When Amos Otis was working out of his basement in the late 1980s trying to establish his government contracting business, he “sincerely believed” he could turn his fledgling operation into a thriving enterprise. It took about five years but SoBran, Inc. finally took off. It is now a $61 million technical and professional services company that provides expertise on biomedical research, engineering and logistics programs for government and commercial clients around the world.
Success didn’t come easy, but Otis doesn’t hesitate to give credit.
“I attribute it to my education at Tennessee State University, where you believed if you got a chance, you could do anything. I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was, but I believed I could do it. I also understood I couldn’t do it by myself, that I had to hire other people — people smarter than me.”
Otis almost didn’t attend college. Although he was bright and had good grades in high school, at 6 years old Otis’ parents divorced, resulting in him being raised in a home with limited means. He spent a year after graduating from high school trying to secure a job so he could send himself to college.
“I was doing odd jobs, whatever I could get — a bill collector for a used furniture store was one job,” he recalls.
One day, his uncle, a TSU alumnus, literally packed him up and drove him from Detroit to Nashville, and introduced him to the university staff with instructions to “put this boy in school.” They did.
After graduating from Tennessee State in 1965, Otis joined the U.S. Air Force, where he became an officer, assigned to the strategic air command as a missile combat crew commander — he served for 21 years. “That’s all I ever really wanted when I was growing up, to be an Air Force officer,” he says. “I grew up around the Maxwell Air Force Base [in Alabama], and I saw a lot of the Black officers and pilots. They were highly respected in the community and they were very upstanding, intelligent guys — with that swagger — and that’s what I wanted to be.”
During that time he earned an MBA at California State University, Fullerton, and taught at Howard University as an ROTC instructor and a professor of air science in the early 1980s.
After reaching that goal, Otis turned his attention to his entrepreneurial ambitions. His first venture was a government publications distribution warehouse. He then hired people “who could go out and get other business,” Otis points out, reflecting on those early years of struggle with a wife and two children.
His Air Force experience influenced his business principles, he says, adding that he founded SoBran based on the Air Force values of “integrity, service and excellence.” Under his leadership, SoBran has reached Inc.’s list of America’s fastest-growing private companies and Black Enterprise’s list of top 100 industrial/service companies.
Today, as founder, president and CEO of SoBran Inc., Otis divides his time between Fairfax, Virginia, where SoBran has operational offices, and Dayton, Ohio, the corporate headquarters. The company is also in 12 states in the United States, as well as in Guantanamo Bay and several countries in the Pacific Rim and Europe. He is also a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Cincinnati branch.
Otis remains closely aligned with his alma mater, as a member of the TSU Foundation board of directors and chairman of its finance committee. He also has donated services to the university, recently sending three staff members to conduct a security audit.
In May, Otis was awarded the Tennessee Board of Regents’ Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Philanthropy. Regents Chancellor John Morgan said Otis was being honored “for his outstanding contribution and visionary leadership to Tennessee State University.”
In a generous gesture, Otis established the SoBran/SComan Educational Scholarship Endowment to help keep students in school with an annual donation of more than $110,000.
As an active TSU alumnus, and a “proud Kappa” fraternity member (Kappa Alpha Psi), Otis enjoys sharing his experiences and ideas with students. “I try to tell them, first, there’s nothing they can do without an education, and it doesn’t matter if you come from a lower-class, working family — you can still be successful in America.”
Students often ask him how racism affected him in his road to success. “I tell them it’s like the weather — it’s always there. When you go out in the rain, be prepared and wear a raincoat. You have to go into that [work] environment being as prepared as you can. You’re going to play with them; they’re not coming to play with you.”
Otis is fervent in his belief that HBCUs are still relevant and important today — his son chose Morehouse College and his daughter selected Hampton University. “In fact, I told them, they could go wherever they wanted to, but if I was paying for it, they were going to an HBCU.”