She was turned away from her job because she “did not look like” she belonged there. Meet the founder of Black Business Enterprises.

Nancy Korsah has been a dear friend for many years. Her infectious enthusiasm, strength, and determination drew me to her immediately. I was having a terrible day – on my birthday – when I walked into my local bank branch where she was working. Before I knew it, she was making me laugh, and took me to lunch at one of her favorite restaurants. And the rest of our friendship is history. But, that’s Nancy – she makes a difference everywhere she goes.

More recently, she was turned away from a job by a security guard who told her she didn’t look like she belonged there. Transforming adversity to community, today she serves nonprofit members nationwide as the founder and CEO of Black Business Enterprises, fulfilling a mission to provide minority entrepreneurs access to capital funding and other resources they often lack for success.

We talk about

  • The story behind her organization – Black Business Enterprises – being turned away from work by a security guard who told her she didn’t look like she belonged there
  • How to be a better ally
  • Why she’s anti-cancel culture
  • What she wishes non-minority business owners knew about being a minority business owner

the security guard would not let me in the building. He said I did not look like I belong there. So that’s actually what truly inspired me to start this. It’s not that feel good story that, ‘Oh, I’m learning all this financial literacy stuff and I’m going to share it.’ No, the story was people like me were looked at as less than, and I didn’t look like I belonged in an expensive building.

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Nancy Korsah: I lived in Arizona and I moved to North Carolina and then to Minneapolis. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was with the same employer. And when I went to the building, the security guard would not let me in the building. He said I did not look like I belong there. So that’s actually what truly inspired me to start this. It’s not that feel good story that, “Oh, I’m learning all this financial literacy stuff and I’m going to share it.” No, the story was people like me were looked at less than, and I didn’t look like I belonged in an expensive building.

Jennifer Maggiore: How did you deal with that in the moment?

Nancy Korsah: So that’s what… Well, you know me, I’m cool, calm and collected, and I don’t make a fuss about anything.

Jennifer Maggiore: Lucky for them.

Nancy Korsah: Lucky for them, yes. And I’m never the type to pull out a phone or record things. However, they were witnesses and they also intervene. And mind you, nothing was done until George Floyd happened, then the company wanted to do retroactive, absolutely. They went through all the stories of any discrimination five years later to figure out what to… Too little, too late, right? That is the problem. So I actually started working from home in 2015 because of that incident, and that’s really what made me say, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to own a building like that and I’m going to get everyone that looks like me to do better so that we can not just be let into those building, but I’m going to own that building.” So it was more of a defiant moment and it stuck with me forever. I will never forget that moment and how it made me feel.

Jennifer Maggiore: I’m sure. I’m sure. And the fact that nobody intervenes. That hurts my heart. So tell me a little bit more about that process, right? So you have that experience, and are you with that company during that five year. What was that experience like when you decided, “You know what? I’m going to go out on a limb. I am going to found this organization”? Were you still working? How did you do that? It must have been a monumental task when it comes to time, energy, money. How did you get through that time?

Nancy Korsah: Absolutely. It was incredible… It took a lot of effort because I would do my salaried work eight, nine hours a day-

Jennifer Maggiore: So you were working full-time?

Nancy Korsah: Absolutely. And sometimes it’s stretching to 12-hour days with all the shortages. And then as soon as I clocked out, I would build community. I would literally build community. And weekends, I dedicate all my weekends, literally every spare moment I had, and I know we’re going to talk about this later, but I literally worked almost 20 hours a day between my full-time and building this just so that it could become something, and it did. So it was a task, but I was determined to figure out what I could do to help people of color do better and just figure out what it was that we needed to do to not be seen as if we just don’t belong or that we’re less. So it was a lot of work, but because of the type of work that I did, and I was from home because of that incident. I refused to go back in the office because I didn’t want to face this man ever again.

Jennifer Maggiore: I don’t blame you.

Nancy Korsah: Yeah. So I started working for him five years before, and that’s what I did. I literally pulled double duty. I was doing five people’s jobs trying to raise this company, and it turned into this.

Jennifer Maggiore: That’s amazing. It’s so tough because I think especially in our society, a few things, we expect people to be quiet and deal with the experiences. I think there are those people that’s like, “Well, I dealt with it, so you deal with it,” which is horrible. And I think we live in a society that also really idolizes that if you have a dream, go get it. And you did, and people have to, and that is the reality of working full-time while you’re trying to build something, taking care of a family. So speaking of being vocal, you have been offering DEI training. Did somebody approach you for assistance? Is that something that you decided to start to pursue as part of your experience? How did that happen?

Nancy Korsah: It found me. I would be invited to speak in panels and my DEI approach is 100% unconventional. I’m anti-cancellation. I just don’t believe in what’s happening these days in DEI. I’m 100% believer in rehabilitation. I’ve met racists that I’ve turned into best friends.

Jennifer Maggiore: I believe that about you

Nancy Korsah: And that’s what I prefer. Yes, you’ve met me. I literally can turn any and everyone into an ally. I don’t care who they are or what their beliefs are, give me a day with them and I will turn them into an ally. So that’s what’s happened. They found me.

Jennifer Maggiore: I want to go back for just a second. So when you started talking about DEI training, it sounds like there may be some things that are happening that you don’t agree with. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Nancy Korsah: Absolutely. Thank you for asking, Jen. So the first thing is the world being offended for us. Making policies and procedures without asking us.

Jennifer Maggiore: Well, and it feels like bullshit when somebody sees it happening and nobody does anything.

