Adenah Bayoh, one of New Jersey’s most successful entrepreneurs, navigated a unique set of hurdles to build her businesses.
Her family escaped civil war in Liberia, immigrating at age 13 to the U.S. She went from rehabbing two-family houses in Irvington to becoming the nation’s youngest owner of an IHOP franchise at age 27, setting out to build businesses that would restore her Irvington neighborhood.
Today, her companies – Foya Hospitality Group and Kapwood LLC – own IHOP restaurants in Newark, Irvington and Paterson; $200 million in affordable and market-rate apartment buildings in Essex County; and a series of branded Southern comfort food restaurants, Cornbread, in suburban Newark and inside Walmart SuperCenters in outlying Pittsburgh.
To get to where she is today, Bayoh had to navigate the complex maze many Black entrepreneurs face in securing financing to grow her businesses and then also survive the Great Recession.
Bayoh’s is a story of perseverance and community.
“I’ve never been of the mindset someone would change my community for me,” Bayoh, now 42, said. “I’ve always been of the mindset I can fix that, and I can make that better.
“My ideal is to continue developing in urban spaces,” she said. “It is a different perspective when you are in a community, developing it and your mother lives there and your uncles and aunts live there.”
Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss has watched the rise of Bayoh, whose enterprises are headquartered in Irvington, and said he knew her before she owned her first business.
“We have a saying that it’s not legit if Adenah doesn’t own it. She’s unbelievable,” Vauss said. “She grew up in this community. This has been her trajectory the entire time.”
Vauss also said Bayoh is an important role model for small business owners and a vocal advocate for commercial lending to minority- and women-owned enterprises.
“She’s an advocate for changing the system,” Vauss said. “She speaks about it often and is very inspiring.”
Bayoh said her first business experience was selling bread at age 6 with her grandmother in the village of Foya, Liberia. After escaping civil war in their homeland, Bayoh’s family settled in Irvington, where she worked as a teenager at a McDonald’s. She said she admired the family that owned the restaurant, which planted the seed for Bayoh to become a franchise owner.
After graduating with a business management degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Bayoh said she began to buy, rehabilitate and rent multi-family homes. At the time, she was working at a bank branch.
When she set her sights in 2007 on purchasing her first IHOP franchise in Irvington, Bayoh said she was turned down by seven banks before receiving the offer of a $2.5 million subprime loan that required 25% cash down.
“In the matter of a few weeks, I had to refinance the real estate that I had been building for generational wealth. The plan was to take the loan and refinance,” she explained.
But the Great Recession undermined those plans as the national economy went into a spiral, nearly taking Bayoh’s businesses with it. Some of her properties went into foreclosure.
Bayoh said she managed to retain ownership of her properties and has since significantly increased her holdings, including a new multi-family building that opened last year in downtown Newark and the conversion in 2018 of the former Irvington General Hospital into 114 apartment units.
Even so, Bayoh said she continues to struggle to repair the blemish on her credit record.
Bayoh said it is patently unfair that commercial banks, many of whom received federal aid during the financial crisis, refuse to lend to entrepreneurs who may have stumbled during the economic hardship of the recession or the global pandemic.
“I fought and fought and fought those banks,” Bayoh said. “Now fast forward to today. I didn’t get a bailout. But the banks got a bailout. … We then allow those very banks to come back into the community and they say you do not qualify because you have a flaw on your record.”
Bayoh said she is still afraid to go to banks when she needs funding, even though she has served since 2019 on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Advisory Council on Small Business and Agriculture.
“Access to capital is still the biggest challenge I continue to face,” she said.
Study after study has how the racial wealth gap and implicit bias have limited access to capital for Black entrepreneurs like Bayoh, creating an unequal pathway to recovery from the pandemic. The studies also document the unique experience of Black business owners, historically and in real time.
According to the Federal Reserve, some 58% of Black-owned businesses were at risk of financial distress before the pandemic, compared with about 27% of white-owned businesses.
Even controlling for factors such as “firm characteristics and performance,” the Federal Reserve study found, Black-owned businesses are still 20% less likely than white-owned businesses to obtain a loan from a large bank.
“One of the things that scares me is how are Black and Latino businesses going to recover from this pandemic,” Bayoh said. “People will forget how we got here and who is impacted the most.”
Bayoh said she was forced to improvise once the pandemic battered in-store restaurant sales and cut rent collections. Just like the Great Recession, Bayoh said, she will survive and attempt to help other entrepreneurs along the way.
“I am extraordinarily grateful that where I sit today is a place where I have a platform to effect change, and I don’t take this blessing for granted,” she said.
“Whenever I’m at a table, it’s about how do I make room for someone who doesn’t have access. When I’m speaking to my counterparts, how do I advocate for the communities that I do business in.”
George E. Jordan writes a weekly column on business and development in New Jersey. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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