods but through inspiring before and after pictorials and testimonials that demonstrate the difference that Right Fit workouts make and through affirmations she writes and shares to offer encouraging  life lessons.  My profile of Patique is for Omaha Magazine.

 

 

Photo: Excited and Humbled! Right Fit is featured in "Omaha Magazine" ... "Best of Omaha 2014" edition story by Leo Adam Biga! 2014 will bring some new changes, new strategies and new options for you ...Change is Good, GOD is Good and I am thankful!! #Thank YOU

Patique Collins Finds the Right Fit

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In 2011 Patique Collins left a two-decade corporate career to open a fitness gym. Two-and-a-half years later her Right Fit at 11067 West Maple Rd. jumps with clients.

Under her watchful eye and upbeat instruction, members do various aerobic and anaerobic exercises, kickboxing and Zumba included, all to pulsating music, sometimes supplied by DJ Mista Soul. She helps clients tone their bodies and build cardio, strength and flexibility.

The sculpted Omaha native is a longtime fitness convert. Nine years ago she added weight training to her running regimen and got serious about nutrition. She’d seen too many loved ones suffer health problems from poor diet and little exercise. The raw vegan describes her own workouts as “intense” and “extreme.”

She pushes clients hard.

“I really want to help every single person that comes in reach their maximum potential, and that is a big responsibility,” she says. “if you don’t give up on you, I won’t. I will do whatever I can to help you earn your goals if you’re ready to.”

 

 

 

 

She’s known to show up at your job if you skip class.

“There’s accountability here at Right Fit. I’m very passionate about my clients.”

She believes the relationships she builds with clients keeps them coming back.

“People will tend to stay if you develop a relationship and work towards results.”

Her gym. like her Facebook page, is filled with affirmations about following dreams. being persistent and never quitting.

“I think positivity is a part of my DNA.”

She keeps things fun with theme workouts, sometimes dressing as a superhero.

A huge influence in her life was her late maternal grandmother, Faye Jackson, who raised her after Collins and her siblings were thrown into the foster care system. “My grandmother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and made me believe it.” Collins went on to attain multiple college degrees.

Motivated to help others, she made human resources her career. She and her then-husband Anthony Collins formed the Nothing But Foundation to assist at-risk youth. While working as a SilverStone Group senior consultant and as Human Resources Recruitment Administrator for the Omaha Public Schools she began “testing the waters” as a trainer conducting weekend fitness boot camps..

 

 

 

 

Stepping out from the corporate arena to open her own gym took a leap of faith for this now divorced mother of two small children..

“This is a lot of work. I am truly a one-woman show. Sometimes that can be challenging.

She’s proud to be a successful female African-American small business owner and humbled by awards she’s received for her business and community achievements.

Right Fit is her living but she works hard maintaining the right balance. Family and faith are er top priorities.

This former model, who’s emceed events and trained celebrities (Usher and LL Cool J), wants to franchise her business, produce workout videos and be a mind-body fitness national presenter.

She believes opportunities continue coming her way because of her genuine spirit.

“There’s some things you can’t fake and being authentic is one of them. I’m doing what I want to do, I think it’s my ministry. Everybody has their gifts, and this is mine.

I’m able to influence people not just physically but mentally.”

MindMixer: Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

August 28, 2013 Leave a comment

MindMixer is more than a great name, it has a great concept and utility behind it too.  Entreprereurial partners Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim have combined their urban planning and tech savvy skill sets to an online platform that is rethinking the town hall meeting.  My B2B Omaha Magazine story about the duo and their innovative Omaha-based business follows.

 

 

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MindMixer founders Nathan Preheim (left) and Nick Bowden

Rethinking the Town Hall Meeting

© Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Urban planners turned entrepreneurs Nick Bowden and Nathan Preheim never got used to the slim turnouts that town hall meetings drew for civic projects under review. It bothered them that so few people weighed in on decisions affecting so many.

Preheim, 39, and Bowden, 29, also didn’t feel comfortable cast in the roles of experts who knew what was in the best interests of citizens. They felt too many good ideas went unheard in the process.

The way the Omaha natives saw it, a new approach was needed to better engage people in civic discourse and therefore help build stronger communities. “Lucky for us, urban planning is really stodgy,” says Preheim. “Technology has not really infiltrated the inherent processes within the field, so there was a great opportunity for us to integrate technology into public participation. That’s where we kind of came up with the solution to a very common problem—how do you get more people engaged and interested in talking about community betterment?

Town halls had been and still are the primary vehicle by which cities solicit feedback. They’re hundreds of years old, and they really haven’t changed much at all. We saw an opportunity to enliven the conversation by inverting that model and empowering people to be a part of that change.”

The business partners developed a startup technology company called MindMixer (see related story on page 33) whose online platform offers a virtual front porch for ideas and opinions to be shared, noticed, and acted upon.

