(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Randy Otterbridge has been a facilitator with the entrepreneurial training program SpringGR since its early days, and now he is working to connect fellow African Americans with growth opportunities through a virtual mentoring platform.
Otterbridge — founder and chief idea officer at Grand Rapids-based RBridge Business Institute, an online business creation company — this month launched the African American Mentoring Network (AAMN, pronounced “Amen”) via a private Facebook group, “The African American Mentoring Network,” and a website, blackironsharpensblackiron.com.
He said the group is geared toward African American entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs in West Michigan who would like to have a mentor or want to be a mentor, or both.
Entrepreneurs can obtain an invitation to join the free group by requesting one at the website or on Facebook.
Otterbridge said AAMN has been on his “idea pile” for about two years, and he felt the COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect opportunity to give back in this way.
“There is no wrong time to be of service,” he said. “Though COVID-19 has our nation shut down, our hearts are still open for business.”
On the Facebook group description, Otterbridge wrote, “African Americans have superpowers,” and AAMN will give members “the chance to share your superpowers, your skills, your life experiences, your education and your talents with generations to come.”
“Black iron sharpens Black iron,” he said — a motto that was inspired by the Bible verse Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Otterbridge said he initially began thinking about the possibility of launching a general mentoring program spun out of SpringGR, but then he decided to gear it specifically toward Black community members, who have learned much through economic downturns, discrimination and other challenges and have emerged with resilience.
“I thought, ‘What would it be like if we could pass that strength on?’ And then I started thinking about, ‘What would it look like? Is it a superpower?’ And I thought, ‘You know what, it is power, so why don’t I create something that allows us to mentor other folks — people that are here now and for generations to come?’”
Otterbridge said he believes anyone can be a mentor, whether it’s a 50-something sharing advice to a younger person or a millennial helping older folks with technology and learning new skillsets.
The rules of the group are simple, he said. Anyone can join, but it’s not a place to “spam” people with products to sell, unless the products are able to be leveraged and utilized for community members to help their business and their life.
“You go to the page and you say, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve learned in a specific area, and I’d like to share this with you. Here’s a video, here’s a piece of conversation, here is a course that you may have,’” Otterbridge said.
“You don’t go into the group and start selling. You go in and you start telling. You start saying, ‘Hey, can I share something with you? Can I share an experience with you?’ This is not a place to gripe, this is a place to share your superpower. ‘Let me tell you what I’ve been able to overcome and how you can avoid some of the things I experienced,’ or ‘Here’s a piece of education that I just learned. Did you know about this tool?’”
The format of the group is very loose, Otterbridge said. Instead of pairing mentors one-on-one, anyone can offer advice, and if people hit it off, they can choose to connect on their own if they wish.
“They share what they have, I share what I have, and together, we can create something interesting. I hope some collaborations come out of this for real,” he said.
So far, about 15-20 people have joined the group, and Otterbridge said members have been anywhere from 70 years old to one of his 22-year-old SpringGR students.
“It’s old school and new school, sharing tools,” he said.
Otterbridge said he became a SpringGR facilitator about six years ago. He went to the original meeting where stakeholders convened to talk about the curriculum method being piloted in Tennessee. After the meeting, Otterbridge began using that curriculum at his then-place of worship, Kentwood Community Church, while SpringGR also adopted and launched the program separately.
The following year, SpringGR called Otterbridge and asked him to join as a facilitator, and he’s been a contractor with the program ever since.
He said he puts into practice what he tells his students: “You must always be creating, providing value and showing probable customers doorways into your offerings.”
Otterbridge has a background in real estate. He started out as a residential landlord at the age of 21 and has worked in various business roles over the years, including as interim director for the Affordable Housing Coalition in Grand Rapids, employability skills instructor with Jubilee Jobs, deputy director of employment and workforce development with the Grand Rapids Urban League and vice president of growth and opportunity with CareerMatrix.com.
In 2011, he founded RBridge Business Institute and has been full time with the firm for about two years, providing consulting services for entrepreneurs looking to “start up, tune up, or rev up” their businesses.
Otterbridge holds a B.B.A. degree from Northwood University and a master’s degree in organizational management from Spring Arbor University.
He also is the author of five books.
Along with the AAMN project, Otterbridge has several other irons in the fire, including a YouTube channel called “Quarantine Haircuts” he just launched to help haircare professionals respond to COVID-19; as well as “The Monetize Your Life” series (in production); “The Earn Every Dime Online” podcast on anchor.fm; “The Make More Money Now” app (in post-production); and “The Motivation Maestros,” an in-progress collaboration with Attah Obande, director of dream fulfillment at SpringGR, and Kris Mathis, serial entrepreneur and founder and owner of Raise a Glass Wine Tours.
Otterbridge said his long-range hope for AAMN is to have 100,000 followers whose businesses grow because of the support, encouragement and mentorship they receive in the group.
“I want to see everyone in my community here in Grand Rapids thriving,” he said.
“If somebody comes into this group, I know their business is going to be helped. Within our community, we have a multitude of currencies, and it’s not just money. It is knowledge. It is context. It is influence. It is service.”
People interested in learning more about AAMN can email Otterbridge at email@example.com.