Make sure your circle of influence is not afraid to be honest with you. You must know when to separate yourself from negative people and when to trust those who are honest with you. As an entrepreneur, you will not have time to deal with negativity. You need people around you who are genuinely happy for your successes. Note from The Distillery: Know how to differentiate between negativity and constructive criticism.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon A. Okpalobi, CEO of DIBIA Athletic Development and Founder of Dibia DREAM, Inc. Brandon was recently named one of Black Enterprise Magazine’s 100 BE Modern Men, a Hennessey V.S.O.P. Privilege Toast Recipient, and the best gumbo chef outside of New Orleans. Brandon has taken the principles he learned growing up in New Orleans as a first generation Nigerian American and applied them to all areas of his life.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path.
In 2014, I founded Dibia DREAM to provide free afterschool and weekend academic enrichment to historically underserved populations of students. My lived experience as a young man of color both shapes my values and informs the framework of the programs that I lead. Because I struggled in school, but was afforded a second chance, I am passionate about changing the trajectory of and building asset spaces for Miami’s youth.
At a very young age, my parents bought me an Atari, Nintendo, Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo. When I would get bored, I would break the machines open to see how the mechanics worked on the inside. I was intrigued to know about their inner workings and wanted to understand the technology behind them. This was not an after-school program activity like the ones offered at DREAM Academy to engage youth through STEM and sports. I had to create this activity.
Today, our afterschool and weekend programs provide activities for youth just like me. We provide youth a safe and constructive space to learn while equipping them with social and emotional life skills. As a young change maker and community leader, my efforts shed light on today’s youth and the need for community-based organizations committed to engaging and empowering them.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My father Chief Chuka Okpalobi built a community center for his village back in Nigeria. I went to the grand opening with him and witnessed him making a difference through service. This opened my eyes and my heart to look for a way to be the change for my community.
Being an athlete, I am extremely competitive. I want to make sure that DIBIA Athletic is the best training company on the planet. With DREAM, my goal is to make sure every underserved youth has the chance to be great, dream big, and has equitable access to all opportunities.
What you see daily is that minority and underserved youth are not afforded opportunities that other kids are. If you read the statistics that are out there today, they are surprising. 35% of African-American youth graduate from high school. I recently met with a friend who works in child services in Miami, and there were two kids there. One was standing in front of the judge; he must have been in the third grade. There was another kid that was so tiny, he wasn’t even up to my knee in height, and he was a defendant. What could he have possibly done, I thought?
After seeing that, it was a moment for me. This is why I do this. These kids need a chance. They need someone to tell them that they are special. These kids go back to neighborhoods surrounded by negativity. They need to see something different. And if I can impact them in their younger ages, then they will have a chance. Those same two kids could be the next leaders of their generation. This is what pushes me to go into these communities.
Before founding DREAM, I established a for-profit business, DIBIA Athletic Development, which promotes excellence through athletics by offering sports and athletic training to various youth. As I started to take a deeper look into education, it was evident that there were few quality after school programs in Miami at the time. Youth were getting into trouble during after school hours (3pm — 6pm) and youth gun violence was on the rise. I researched a few existing programs and saw an opportunity to provide our youth with something better. So, on October 6, 2014, DREAM (Development through Recreational Education for Athletic Minds) was born with the focus to help youth win at life through STEM and sports-based programming.
The term wrap around services is tossed around a lot in the non-profit sector. In establishing DREAM, I wanted to ensure that we truly help our youth holistically with dynamic programming. Our goal is to impact youth beyond the ‘bell to bell’ time they have during the school year.
My drive was instilled in me by my parents. My mother, who is extremely positive taught me at a young age to look at everything through a positive lens. She bought me the “Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peele and made sure that I read it. That really changed my thought process on how I looked at obstacles. With a changed mindset, I can see the positive in every situation. Growing up in a Nigerian household under my father, we could never be second best. Hearing from a very young age that I must be the best, or that I had to be first in my class, and “Naija, No Dey Carry Last” (meaning Nigerians strive to finish first), I always had the mindset that if I worked hard, prayed and gave my all, I would achieve greatness. Whether times were easy or hard, the lessons from my parents keep me going through tough times today. Thank you, Calla Victoria and Ochendo Chuka Okpalobi.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
In my life, having grit and being successful is the only way. Failure is not an option. I will admit that I have failed forward many times, but I seek to learn from my mistakes and always welcome the next opportunity. There will always be times when things don’t seem to be going right — people won’t support, or something unexpected happens — but I look at those challenges as life lessons. I read a quote that said, “we should strive to get 1% better each day.” I believe that by taking this approach, then I cannot fail.