 

 

Nathan Preheim

Nathan Preheim

 

 

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating,” says co-founder and CEO Bowden. “Our founding premise is that technology can break that barrier of convenience and open up a bigger world of potential inputs.”

Co-founder and COO Preheim says, “There’s probably something I could learn from you; there’s probably something you could learn from me. We’re way smarter together than we are individually. I think some of that same mantra and guiding force influences what we’re trying to do here.”

“Our purpose is to build a stronger community by involving people in things that matter,” says Bowden. If the response from investors, clients, and everyday citizens is any indication, these visionaries have found a powerful engine to connect everyday people with local government bodies, schools, hospitals, and organizations of all kinds.

“We’ve always felt that people generally care for their community, but maybe it was an issue of convenience, not an issue of apathy, that prevented them from participating.” – Nick Bowden

Launched in 2011, MindMixer, which offices at the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, has more than 400 clients and expects to reach 1,000 by year’s end. As of July, MindMixer had raised $6.2 million in venture capital, much of it from local investors, to develop its tool. The company’s roster of 30 employees is also expected to grow.

By digitizing the town hall, MindMixer facilitates discussions and debates for projects large and small, from rebranding the entire San Francisco public transit system to a crosswalk put in outside Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.

Whatever the idea, whether it relates to recreation or education or health care or some other quality of life issue, people now have a 24/7 avenue to have a say in it.

Preheim notes, “We think we’re the first company that’s trying to pull this off—to unify all those different communities and allow you to sort of contribute to each of them from a single place. It’s providing opportunities for people to give back or reinvest or make a contribution. We’re a funnel, we’re a vehicle, we’re kind of giving voice to people who may not have had that before. It’s empowering, it’s uplifting.

“We are part of something, call it a new movement if you will, that’s enabling better transparency and decision-making by stakeholders who are sort of tapping into the collective wisdom of their constituents. We’re kind of in the meaningful change business. That’s exciting stuff.”

 

 

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Nick Bowden

 

 

Validation that they’re onto something big, Preheim says, also comes in the large “number of citizen-submitted ideas that have actually been carried forward and implemented” nationwide and the sheer participation happening on sponsored MindMixer sites.

“Last year, we engaged over 800,000 participants, and those 800,000 participants submitted over 38,000 ideas,” says Preheim. “Those are empowering statistics, these are encouraging numbers.” He projects two million-plus participants to submit upwards of 100,000 ideas in 2013.

Sometimes, projects respond to urgent human needs. For example, MindMixer-supported sites which assisted citizens organizing to fight back flood waters in Fargo, N.D., as well as those rebuilding neighborhoods in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The startup’s success earned it 2013 Innovator of the Year honors from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Technology Company of the Year recognition from the AIM Institute. Forbes magazine named Bowden an “up and comer.”

With the growth and attention come pressures to relocate, but Bowden and Preheim are determined to prove a tech company can make it big in Omaha. They believe there’s enough talented, smart people locally to lead the paradigm shift the company’s helping lead. MindMixer’s big aspiration is restoring the fabric of community by being the front porch of the internet, where people discuss things that matter and get involved in making positive change happen.

To see this story and other stories in this issue of Omaha B2B Magazine visit its website at: http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

July 2, 2013 1 comment

Chamber of Commerce professionals are paid to say positive things about the communities they promote and that’s not to say they don’t believe the gilded words they profess but in the case of Omaha Chamber of Commerce president David Brown you really do get the sense he means what he says, lock, stock, and barrell.  My story about him for B2B Omaha Magazine is repurposed here.

 

 

Cover Photo

B2B Omaha Magazine - Omaha, NE

 

 

David Brown’s Omaha: Chamber Leader Focused on Making the City Shine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in B2B Omaha Magazine

 

David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling here in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post the Detroit native worked in his home state of Michigan, then in Indiana, before spending a solid decade in South Carolina.

Brown’s always stayed longer than the norm for chamber professionals because he also does economic development and that means putting down serious roots.

“Economic development is really my first love. The part I’ve grown to love the most is what do you do to improve the community so that it’s more attractive to companies and individuals to stay here or to come here. When you do chamber work, which traditionally does not include economic development, you don’t put down as many roots as you do if you’re doing economic development, where you’re selling dirt and really learning about the community. Clients have to see you’re knowledgeable and committed.”

After 10 years down South he and wife Maggie looked to get the youngest of their two sons settled in school. Moving to the middle of the country held great appeal.

“We wanted to get into a more positive public education environment for Elijah, who was getting ready to go into middle school. We wanted to get back to the Midwest where our roots were,” says Brown. “Fortunately the Omaha position was open and I threw my hat in the ring and I was fortunate to get the job.

“This is my 10th year. We’ve been here about as long as we’ve been anywhere.

This is home.”

His devotion to Omaha is such that he’s influenced extended family members to make this their home. He enjoys working with people who share his passion for enhancing Omaha..

