Up Close Interview with OIC CEO Robert Nelson – 35 years of Service and Success

by Gloria Dulan-Wilson

Hello All:

This week is the celebratory week for the founding of OIC – Opportunities Industrialization Center, founded fifty (50) years ago by Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan, in Philadelphia, PA. The organization, from its outset, has been a stalwart in providing career path training in both traditional and non-traditional industries for African Americans and others who were in need of gainful employment, but did not have the necessary marketable skills, education, or level of sophistication required.

I recently conducted a telephonic one-on-one interview with Mr. Robert Nelson, CEO of OIC, who, after 35 years of continued service, 33 of which has been as CEO, is retiring at the end of June:

Robert C. Nelson CEO of OIC to Retire after 35 Years

 When Robert Nelson came to OIC, while a grad student at Temple University, the organization was in full swing – having established more than 133 branches throughout the United States and Africa. His original intention was to have a part time position while he completed his masters at Temple, so he could support his wife and family at the same time.

In addition to the milestone of fifty years as a viable organization still focused on the skills training and job development/placement, serving 35 years in an organization, when the current trend is to job hop, so to speak, I a major feat. More significantly, it is a labor of love.

Robert Nelson admits that initially, the job with OIC as a counselor, was an interim one. He actually left to take another position that was purported to be more in line with his field, but after having worked with OIC, found the new atmosphere not to his liking. So after two years, he returned to continue working with Dr. Sullivan, and has been there ever since. That was 35 years ago. And interestingly enough, it was probably the best move he could have made, because he has served as CEO of the organization for 33 of those 35 years. It's as much a testimony to Dr. Sullivan's great judgment in character as it is a testimony to Nelson's dedication to the principles of the organization, and the continued success they have enjoyed under his stewardship.

It's apparent that his enthusiasm and love for the organization has not waned over the years, even though he is retiring at the end of June. When asked what are some of the things he was most proud of, he responded: “Aside for the tenure of it all? My predecessor, Rev. Thomas Ritter, was first executive director, and he held the title of being the longest serving at 13 years. He's passed some years ago; but I've eclipsed his record. I only say that in a moment of levity – but this is kind of an accomplishment in that I kind of hung tough in the good and the bad times.”

Nelson continued, thoughtfully, “What I'm most satisfied with is that we never abdicated our responsibility. We've always maintained fidelity to the original purpose of OIC by Dr. Sullivan in helping people help themselves.”

In his role as CEO, Nelson had been tasked with both fund raising and innovational programs that would provide skills for OIC's constituents. He established two such programs that have evidenced immeasurable success, of which he is equally proud: “The programs that I was able to initiate here, was the OIC Futures program, which is really a social and vocational rehab program for mental health consumers. But, that was actually the first proposal I ever wrote, and that program lasted 22 years, until it lost its funding about two years ago. The second one in longevity is the Hospitality Training Industry Program I founded 23 years ago, and that's still going, placing about 150 people in jobs in hotels, restaurants, entertainment. I'm proud of those only because I can state that I founded them. They may not want to name one after me, but I'm proud of them, and at least I can say that that's what I did that really resulted in jobs for people.”

Robert Nelson at one of OIC's Hospitality Training Classes

OIC began during turbulent times in Philadelphia – when Dr. Sullivan, head pastor at Zion Baptist Church, was spending more time participating in protests, joining forces with Dr. Martin Luther King and others. Initial funds came from the churches and from the people, rather than from foundations and federal dollars. Per Nelson, in speaking of the continuing success of the organization: “The other thing I would say, for a community based organization, it's difficult to survive. It really is, because if you look at the federal level, state level – everybody's being impacted - particularly in Washington, because the President can't get anything done. On the state level they're cutting back – and the bulk of their budgets cuts affect poor people are primarily who are cut and they are the ones who we serve. We're 95% African American; 4% Latino and 1% other. So again, the two programs as my accomplishments, and being able to survive the vicissitudes of trying to survive this community based environment.”

It's clear that anyone coming behind Nelson is going to have some mighty big shoes to fill – something that was also said after Dr. Sullivan's passing in 2001. When asked what the criteria for his successor would be, he laughed it off initially, stating that the Board of Directors was basically taking care of that concern. However, with the upcoming conference, prayer breakfast and gala surrounding the celebration of the 50th Anniversary Celebration, they've temporarily put it on the back burner.

But after I teased him about his successor needing to be able to walk on water, he laughingly responded: “That wouldn't be characteristic of my tenure either!  I think we begin with criteria that's more subjective than not. You really have to have a passion for what we do; and you've got to understand that it ain't easy.  Because having a passion for what we do, when we're dealing with is people coming in off the streets and applying in a city that has 200,000 low literate adults.  So you pretty much have to understand that we get people where they are - what they come with or don't come with. We certainly see people with a lack of educational experiences.  So the ability to understand that - the ability to try to empathize with that.  They have to be sensitive to those things things, because for the most part staff has it – good or bad.”

