When Adenah Bayoh was eight years old, civil war in Liberia forced her into a refugee camp. She immigrated to the U.S. when she was thirteen. By the time she was twenty-seven, she was one of the youngest IHOP franchise owners in the country. Her location soon became one of the most profitable in the Northeast.
Adenah has since received numerous awards and has been named one of the top 50 business women in New Jersey and one of Ebony Magazine’s Power 100. In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York named Adenah to its Small Business and Agricultural Advisory Council. We recently had a chat with her about her amazing journey. This is what she had to say:
SB: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from your experience in a refugee camp?
AB: I learned that becoming a victim in difficult circumstances is a choice and that it was not going to be my choice. Escaping the war motivated me. I wanted to find opportunities and move forward instead of looking back.
I learned that even in the toughest situations there were always options and resources I could tap if I was willing to work hard enough. When we were in the refugee camp, my cousin and I would cross back into Liberia to get fruits and vegetables and then sell them in the camp in Sierra Leone. I was always hungry for opportunities.
AB: My grandmother would always say, “you have to wake up before everyone else and do more than everyone else,” and that wasn’t just an inspirational quote. She really lived that way. My grandmother played a big part in raising me when we lived in Liberia because my parents were working in America to pay for our schooling.
My grandmother is an amazing woman. She owned over 100 acres of farmland, she owned restaurants, and she was involved in real estate. She was highly respected and growing up, she really helped to shape my entrepreneurial drive. When I was six, she told me that I had a skill for business and had me working in her restaurant. I’m really thankful to her for helping me to realize my own potential and giving me a space to learn at a young age.
AB: Well, I knew it was a possible venture because as I mentioned, my grandmother owned a lot of real estate in Liberia. I chose to get involved because I knew it would be a solid investment.
In college at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I served as an Residents Assistant in the dorms and after I graduated and got my first renter, I realized that I was doing a lot of the same kind of work, except I was the benefactor.
SB: Community development is a passion of yours. In what ways do use your businesses benefit the communities where they are located?
AB: After immigrating to the U.S., I lived in Newark and saw firsthand how this community was often overlooked by businesses and investors. The negative perceptions about crime and the lower-income population didn’t inspire a lot of businesses to invest and those that did invest didn’t bring the kind of quality goods and services that are offered in other communities.
My goal was to bring high quality services to Newark and other urban markets and to ensure that my real estate development projects and other ventures bring value, generate opportunities, and serve as a catalyst for more economic development. I also make it a priority to utilize and support minority and local businesses and to invest in the people in these communities. I believed that when communities such as these get better the world gets better.
SB: Why is it important for you to expand your business interests to West Africa? What are you planning for West Africa?
AB: I have a yearning to help rebuild my home country of Liberia. I’m currently working to start a nonprofit called “Hope Well” there. It will be a mobile clinic that can provide medical care, screenings, and important supplies to the villages in the country’s interior.
SB: This summer, you will open your first fine dining establishment, Cornbread. What should we know about Cornbread?
AB: I’m really proud to announce that Cornbread will be my own signature line of fast casual, farm-to-table, soul food restaurants. Also, the support of sustainable and organic farming practices will be central to Cornbread’s goal of serving high-quality soul food.
We’ll be sourcing our meat, fish, and produce from over 120 small-production, family-owned farms throughout the New Jersey and Pennsylvania region and we excited to cultivate a true “farm to soul” experience. The first location will open in Maplewood, New Jersey.
SB: Based on what you have learned so far, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs in any industry?
AB: I would tell them to be present and stay in the moment because you never know when you will need to draw on your various experiences. Don’t allow your circumstances turn you into a victim and keep a positive attitude. When I arrived in America, I was severely behind in academics, but I didn’t let that intimidate me. It seemed like there were endless possibilities in this country, so I pushed to be the best.
There’s no substitute for hard work, but when you’re motivated and driven, nothing or no one can stop you. Additionally, don’t be deterred by “No.” I was turned down by seven banks before I was able to secure a loan for my first IHOP. However, those seven “No’s” prepared me for my “Yes”. By the time I got to the 8th bank I had addressed every possible issue, concern, or question so there was no way I could be denied.