Nancy Korsah: Exactly. Bingo. As I told you, the employer, who shall remain a named, after five years went ahead and fired this security guard, right? Versus asking me, “How would you want to deal with it?” I would’ve taken him to lunch and he would’ve been my best friend, one hour. But instead, they did this mea culpa and fired him years later, and it’s like, what did that do for me? It didn’t fill me. Now you probably created a radical person versus an ally, but also it is just the whole Karen wording. There’s just so much racial, racially charged situations happening, and no one is actually asking for our opinion, but they’re offended for us. Like, “Oh, you can’t say Black people.” And it’s like, we really don’t care about those minor things. The big things for us are equity, just equity and being treated 100% the same.

And I’ve had many experiences, even the last week, where I wasn’t. I still get followed in certain Target stores, things like that. So the little things that happened, the wording, the labeling, none of that matters to most of us. What we really want to see is just the equitable world where I’m selling my house and someone is doing an appraisal and I don’t have to remove all my Blackface pictures. That’s what we’re looking for. Just simple basic needs. When it gets-

Jennifer Maggiore: Human decency.

Nancy Korsah: Absolutely. But when it gets politicized, it almost becomes a weapon against us because the rules that they’re creating now against DEI and being Black in general don’t even come from us. Even the Black Lives Matter movement, which I won’t get into, but a lot of things are created without even our permission. It’s really cumbersome to try to correct some of those things. For me, personally, and many of my colleagues, we prefer for our friends to be 100% themselves. Say something wrong, so then we can educate you and we can laugh about it. But I realize a lot of people are tiptoeing and now they’re afraid to even speak because they’re afraid of being labeled. So I feel like now we’ve taken a million steps back.

Jennifer Maggiore: What do you wish non-minority business owners knew about being a minority business owner?

Nancy Korsah: First, we all have the same challenges, no matter the color. I do want them to know, however, and one of my friends actually had a huge aha moment just spending time with me and doing the same exact thing that she did. She was applying for funding and we had the same everything, and I got literally 90% rejection while she didn’t. So just to understand that although it may seem like it’s not happening, we have a lot of roadblocks that are just not seen. Some of us pretend, that we never show our faces as CEOs just so that people buy from us because if it’s Black-owned, most people won’t actually use us. And it is a fact.

We ran a study on this. There’s a person here in Minneapolis that owns a restaurant. He’s Black. He’s never shown his face. He has a representative because when he did show his face before they rebranded, people would not respect his business. And now it’s completely changing. He has a representative face, which I’ve used for years, actually. It’s sad to say, but it’s true. His business grew like crazy just because the ownership so-called changed, but it didn’t really, which showed the difference.

Some people don’t even want that label I’m Black-owned on Google. People are not using it because they’re like, “I don’t want people to know because they may not use me.” So those are the challenges that I want people to know, that they exist in a big way. So just to be supportive and supportive doesn’t mean even spending money. Of course, we would love it if you use our business. However, show up to my grand opening, show up to a party.

Jennifer Maggiore: Show up.

Nancy Korsah: Just showing up, that presence. I cannot tell you how big of a deal it is just to show face.

Jennifer Maggiore: Thank you for explaining that because I think that there are a lot of people in this world that is such a different way of thinking. They can’t even imagine what that must be like, that kind of discrimination. And so I think for a lot of people, it’s really easy to decide, well, then it’s not happening. It’s not real. And it’s like you don’t have to see it. You don’t have to know it, but you can hear that and then you can still show up. It’s so easy. You can just show up.

Nancy’s mission is huge. We talked about self-care and her quest to support others, the importance of boundaries and seeking out people that charge us up rather than drain us. Listen to her advice if you want to accomplish big goals.

So we talked about what a crazy time it was when you were founding your organization and now how you really have to hold those boundaries. What advice would you give to other women who they maybe have huge dreams? What is the advice that you would give to them to do it in a way that they’re not sacrificing themselves?

Nancy Korsah: I am very vocal. That’s how I cope. I’m very, very vocal and I tell people what I need. I used to just be quiet. Now, I tell people that I don’t like this and I need you to stop this, or this is not who I am. This is not what I’m going to do. I am just vocal and I find that it works for me. And I find that since I have such a hard time creating boundaries sometimes, I just have to speak it and then hope that people fall into those boundaries. So that’s really what I do. As I said, it is like growing a big giant baby, so I’m looking for to go past the teenage years at some point.

Jennifer Maggiore: Start to have a little maturity.

Nancy Korsah: Some maturity. But I love my members and I love what I do, and people charge me. I just met with someone called Dr. Joy and she said, “Think of yourself as a bank account. There’s people that make deposits into you and people that make withdrawals. Try to eliminate people that constantly withdraw from you.” And I was like, “Aha.” So I’ve been practicing that. So I find that most of my members are deposits. If they’re withdrawals, I slowly wean them away, give them what they need and ship them off. I have to be happy and healthy as well to run this. It’s not perfect, but it is definitely something that I’m building. But so vocal. People know that.

Jennifer Maggiore: I love that.

Nancy Korsah: I’m going to tell them, in every language I know.

Jennifer Maggiore: Yeah, I love that. That’s a conversation that we have here regularly with our team too. So instead of deposits and withdrawals, ours is who leaves you feeling charged versus who leaves you feeling drained? I think that that is always a great sign, the people that you want to surround yourself with.

Nancy Korsah: My favorite meme that I saw this month was said, “You’re not required to set yourself on fire to keep people warm.”

Jennifer Maggiore: That says it all.

Nancy Korsah: It’s my new mantra. I’m literally going to print it on a t-shirt at this point. My advice is you cannot give from an empty well, and that’s not just resources, but it’s also battery, is emotional space, emotional capacity, all of it. So to make sure that you are okay completely so that you don’t literally raise yourself while building because it is, I got so close to it. It was such a big lesson to just not set myself on fire to keep people warm.

Jennifer Maggiore: Yep. That’s good advice.

Nancy Korsah: That sums it up.