Will Phillips recently put on a seminar for kids who were part of a summer camp that shared a building with Entrepreneur Nation, a nonprofit he founded that focuses on creating entrepreneurs in at-risk and minority communities.
“We talked about emerging technologies,” Phillips said from EN’s space on East Moreno Avenue, “[artificial intelligence], autonomous vehicles, drones, app development. All these things are emerging. In the middle are community problems we have — problems with health and safety, with transportation. I told them, ‘We’re going to talk with you about these technologies, and next time you come back we’ll get into small groups and talk about how you’ll apply those technologies to help solve community problems.’”
An Arkansas native, Phillips moved to Colorado Springs with his parents in 1949 when he was just a toddler. He graduated from Colorado Springs High School (Palmer High School today) and attended the University of Northern Colorado, then enrolled in its ROTC program. He was commissioned into the Air Force, but became enamored with the business world and soon found himself working his way up the ranks of IBM.
Phillips spoke with the Business Journal about his career path and teaching the next generation to think like entrepreneurs.
What happened after you went into the Air Force?
I went to San Antonio for training and then became a security officer at Bomarc Missile Squadron in New Jersey. That’s where I spent my tour of duty … but I’d gone to New York and seen the big city and the tall buildings and thought, ‘Who are these people? What are they doing?’ Businesspeople. And this was just as the civil rights era was unfolding — fair employment, etc. etc.
One of the companies that was aggressive in hiring [African-Americans] — IBM hired me. … So I came back across the country and I lived in Denver … and, after a series of interviews, they sent me to New York for school. … I came back in about 1965 or ’66 and they said the job was in Omaha. That was back in the day where they already had one black guy in Denver, so they needed to find another place for me somewhere else in the Midwest.
How did you end up back here?
I was recruited away. A good friend of mine was in San Francisco when Silicon Valley was popping up. … He said he knew of a company called Victor Technologies and they were after him to be director and if they hired him he was going to sic them on me. They hired me and I took the marketing operation for them to the D.C. area. I set up a team in Washington and … lo and behold, Victor crashed. They IPOd [initial public offering] and didn’t make the cut. … I started my own company in the D.C. area called Excelsior Services Group … and was in contract staffing and head hunting — the early throes of outsourcing. We had 85 people working at IBM sites from Bethesda (Md.) all the way up to Stamford, Conn. doing their accounts payable. I was helping one client find minority executives, high-level marketing and technical people. … We did the same thing for health care in the Washington area and did staffing. That was all under the Excelsior Companies. I did that for 10 years. … We broke up and divided the company and another guy who had worked for me, a former IBMer, started a company called eTime Capital out of Sunnyvale, Calif.
He said he wanted me to come work for him. … I showed up as they were taking the company apart. It was May 2000, during the dotcom bust. I had just gotten back from Paris because I’d gotten this great job. That was my experience with Silicon Valley.
So I’m back in D.C. and my father passed away in Colorado Springs and my mom was living alone on Dale Street. My family has been there for going on 60 years.
When I would go to California from Washington I would come through here. I was talking with her and the house needed to be renovated. She said I better come do it.
I was looking over the Maryland countryside, my daughter just graduated from college and my former wife was doing fine.
I said to my brother that I was coming back here. I did that in 2000.
Where was your brother?
Living in Colorado Springs. He’d been director of affirmative action for the city for 21 years.
I was able to look out for my mom. She lived to be almost 91. … I was living in the old homestead and my brother now has Parkinson’s. He’s service disabled and I built onto the house and take care of him.
Did you have a career outlook in the Springs?
I am an incurable entrepreneur. I could never go and work at a job. Starting a business was the most exhilarating thing I’d done. In addition to those companies… along with some IBM execs, we built some restaurants outside of Washington, D.C. … We built two and ran them for five or six years. It was fun. … When I came back here, I worked in consulting. Another buddy and some vintage IBMers had a company out of Westport, Conn. He had been a director at IBM and was starting a company to do HR management consulting — diversity and leadership training. I was on Dale Street taking care of my mom and he asked me to join them. I traveled all over the country training Lockheed [Martin] executives. That went away and I started a company [with a former partner] called Affinity Group doing headhunting.
So I’m sitting there and looking at the landscape — it’s a disastrous landscape for people of color when it comes to ownership of business and economics. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a company or working for a company or in your community or your church — you have to think entrepreneurially.
Ding! Entrepreneur Nation popped in my mind. I was sitting at my dining room table and called a mentee who has a real estate company. He said he’d stake this and we chartered it as a 501(c)3. That was back in 2015. A lady in my life who was in Boston, a former IBMer, said I should build a center. I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’
I came in and took this space, got a general contractor and launched this thing in late 2016.
What’s Entrepreneur Nation’s purpose?
It’s an accelerator and a media and co-working space. We have digital communications for meetings, podcast capabilities — you can advertise your business. It’s $25 a month to use the center and I have a board of directors that’s focused on entrepreneurial development. …
The idea was, if you’re attacking economics, it has to be digitally underpinned. If you look at the economy today — ecommerce and Amazon — it is because of digital communications. If you look at transportation and the way it’s moving — autonomous cars, blah, blah, blah — that’s digital. If you look at education and online education, that’s digitally underpinned. If you look at health care — I’m on the board [of trustees] at Penrose-St.Francis [Health Services] — it’s moving to digital fast.
There’s an opportunity now to disrupt those things. … If you see a situation that is on the threshold of chaos and upheaval, there’s an opportunity to come in and disrupt. Especially if you have a constructive solution you can scale.
I created a mission statement that says, ‘Changing lives and building community by applying the principles and practices of entrepreneurship.’
How are you going to do that?
Four basic strategies: First we educate — forever. I’m not just talking about formal education, I’m talking about knowing what’s going on. And you need to underpin that education with technology. For instance, we have Zoom capability on our screens so you can talk with people [remotely]. …
The next one is communication. Then innovation. I don’t care if it’s janitorial or health care, you have to be innovative. The last is collaboration. You have to be able and willing to collaborate. That’s how things get done in this country. It’s collaboration.
We’re trying to do something about the economic plight of inner cities, and Entrepreneur Nation is about building entrepreneurship … wherever you live, where you learn, where you work, where you play and where you pray. There’s an entrepreneur in all of those places.