Adenah Bayoh embodies the American dream. At age 13, she escaped the civil war in her native country of Liberia, immigrated to the United States, and is now one of the most successful entrepreneurs in her home state of New Jersey. Inspired by her grandmother, who owned a restaurant in Liberia, Adenah is now the owner of seven restaurants including Cornbread, which she co-founded with Elzadie Smith, and four IHOP franchises in northern New Jersey. She opened her first IHOP in Irvington Township, New Jersey at the age of 27, making her one of the youngest franchisees in the country at that time. Because of the success of this flagship location along with her other business ventures, she is the second largest employer in Irvington.
Adenah is also philanthropically involved in the communities where she does business. At IHOP Irvington, she runs a free breakfast program for children under 12, and she hosts dinners for families in need during the holidays. In addition, she allows local nonprofit organizations to hold charitable events at some of her IHOP locations.
In this interview, Adenah shares what being a Black, female entrepreneur means to her, and the importance of resilience, curiosity, and adaptability as key ingredients for success.
Thanks for sitting down with Confidence Daily! Tell us about what you do.
I am a restauranteur, a landlord, and a real estate developer.
How do you cultivate confidence?
Taking care of my mental and physical health is how I am able to be in the right mindset to get things done. I cannot fill someone else’s glass if my own glass is half-full. This is why it’s so important to find those self-care moments for yourself to recollect, rest and refresh yourself. Going to the gym and exercising is how I keep my body in tune with my mind and spirit, and it’s a great stress reliever. Out with the bad energy, in with the good energy. You have to become the person who you want to look up to.
What does being a woman-owned business mean to you?
Being a Black-owned, woman-owned business is defying the odds and the restrictions that have held us down for centuries. It’s like when a seedling miraculously survives thunderstorm after thunderstorm, still standing tall and reaching for the sky and stars despite all the odds stacked against it. No matter what the world has thrown at us, we are still here and we are plentiful and we are proud. Owning and operating this business has been nothing but a privilege and one of the proudest accomplishments of my life aside from bringing my two wonderful daughters into the world. I hope that I can inspire more women to follow their dreams and start their own businesses, no matter where they’re coming from.
What was your business origin story?
Cornbread represents the realization of my vision of creating an innovative soul food restaurant concept where families and friends can gather and feel good about the food that they eat and where employees are truly valued and empowered. Elzadie Smith, my brilliant Co-Founder, is a pioneering entrepreneur who discovered her love of cooking at an early age from her parents in Tifton, Georgia, and has been in the kitchen ever since. She brought that passion for cooking and lifelong culinary experience to Cornbread where she was instrumental in developing the menu and flavor profiles of each meal that we serve. Cornbread was born out of our love and our passion for giving back to the community. Inspired by my grandmother, who became a farmer and restaurant owner with no education and no running water, Cornbread exemplifies my philosophy that savory and authentic food can be healthy and responsibly sourced.
Okay, coming up with a great idea and actually taking the steps to become an entrepreneur and launch your company are two very different things. How did you know it was time to take the leap?
Something I always tell young and inspired future leaders is that there will never be a “right” or “perfect” time to start chasing your dreams. Sure, there are countless external factors beyond our control like inflation and other economic or socioeconomic issues. However, in my opinion, the right time to chase your dreams is all the time. You just have to commit to taking that first step. If you keep waiting for the right time and trust me on this one, you will be waiting forever.
Sometimes entrepreneurship can be a hard and isolating journey. How do you stay confident along the way?
Starting a business is difficult enough without the added hurdles of being Black, a woman, and an immigrant. I am constantly fighting to soar above the systems that have been put in place to keep people like me from success. Even as a CEO, real estate expert, and experienced restauranteur, I still have to fight to be heard and listened to with the same level of respect and empathy as my white male colleagues. I still have to wonder if speaking my mind or politely disagreeing with someone will label me as “aggressive” or “intimidating” because, at the end of the day, I am still a Black woman trying to share my opinion with people who hold preconceived biases towards me. Because I did the seemingly impossible by escaping my country’s civil war and achieved what many believe to be the crux of the American Dream, I am expected to continue this streak of “impossibility” in everything I do. Anything less, and I am heavily scrutinized and doubted. One of the most crucial ways I’ve managed to stay sane is by seeking out support systems and finding fellow women who are also working to create a space and name for themselves in this industry. I Co-Founded Cornbread with my wonderful, amazing colleague, Zadie Smith. Cornbread never would’ve happened if Zadie and I weren’t able to share our stories, experiences, and values with one another to create something bigger than just the two of us. I think women in business should lean on, listen to, and support each other. Make those connections and find those safe spaces wherever, and whenever, you can.
If you had to list three traits or attributes that have been pivotal for your success, what would they be?
Resilience – In this industry, you will get told “no” so many times that, at times, it will feel like the business world has a personal vendetta against you. Don’t let these “no’s” convince you that there’s no place for you in this industry. Let the “no” people light a fire in you to work harder and chase that success.
Curiosity – I was always the child driving adults around me insane with all of my questions. I probably said the word “Why?” at least twenty times a day. Even as a child, I was driven by a hunger for knowledge to understand the world around me. This curiosity translated quite well into the business world, as it allowed me to continuously seek out more opportunities and challenge myself to be a better leader and entrepreneur. Curiosity allowed me to continuously grow and evolve as a business owner; I never settled and always searched for ways to improve my strategy and skills.
Adaptability – It’s amazing how far the world has come, even in the last five to ten years. Technology is booming and ways to do business are constantly evolving. First, it was social media and digital marketing, and more recently, artificial intelligence. Nowadays, it is finding ways to form genuine relationships with customers. Consumers nowadays want real and authentic products from real and authentic people. They want to know that the business they are supporting, is, in turn, supporting them and their community. My flexibility has allowed me to keep up in the areas that matter.
What's one myth you'd like to debunk about your line of work?
I feel like there is this huge, overwhelming assumption that you have to have “connections” to go far in this industry and to be successful. Once upon a time, the world thought that the only individuals who could be successful in business or real estate (or any profession, for that matter) were white men. Women were not allowed to work, and Black people had no rights. I came from a place that had no running water, where simply filling a bucket required miles of walking. I started in “real estate” by walking around the village and collecting rent for my grandmother when I was no more than eight or nine. The American Dream, for the longest time, was simply that—a dream. Yet here I am. While it goes without question that Black women have to work much harder than everyone else to get opportunities, it’s not impossible to forge your own path as a self-made leader and entrepreneur, no matter where you come from or what you have overcome. Anything is possible.
What advice would you give to burgeoning entrepreneurs?
People need others to look up to. How can a young Black girl possibly find the courage and support to chase her dreams if she doesn’t see anyone in that space or industry who looks like her? A big part of running a business—or several—is creating visibility and investing in the next generation of leaders and innovators. By being a Black woman who owns a business, and who is hiring other Black women in business, I am helping to set a precedent that makes room for more women who look like me to find success in the entrepreneurship space someday.
My advice would be this: Jump in with everything you have—we talked earlier about how there is never a perfect or right time to do something—and work hard. And when you find that success you’ve always dreamed about, use your platform and resources to uplift other marginalized individuals in any way that you can.
What words do you live by?
“All winners have lost before. Keep going, and do not stop until you win.”
Any final words of wisdom?
Hire locally and invest in the communities you are trying to serve. As a self-made restaurateur and real estate developer, I have built a successful business model around investing not only in my employees but also in the communities where I do business. After all, how could I do my business without the support of the local community? These people keep my doors open, so in turn, I as a business owner have to always be thinking of ways to use my platform to give back to them.