“There has been a collection of leadership here that seems to have in the back of their mind, How do we improve this place?You’ve got this intentional effort to try and improve the place married with the unbelievable generosity of the philanthropists here and the corporate support for making this a better place. You see remarkable amenities created not to bring tourists to Omaha but to enhance the quality of life for the people who already live here. The fact they’ve had a tourist appeal as well is just chocolate on the Sunday.”

Add it all up, he says, “and that gives us a competitive advantage over other places where that kind of development and quality discussion doesn’t happen as consistently. We’ve got people who have been able to sit down and say what is it we need to be a better place and then they’ve gone about the process of getting it done. It’s fascinating to see how quickly some of this stuff has occurred, like the riverfront redevelopment. There was a frenetic pace almost that took place in the ’90s that continued into the 2000s.”

For Brown, there’s nothing better than seeing projects like the CenturyLink Center or Midtown Crossing take shape.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made it a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s very rewarding at the end of the year to sit back and say, ‘What did we do this year?’ and know we made a measurable, demonstrable difference in the community we live in. Not just me, but the team we function with from our volunteers to our members to our staff.”

Omaha business and civic leaders value Brown’s efforts.

Mutual of Omaha CEO Dan Neary says, “Dave has worked diligently to shape the business environment from tax policy, incentives and employment training to create an attractive place for businesses to locate. He has promoted the Grow Omaha (GO!) campaign to promote the values of Omaha on a national level.”

“He’s always focused on the end result. He’s a good mediator when he needs to be but he’s also a good salesman for what we need to do. He interacts easily with all kinds of people and groups,” says HDR senior vice president of corporate relations Rex Fisher. “He’s very passionate about what he does and he’s a very consistent person.”

MECA president/CEO Roger Dixon says, “He’s got s professional approach to things, he’s very level-headed, he’s a consensus-builder. I’ve never been in a community where the Chamber is as influential as ours is here and it takes a dynamic individual to lead that. He understands the moving parts in our community and works around them.”

Brown will be guiding the new Prosper Omaha campaign that seeks to brand the city as never before. Omaha’s aspirational spirit resonates with him and the work of the Chamber.

“Omaha’s always been a business town and the business community here plays a big role in making things happen. We’ve been fortunate as an organization that the business community has looked to the Chamber to accomplish some pretty significant things and so over time we pick up some additional responsibilities. So we find ourselves in things a lot of chambers don’t find themselves involved in.”

The Young Professionals Association is an example.

“We have this dynamic young professionals organization that’s involved in virtually every major community activity you can think of. The management and leadership of that process has been a whole new learning experience for us. There’s 5,000 young professionals who at some point or another have plugged into this process of making Omaha a better place.

“We’re mentoring and engaging young professionals so they can be leaders in the future. It’s become part of our leadership agenda.”

In terms of projects, he says, the Chamber is “getting deeper and deeper into things the community needs. When (then-Chamber board chair) Dick Bell said in 2004 the Chamber’s going to be involved making sure every Omahan has an opportunity to succeed and every area in Omaha has an opportunity to grow that got us in the community development business. We’re going to help Midtown grow, were going to help NoDo grow, we’re going to help North Omaha grow, we’re going to help South Omaha grow. That changed the way we think about economic development and the activities we’re engaged in in doing community development.”

He says he likes that the Chamber not only “provides services to our members to grow their businesses but we’re also a catalytic organization.” He adds, “That means we’re sometimes change agents. Sometimes we lead. Virtually always we’re conveners. We convene a wide diversity of people that can help solve problems.  Advocacy is always a part of the agenda.”

A graduate of Dartmouth, where he played football and baseball, Brown is a natural people person and team player.

“I really like people,” he says.

He says lessons he learned playing team sports “are all things I use every day with our team here at the Chamber and with the teams we build within the community,” adding, “The Chamber rarely does things ourselves, we always partner with people and collaborate with others to get things accomplished, and that’s a different kind of team but a team nonetheless.”

He also likes getting things done.

“I like change, it’s something I really embrace. If i don’t see change happening I’m wondering if I’m doing my job. I like to come up with new ideas and trust my team to tell me which ones are good and which ones are bad and then see ideas come to fruition. In the end it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit for stuff as long as we get stuff done. That’s the way the Chamber operates and in large measure it’s the way Omaha operates and I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

Away from the office he enjoys golf, hunting, landscaping and reading. His wife is often by his side.

“She’s my best friend and we do everything together. She’s been my partner in this whole career process. She’s a great saleswoman. She’s done the trade show and conference thing with me. She knows the spiel. She can pitch just like I can. She’s great with volunteers and board members.”

Keep up to date with Brown and the Chamber at http://www.omahachamber.org.

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

April 28, 2013 1 comment

Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it.  Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues.  Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven.  My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine.  You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds.  I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.

 

 

Encounter Magazine - Omaha, NE

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Encounter Magazine

 

 

Sam Mercer

 

 

The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.

In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.

On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.

Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.

By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.

“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

 

 

 

 

More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.

Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market.  He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.

“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.

Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”

“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.

Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.

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