For both DIBIA and DREAM, what pushed us through our most turbulent times was prayer, hard work and following the principles within The Purple Cow book. I pray before we embark on anything and because of this, I trust that things will always work out in my favor. I know that when things are slow or seemingly not moving at all, it is because my productivity is low. I quickly realize that I need to work harder. The Purple Cow is a marketing book that really allowed us to separate ourselves from other companies. Within both of my organizations, we pride ourselves on providing a unique experience, presenting our company like no other, and being extremely innovative. I have been blessed with God-ideas and the faith to act on those. That is what has turned my companies around and allowed us to be in a good position.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
I am truly blessed to make an impact in my community and this world through my two organizations: Dibia Athletic Development and Dibia DREAM.
The mission of DIBIA Athletic Development (DIBIA) is to provide dynamic, state of the art sports and life skills enrichment programs designed to train and strengthen the mind, body and soul of the competitive athlete. Our end goal is to prepare athletes for the most advanced level of play on the court, field, and in life. DIBIA provides elite sports training for athletes to develop fundamental skills through detailed analysis of individual skills, innovative drills and dynamic instruction. Our intense training program is designed for boys and girls, ranging from age 7 to professional athletes. We train athletes worldwide and hosts camps/clinics in Miami, New Orleans, and Bermuda, with expansions to Nigeria soon.
Dibia DREAM (DREAM) addresses the challenges low-income youth of color face when trying to access high-quality, culturally competent youth development programming that attends to their academic, social, physical, and emotional well-being. DREAM targets youth that often lack positive adult relationships, mentors, and a safe afterschool environment, leaving them at-risk for developing dangerous habits or becoming involved in violent or other illegal activities. Through afterschool, weekend, and summer programming, DREAM reaches youth where they are, administering programming that reinforces classroom learning, teaches positive and healthy behaviors, and engages youth with STEM-related activities that spark interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
1. Become an expert and be investment ready. You must market yourself as an expert and be ready for potential investments, sponsorships, and partnerships. This is extremely important because people want to be associated with success, but you must have your internal operations in order first.
2. Pray for guidance because all eyes are on you. Remember that you are being watched by all sorts of people. You represent your brand, so you must be on your best behavior and be mindful of your actions. When playing college basketball, I learned that there is always a microphone listening (watch what you say), someone watching (watch your actions), and there is always a camera filming (be on your best behavior in public and private settings).
3. Make sure your circle of influence is not afraid to be honest with you. You must know when to separate yourself from negative people and when to trust those who are honest with you. As an entrepreneur, you will not have time to deal with negativity. You need people around you who are genuinely happy for your successes. Note from The Distillery: Know how to differentiate between negativity and constructive criticism.
4. Don’t settle for ‘no’. When you hear ‘no’, that just means this person, company, or sponsor is not the right partner for you. That closed door should lead you to knock on another door, write another proposal, submit another grant, or select another venue that is better for you.
5. Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to the max. Just do it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
This is easy — my parents! Both are successful entrepreneurs, yet they never pushed anything on me. They allowed me to make my own decisions (and mistakes), encouraged me to see things for myself and to carve my own path. My father emphasized the importance of independence and instilled a sense of confidence in me. My mother, a New Orleans native, taught me killer negotiation tactics infused with warm southern hospitality, which has served me well as an entrepreneur.
My father Chief Chuka Okpalobi built a community center for his village back in Nigeria. I went to the grand opening with him and witnessed him making a difference through service. This opened my eyes and my heart to look for a way to be the change for my community. Being an athlete, I am extremely competitive. I want to make sure that DIBIA Athletic is the best training company on the planet. With DREAM, my goal is to make sure every underserved youth has the chance to be great, dream big, and has equitable access to all opportunities.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
“I feel like I’m a doctor” — Tanisha (8 years old)
“I want to be a scientist” — Michael (12 years old)
“I love STEM and thank you for this opportunity Coach Brandon” — Thomas (11 years old)
In the beginning, I used profits from DIBIA Athletic to fund DREAM programming. It was a risk, but one I was willing to take to invest in my dream to impact the world. Statements from our youth like the ones above are a testament to the goodness I seek to bring to the communities we serve.
