IRVINGTON, N.J. — Adenah Bayoh and her cousin put their aging grandmother in a wheelbarrow and walked through a thick, hot jungle to escape approaching rebels in an African civil war. The terrified 8-year-old girl had no idea what lay ahead, and how it would make her a success.
War in Liberia would kill a quarter-million people between 1989 and 2003. Warlords raped and mutilated thousands of women. They recruited or kidnapped children into their armies. Bayoh and her cousin walked all night and deep into the next day to reach a government-sponsored refugee camp in Sierra Leone.
Even then, she saw a business opportunity — and once her grandmother was safe, she headed back.
“When you have a bunch of people that are refugees in one area, there’s a lot of commerce happening because there are a lot of things they don’t have that they need,” Bayoh told Zenger. “My cousin and I decided to make some money. We started walking back through the jungle, back to Liberia, and getting vegetables and things the refugees would buy. We would put the goods on our heads and walk and walk, back through the forest. We did this two or three times a week.
“You had to hope and pray you didn’t encounter any rebels,” Bayoh said.
Bayoh returned to Sierra Leone one day to learn her father was looking for her and planned to take her to America. “I don’t know how he found out where we were,” she said. “But he made that journey into a remote village to come to get me.”
She bought a home after she turned 21, and paid the mortgage by living in just one-third of it, renting out the top two floors to families. At 26 she bought her first International House of Pancakes franchise in New Jersey. A business journal named her to a list of New Jersey’s top 50 women in business less than a decade later.
Bayoh, now 42, opened her seventh restaurant — called Urban Vegan, in downtown Newark — on July 1, betting that post-pandemic normalcy was back to stay. She owns two soul food outlets called Cornbread Farm to Soul, and a total of four IHOPs. Her real-estate portfolio includes multi-family, residential and commercial properties.
“She’s relentless in pursuing her vision for urban development,” former Irvington, N.J. mayor Wayne Smith told Zenger. “She also has the intuitiveness and the technical skills to get deals done.”
Bayoh’s career got a jump-start with a business management degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. She worked in banking and owned a beauty salon, and then bought that home that she divided into living space and income. Now she snaps up abandoned buildings in and around Newark and transforms them into businesses space and affordable housing.
Searching for real-estate investments at age 28, she visited a run-down diner in Irvington, west of Newark. She sought out Mayor Smith for advice. He suggested she turn it into an IHOP. Her franchise became one of the top-grossing locations in the region, in part because of her community outreach.
Bayoh’s IHOP locations gave 10,000 free pancakes to first responders, doctors, nurses and anyone who was hungry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were just trying to do our part,” she said.
All her restaurants give away turkeys during the holiday season.
Bayoh credits her grandmother, Jenneh Viskinda, for showing her what could be.
“My grandmother was a very successful businessperson in her village. She had a lot of businesses,” Bayoh told Zenger. “She had a farm. She had land. She owned real estate. She owned a restaurant. She owned a bread factory. Every Saturday, I was at the marketplace selling something. I was either at the restaurant or selling bread or selling rice.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours of practice to master something. Bayoh got most of her practice as a child.
“I spent an immense amount of time at a very early age in commerce, in trade, and in exchange of goods on so many different levels,” she said. “My early years in Liberia were part of those 10,000 hours. That played a part in the things I excelled at once I came here.” Her hours accrue quickly — between 80 and 100 per week, dealing with vendors and staff and overseeing food production.
Bayoh can’t forget much of what she saw decades ago in Liberia, and it forced her to grow up fast.
When rebels came to her village to rape and pillage, they were detoured only when several old women stripped naked, which the rebels viewed as a curse. “It was the only thing that made them stop,” she said. “When I came to America, I’d already experienced so much. I might have been 10 or 11, but my life experiences were that of someone 15 or 18 or even 20 years old. That prepared me to be a little more mature than my peers.”
That’s a message she shares with young entrepreneurs, especially young women.
“You have to realize how powerful your thoughts are,” she said. “Couple that with hard work and intensity. The sky is the limit. But your work has to match what you’re dreaming about. Young women looking to get into any field, my advice is: You’re capable of doing anything you put your mind to,” Bayoh said.
“If you want something badly, the universe will conspire to help you get it,” she said. “I thank the community and the people who work for me day in and day out, and those who gave me a chance to be my authentic self.”
Bayoh isn’t fazed by her path from fleeing the chaos of war to writing an American success story.
“There are no mistakes in life,” she said. “Every conversation and every interaction is to connect the dots. Every journey and every hardship are part of a greater story you’re going to tell. Sometimes, when I look back, I’m in awe. It’s the universe at work.”
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel
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