Nelson made it clear that while empathy is an important quality, being a phony is not acceptable: “And if you haven't lived it, don't be out there acting like you have.  I never grew up in public housing, for example. I never was on drugs; I was never unemployed for the most part.  So, I say to my people, don't use your own life experiences as a frame of reference for people that we receive. It's not the same!  You get people where they are, and you begin to motivate and progress them at a beginning point, which is their beginning point.  Don't try to give people your set of values.   You give people  space to formulate their own values. So that's one set of circumstances.”

It's apparent from this next statement that the new CEO will also have to have a thick skin and mental toughness:   “Plus you've got to be able to contend with every year fighting and struggling for dollars.  Don't get frustrated - because nowadays it's difficult to raise money from the foundations and corporations, because everybody else is going after the same limited pot of money.  So that's something you always have to deal with - and it changes from year to year whether your resources are going to come through – no resources, no programs, no jobs. It becomes a vicious cycle in that regard.  The other area is to be political.  I'm not that - I don't think that I've ever been that politically involved - things happen because of political relationships.  Not because I have a nice suit and tie on today, but because it's about understanding the political alliances, and how do you connect the dots that makes things happen for our organization.  That's why being politically astute is another thing that I would thing would be great.”

Dr. Sullivan established the Sullivan Progress Plaza, in Philadelphia on Broad Street, near Temple University, in the late 60's and it's still thriving today. When asked whether or not any of the revenues from the center are accrued to underwrite OIC, he responded, “No, it really doesn't.  It's a separate economic development initiative.  It was really one of the first one of Dr. Sullivan's focus on economics for civil rights.  His thinking was that 'It's okay and I will join the fight for people to have equal access in a restaurant, for example - and we can sit together. But what I'm really fighting for why don't we think about owning the restaurants, as opposed to working for the restaurant.' And then he decided well maybe what we ought to do is to create ownerships - and he designed what he called the 10/36 program.  He went around to any number of people in the church and the community and said "Give me ten dollars a month for three years, or thirty six months, and that will give us enough money to capitalize the Plaza.  The Plaza became the shopping center.  And that was started and that became another focus, as well as one in West Philadelphia.  And so that became the economic development activities that are still alive and well. “

OIC recently received a grant for $41,000 from the Philadelphia Foundation, to make it possible to build a state of the art interactive website for OIC, as well as produce the historical documentary celebrating fifty years of success. “Our website is our business card - it goes out to a number of different people.” 

One key program Nelson should also be proud of is the OICKeyspot Centers and NOMAD, which have been serving the Philadelphia area for quite some time, providing  free open access computer lab and mobile Computer lab facilities, as well as no-cost computer training in Internet Essentials, Computer Basics, Internet Safety, eMail Basics; Search Engine Basics, Microsoft Office Certification, among other essentials.  
N.O.M.A.D (Neighborhood Opportunities for Mobile Access Destinations) is a mobile computer lab outfitted with 50 laptops, WiFi internet access, and assist partner organizations that don't have computer lab equipment.  It serves more than 30 partner community based organizations.  Both are members of the Philadelphia Freedom Rings Partnership, which is a collection of community and local government agencies funded through the City of Philadelphia BTOP grant.  

Having recently lost funding for the program for those with mental challenges, as well as funding for homeless men who had been participating in the training in order to get back on their feet, is an indication that the larger funding population are not totally aware of how valuable and viable OIC is to Philadelphia in particular, and the US in general. So I asked Robert Nelson, if he was given the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with those people and organizations in Philadelphia, and to the President of the US, what message would he give them about the necessity for maintaining the financial viability of OIC?

He took a deep breath and responded, thoughtfully: “I would first of all talk to them about the history.  We're a great organization with incredible institutional presence in and of the Philadelphia community - that's one part - the historical part … And what we really need to be talking about is to establish what the priorities that we have attached ourselves to.  And that's real simple.  We've attached ourselves to the vision of creating and placing people into jobs. That becomes critical so we need to talk about the resources that will allow us to do that.  But more importantly, or equally important is ability that we first identify where the jobs are, because the employers will say “Well we have jobs, what we have is difficulty finding people with the skill sets for those jobs.” We want to make sure that we are providing skills training for jobs that will be around in the future.”

