Monique Greenwood of Akwaaba Inns is Building an Empire, One Mansion at a Time
February 21, 201810:24 AM - edited October 03, 201803:28 PM
CEO Monique Greenwood on the grounds of Akwaaba’s Mansion at Noble LaneName: Monique Greenwood QB Community member name: AkwaabaInns Business: Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns Locations: Brooklyn, NY; Washington D.C.; Cape May, NJ; The Poconos, PA Launched: 1995
Monique Greenwood is a mighty force. The owner of four Bed and Breakfast Inns, book author, former Editor-in-Chief of Essence, and now, reality television star, she is setting a powerful example of what it means to be a successful Black woman in business.
We spoke with Monique about why she started her hospitality empire and why seeing Black people in beautiful places is important to her. Monique shares about how she dealt with Hurricane Katrina throwing her for a loop and, with Black-woman owned business up 605% in the last ten years, why she believes sisters are doing it for themselves.
Monique, you and your husband, Glenn Pogue, own four gorgeous inns on the East Coast, opened one-by-one over a span of many years. How did you first know that the hospitality world was your calling?
It's ironic that I'm now an owner of bed and breakfast inns because growing up, I never made breakfast -- or a bed -- for that matter. I was raised as one of five children by parents who didn't have the privilege of going to college. There was a clear expectation I was to excel in school and become the first person in the history of my last name to graduate college. Therefore, I didn't do household chores, just homework. I later learned to cook and keep a house, but it was while staying as a guest on vacation at several B&Bs that I discovered innkeeping was in-sync with my personal passions of entertaining, decorating and creating memorable experiences.
Your first inn opened in Brooklyn in 1995, a time when there weren’t any other major hotels in the area. Why did you launch your business there?
My husband and I were living in a brownstone apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, but like so many of our neighbors, our families lived in other cities across the country. When folks came to visit, staying in a hotel in the city or at the airport were the only alternatives to a couch or a blow-up mattress. It struck me as unfortunate -- and as an opportunity -- that a place as big as Brooklyn (which would arguably be the fourth largest city in the country if it wasn't a borough) had no major hotels.
When I stumbled upon a dilapidated mansion in my neighborhood, I thought: “That could be an amazing B&B!” I reasoned it shouldn't be so difficult to put heads on beds in four guestrooms.
My husband and I purchased and fully restored the mansion, setting up our private living quarters on the top floor, and four guest rooms on the second floor with common spaces for relaxing and hosting events on the first floor. The neighborhood has since fully evolved, becoming one of the most desired areas in the city, and as a result of our early investment, we've been able to use the equity in the mansion to finance the expansion of Akwaaba Bed & Breakfast Inns into three additional locations.
A guest room at Brooklyn’s Akwaaba Mansion (credit: Jason Flakes)
As you began operating your first inn, you were also the Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine. When did you decide to focus solely on working for yourself?
As the editor of Essence, owner of Akwaaba B&Bs, and as a wife, mother, loyal friend and community leader, I rarely showed up personally on my very long list of things to do. I also had been contracted by Harper Collins to write a book called Having What Matters for Black women. In the process of trying to write the book, I realized I didn't have what mattered. My full plate had become a platter, and I needed to consume smaller portions. When I weighed whether I would leave my job or close my business, I chose my business, because ultimately I believe in legacy-building. I knew I couldn't leave my daughter my job, but I can absolutely leave her a business and a portfolio of real estate if she chooses to receive it.
February is Black History Month and, during the time of Jim Crow laws, African-Americans were often refused services while traveling. This led to the publication of the Green Book from 1936-1966, a guidebook of Black-friendly hotels, restaurants and service stations throughout the US. As a very successful Black woman in the hospitality business today, what does that history mean to you?
It means, as a people, we've come a long way. But it also means we've always been inventive and will find a way even when the road is rough and the going gets tough. The fact that Black folks opened their homes to host one another while traveling really makes us the pioneers of the bed and breakfast concept.
One of my proudest moments was when my 101-year-old grandma held my hand and looked deep into my eyes and said: "I can remember when I couldn't sit at the counter at Woolworth's; now my baby girl is all up in their mansion!" And then we both did two snaps up as the ink dried on my purchase of the Woolworth estate in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where we opened Akwaaba's Mansion at Noble Lane five years ago.
The living room at Akwaaba DC (credit: Jason Flakes)
What has been a struggle that you faced as a businesswoman and how did you deal with it?
The struggles have been many. I don't expect being a businesswoman to get any easier, but I suspect I'll always believe it's worth it. You can call yourself a restauranteur, a technician, a consultant, whatever. But if you're a business owner, what you really are is a problem solver. My biggest challenge, perhaps, came when we purchased and opened a bed and breakfast in New Orleans one month before an unexpected guest named Hurricane Katrina showed up. Our inn didn't flood, but our business drowned as a result of the hurricane. No one was coming to vacation in New Orleans, and our expenses increased astronomically, especially our taxes and insurance premiums.
I've always been pretty good at making lemonade from lemons, but in this case, I had to make lemon meringue pie. I brainstormed about who could possibly be our guests/customers during this tough time, and I came up with insurance adjusters! So I called every major insurance company I could think of and told them we had beautiful rooms where their team members could stay when coming to New Orleans to investigate and settle claims. That worked for about a year. The next year I targeted homeowners who were returning to the city to oversee the rebuilding of their homes. We finally sold that inn five years later and used the proceeds from the sale to make the downpayment on the Poconos property.
Now you have a reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Checked Inn. What do you want viewers to take away from watching your show?
I want viewers of Checked Inn to relish the fact that, finally, on reality TV, they're seeing beautiful Black people, in a beautiful environment, having a beautiful experience sans the degrading drama. I hope they realize, too, that each of us has the responsibility to ourselves to live our best life. Even if the only escape or vacation the viewer has is to watch us on TV, I hope they breathe deeply and even dream a bit during those 60 minutes.
Get a peek at Monique’s daily life on OWN’s Checked Inn
According to a recent report, the number of Black woman-owned businesses has grown a whopping 605% between 1997 to 2017. What are your thoughts on why this tremendous growth is happening?
I think this tremendous growth has been the result of unintentional and intentional entrepreneurship. With downsizing and under-employment being a part of our recent history, many Black women have opened businesses to support themselves and their families when they've lost jobs or haven't been able to secure jobs that pay a livable wage. Still others have been inspired by seeing people who look like them succeed in business and have done the work to prepare themselves to hang up their own shingle, realizing that owning your own business means controlling your destiny. It can be viewed as true freedom.
I'd also bet that a fair number of Black women who've long sold a product or provided a service as a side hustle, whether it be making and selling special occasion cakes or braiding hair, are finally realizing they're actually running a business and have stood up and stood out to be counted in that number.
What has been the highlight of your career working for yourself?
Being able to provide stability for my family, helping to make a better life for my staff and making a positive mark in my community rather than leaving a stain.
What sage insights might you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Use your fear as your fuel and ultimately have faith. Over-prepare and reach out to those who can help in your journey. If you've identified a product or service that the consumer wants (not what you think they should have), you're well on your way.
QB Community members, how often do you consider your legacy as part of your business? What “hurricanes” of your own have you had to turn into lemon meringue pie?
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