Business Lessons From a Refugee Turned Youngest African-American IHOP Franchisee

Business Lessons From a Refugee Turned Youngest African-American IHOP Franchisee
Image credit: Image courtesy of Adenah Bayoh

If you have ever had a bad day or thought that your circumstances couldn’t be changed on your entrepreneurship journey, you’ve got nothing on Adenah Bayoh. As a young girl, war forced Bayoh from her home country of Liberia and into a refugee camp. She eventually immigrated to the U.S. and about a decade later, became the youngest-ever African-American franchisee of IHOP.

Be sure, though, we’re talking about more than just pancakes and blueberry syrup. Bayoh has diversified her business portfolio to include $200 million in urban redevelopment projects. Not to mention she’s also a mother. Pretty impressive.

Bayoh was kind enough to share some insights on her own background and how you can learn from her own secrets of entrepreneurial success.

Related: Why Smart People Make Bad Entrepreneurs

Work ethic is the key to success.

 Bayoh’s biggest entrepreneurial inspiration was her grandmother, who instilled in her the notion that nothing can replace hard work. “There is no substitute for hard work. You have to put the work in if you want to be successful. My grandmother would always say: ‘You have to wake up before everyone else gets up and do more than everyone else.’ I watched my grandmother navigate her way through almost any challenge because of her willingness to put in the work.” 

That spirit encompasses Bayoh’s actions today and is something that you can harness, regardless of your circumstances.  

Being a victim -- or not -- is a choice.

On escaping the civil war in Liberia, Bayoh explains, “Adversity puts you at a crossroads -- you can allow it to victimize you or propel you. Escaping the war made me hungry for opportunity. I figured out that there was no problem for which I could not find a solution if I dedicated all of my efforts and smarts to it. So, I bring that tenacity, work ethic and commitment to everything I do.” 

Remember, you can always be a victim of your circumstances or you can let those challenges build you up and be the fuel that propels you forward.

See possibilities, even in tough situations.

Due to the aforementioned war, Bayoh was in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone at age 8. It’s there where she first acted upon her entrepreneurial instincts. She explains, “My cousin and I would go back to Liberia to get local vegetables and then cross back into Sierra Leone and sell the vegetables to the people in our camp. I learned that there is always opportunity even in the worst possible circumstances.” 

That vision to see something where others do not -- and to act -- stays with her today. “I see possibilities everywhere; I think being young … gives me more flexibility to take risks.” 

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Ignore the naysayers and gain confidence through preparation.

Being the youngest-ever franchisee of IHOP at age 27 is an accomplishment, but that doesn’t mean Bayoh didn’t encounter some naysayers. She says, “I think my ability to run a successful franchise was met with some doubt. However, my biggest issue was getting over my own insecurities. It is often not about what the world projects on to you but rather what you internalize. I worked my way through it, I did as much research and preparatory work as I could to build my confidence. I also relied on the expertise of those with more experience than me; I sought their counsel and help. The more I learned about the business the more comfortable and confident I became.” 

When others, or you, have doubt, stack the odds in your favor and build up your own confidence through thoughtful preparation.

Get creative.  

Bayoh’s first foray into real estate was done through some creative financing. “After college, I was working at a bank and decided to purchase a three-family home as an investment. I lived on the first floor and had tenants on the other floors. The rent from my tenants covered the mortgage payments leaving me with more cash flow.” 

She used excess cash flow for her next investments. She also advises that, “if you get stuck, you must be willing to revisit your ideas and assumptions and be willing to change them. Flexibility is key.”

Give back.

After Bayoh immigrated to America, she grew up in low-income housing called Fairview Homes. She says, “There were many of us there that were working people who wanted better quality businesses in our community, but better restaurants and grocery stores did not think there was a market. So, I decided that I would bring better quality goods and services to urban markets and pay employees more money and provide them with benefits.

“Through this model,” she continues, “ I saw a way to benefit the community on two fronts:  giving them access to quality services and improving their economic conditions, which makes them better able to afford higher quality goods and services.”

You can always look for ways to have your success be in stride with making others successful at the same time.

Don’t over-task.

As an entrepreneur that also has a family, work-life balance remains a challenge. “I work hard to balance both and try not to over-task myself,” Bayoh says. “Being an entrepreneur is part of my identity just as being a mother is. I try to teach my children by example. I don’t try to do it all; I have a great support network on which I rely. My primary goals are to run successful businesses and to raise children who are well adjusted and socially-conscious.”

Bayoh has created her own success inspired by her life challenges instead of being held back by them. I hope that her wisdom can help you achieve your next goals and successes.

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