One could say that my commitment to developing young people is emblematic of how Dr. King’s notion of the ‘beloved community’ starts with the work we do in building the next generation.
I recognize that systematic issues have plagued the black community for years. So, I am passionate about changing the narrative and building asset spaces for black communities to thrive. Our black men and boys deserve the opportunity to be successful. I was once a lost young boy that was kicked out of a catholic school in the 2nd grade. After transferring to a creative arts school where they channeled my negative energy into art, I thrived and was no longer a statistic.
My desire is to create good athletes through DIBIA Athletic Development and to cultivate great stewards of the community with Dibia DREAM.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am excited about DIBIA Athletic Development expanding operations to Dallas, New Orleans, and Bermuda through sporting training and our DIBIA Champions League (basketball league). We are focused on promoting excellence through athletics and will continue to add new programs to teach life skills through sports.
DREAM is also expanding afterschool programming from two sites to six sites this year. In establishing DREAM, I wanted to ensure that we truly help our youth holistically with dynamic programming. We offer DREAM Academy (after-school program), DREAM Scholars (college scholarship program), and Summer of DREAMS (summer enrichment).
To serve our kids better, DREAM recently launched two interesting initiatives: The Carrying DREAMS Home Initiative, a childhood hunger prevention program, and STEM Saturdays which provides weekend enrichment to ensure that we impact youth beyond the ‘bell to bell’ time they have during the school year.
1. The Carrying DREAMs Home Initiative was established to combat childhood hunger. We partner with Hyatt Regency New Orleans to provide youth in DREAM Academy, “DREAMPaks” at the end of each week to take home. DREAMPaks include non-perishable foods and healthy snacks to make sure youth and their families have nourishment through the weekend.
2. STEM Saturdays transforms community centers into “Incubators of Excellence”. STEM Saturdays are monthly city-wide, family, and community-based academic events where students and parents can attend and learn together. Our goal is to engage the community by exposing youth in the community to STEM-based activities. We partner with Dr. Calvin Mackie and STEM NOLA to make this happen.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I have learned that saying, ‘thank you’ goes along way. I also suggest:
1. Take each of your employees to lunch and incorporating team building activities throughout the year like Top Golf to better know your staff.
2. Have them see you get your hands dirty. This allows you to lay the foundation and expectation of having a strong work ethic within the company’s culture.
3. Reward them for their hard work, praising them and offering constructive criticism when necessary.
4. Treat them like family. Loving on your staff shows your deep appreciation for their efforts and increases their commitment to the organization in the end.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I aspire to open a school that directly touches the lives of youth and families from economically disadvantaged and at-risk communities. The objective would be to provide children the support, self-esteem, and experiences needed to help break barriers linked to unproductive behaviors by sparking a life-long interest in STEM starting with grades head start-8th (six to thirteen years old).
According to the International Journal of Science Education, “Participation in inquiry-based science education, which focuses on student-constructed learning, has been linked to academic success. Whereas the benefits of this type of science education are evident, access to such high-quality science curriculum and programming is not equitable. Black and Latino students in particular have less access to supplementary science programming, and fewer opportunities to engage in inquiry-based education,” (2015).
Opening the school would play a critical role in starting a movement to:
1. Provide access to inclusive learning environments, and
2. Transform cultural and institutional environments that presently promote stereotyping and implicit bias about who can excel in STEM fields
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m reminded of a quote, “Life is filled with opportunities, not entitlements.”
I believe that we must be the change we want to see in this world. When I stopped waiting for others or even asking for permission, I became the man I was designed to be. Black men are made in God’s image and should live as the Kings and children of God that we are.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook — Brandon Okpalobi
Facebook Fanpage: Dibia DREAM
Facebook Fanpage: DIBIA Athletic
Instagram: @dibia dream
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.