Nelson is concerned that programs that equip themselves for the “hot jobs” of the moment are doing a disservice to people who are hard core unemployed. They may last for a few months or a couple of years, but are not jobs with longevity or career promotional potential. So when he asks where the jobs are, there is a very real concerns that these positions meet that criteria. He continues: “So for us the fundamental question is whether that employer, or that official  can help us  understand where are the jobs?  There are skill sets - because that's how we start to develop our training programs consistent with where the jobs were.  That would be a conversation - and it also involves the battle with the income equality. Because all we've ever doing in life is dealing with poor folks - so obviously, by definition, there's income inequality among the people we serve.  So, we would argue for a raise in the minimum wage - it's becoming contested all over the place; but in some places they're saying, "yeah, that's a good idea."  So a series of things like that.”

The biggest challenge, according to Nelson, with OIC's moving forward, stems from issues in Washington, DC. “There's government, and there's nothing moving in Washington - I think it's important to concentrate on the midyear elections - we'd better make sure that the president doesn't lose the Senate.  We'll never get anything else out of Washington at all.” 

Currently OIC has 44 Branches throughout the United States, with the largest being in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio, TX, Washington State. There are also smaller satellite branches in Montgomery County, and Erie County, PA.

The bottom line of how much it would take to make OIC whole, to really service people in PA in terms of funding and grants, in addition to the funds they receive from the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, is not one that is easily quantifiable in terms of dollars and cents, according to Nelson, who stated: “I'm not sure I could even quote you a dollar amount - what we need to do is do the things that make OIC relevant.  Nowadays, development has changed over the years and what it means to certain people; what it means to the organization.  What are the core principles that we stand for - certainly education is one of them, with 200,000 low illiterate people, we've got to go back to the basics - I'm almost ready to get back to Dick, Jane and Puff - we got to go back there, because we have adults at a certain age who can't read!  It's such a sad situation.  They've spent their whole life compensating for no skills - so that's the fundamentals.”

He continued “The second part of that is that we need the understanding from the chambers around the city and wherever else, where are the jobs, so we can develop the training programs consistent with those people sets, and at the same time partnering with the companies who are going to be the employers. 'Hey! let's sit down; we're OIC, we have the capacity to fill your jobs, we want to train people to fill them.'  Once we do that, we can literally make that open up the doors for funding sources that your local manpower and people here in the city;   make partnerships with employers and community based organizations.”

As the bid for funding becomes more challenging, with the landscape now also encompassing community colleges, and churches who are using Sullivan's principles as prototypes for their own programs, it's important that the original not be allowed to go down in the dust. Not only does their longevity speak volumes, but those they have served are living proof of the viability and value of OIC now and in the future.

Nelson, who has participated in 33 graduations, mentions how impactful it is when people who have graduated, whose lives have been changed around – no longer on welfare, or formerly on drugs, formerly in different negative circumstances when they came to OIC, and they graduated and moved forward with their lives.   “We invite them back to OIC to tell their story. And you look around the room and everybody's crying.  We had a program for formerly homeless men – And one of our graduates - his wife and two kids were there - they had been reconciled by the fact that he came to OIC, completed the training, got a job, and went back and got his family.  I'm sitting on the stage with four or five men and everybody's crying - everybody!  And I've done it any number of times, because, you know, real men cry.  I don't mind - I don't mind crying - it's something that impacts you, and I think this whole position has a way of getting tears because we've done so many good things for so many good people.” And thus the reason for the criteria for passion – coupled with compassion, is going to be a large part of who follows in those illustrious footsteps.

In considering what his parting message to his co-workers and staff might be, Nelson stated: “This has been a great experience - not one that I would have anticipated 33 years ago - that I'd be here.  Could I have done something else? could I have made more money? could I be all the things that I might have become, on looking back?  I don't say that about here because it's been a great experience.  I have met people that I never would have met if it hadn't been for being a part of OIC.  I sat at a luncheon with Colin Powell;  had conversations with presidents of the United States, presidents of African countries.  I've done those things.  I've been to Africa - I've had a lot of experiences, and I got the chance to be around and among and with Rev. Sullivan, and all the people who were a part of his mission.  I've also been in the room with other executives and staff members and more people from around the country.  And being in the room with hundreds and hundreds of people, literally - they all were inexplicably kind to one another by virtue of OIC - we're all here the same - that is we're all here to help people.  Dr. Sullivan would always say that he was just a poor Baptist preacher doing God's work.  And I think in OIC we're all doing that - we're all doing God's work .  I think it was a great experience.  I will miss it.”

While Nelson is stepping down formally as CEO on June 30, it's doubtful that they will let him get too far away from them – and equally doubtful that he will be able to resist returning from time to time to his second home away from home.

This week end is lined up with wonderful events open to the community and the loyal supporters of OIC through the decades. It would be a great send off to come out and celebrate the accomplishment of both the organization and the man who kept it running - Robert Nelson and OIC - they are both legends.


Come and show your appreciation and continued support for the organization whose works are the gifts that keep on giving.

Stay Blessed &


Gloria Dulan-Wilson


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