At a certain point, it became hard for Monique Greenwood not to question the life she was leading. She ended many of her days at 1 AM, only to begin the next one five hours later. Her “dream job” was robbing her of virtually any time with her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, she was writing a self-help book called Having What Matters — so how could she not ask, “What matters to me?”
That was a couple of years ago, when Greenwood was the high-profile editor in chief of Essence, the health-and-beauty bible for black women. She was also running a bed-and-breakfast in Brooklyn with her husband, Glenn Pogue; raising their young daughter; and serving on several community boards.
But a funny thing happened on the way to publishing the hot-selling book (now in its sixth printing), subtitled The Black Woman’s Guide to Creating the Life You Really Want. Greenwood took her own advice. What mattered, she decided, was building a family business, not having the clout that comes with running a magazine that sells more than 1 million copies per issue. So she quit Essence and opened her second B&B, in the seaside resort of Cape May, New Jersey. “I wanted to have more of a life,” says Greenwood, 43. “Something had to be sacrificed.”
Friends and colleagues couldn’t believe it. How could she turn her back on a 20-year career in New York media? How could she choose making beds for strangers over putting a national magazine to bed? Greenwood’s response: It was easy. Her professional passions hadn’t changed; she just redesigned how she spent her time. She’s now an entrepreneur with multiple businesses and “the editor of my own life.”
This isn’t the story of a corporate burnout case who fled the rat race to run a quaint inn, never to be heard from again. This is the story of a relentless woman who left the business establishment and found a way to make her impact more focused than it was before. Instead of agonizing over covers or pitching to advertisers, she is improving the quality of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant by opening and attracting businesses. A fine restaurant. A bookstore. A coffee shop. An upscale antiques store. Creating a better life for herself, Greenwood has discovered, doesn’t mean leading a life that is less important.
“Monique is leading the redevelopment of the area,” says Kenneth Adams, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “She sees where the neighborhood can go and knows how to make it happen.”
New Life on Lewis Avenue
Before she helped spearhead the revitalization of Bed-Stuy, and before she decided to expand her business to Cape May (becoming the first African- American innkeeper there), Greenwood had a crush on a lovely but neglected mansion near her home. Built in 1860, it was one of the few detached structures in the Stuyvesant Heights historic district, where brownstones are the norm. Greenwood would pass it on her way to work in Manhattan and imagine converting it into a luxurious B&B — the first in Bed-Stuy. “I saw it as a way of combining my passions,” she says. “I love entertaining, I love meeting people, I love decorating, and I love architecture.”
When the mansion finally did go on the market, the couple bought it for just $225,000 — then spent almost that much upgrading and furnishing it. Pogue, an actor and television-broadcast engineer, trusted his wife’s vision: “I’m usually the one with more questions, but Monique usually has the answers. She can do it all.”
There was no shortage of naysayers who said the idea would never work — if for no other reason than that the Bed-Stuy area is hardly a big tourist destination. They had a point. The area is perhaps best known as the run-down, volatile, and racially divided setting for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. But that wasn’t the Bed-Stuy that Greenwood, who grew up in Washington, DC, fell for. In Stuyvesant Heights, she saw an unappreciated area: tree-lined streets, historic buildings, and gorgeous architecture, just minutes from downtown Brooklyn — but without any major hotels or nice B&Bs. “When family and friends came to visit, there was nowhere to stay in Brooklyn,” she says. Between relatives visiting for weddings, funerals, and holidays, and out-of-town clergy visiting the countless churches, she figured she wouldn’t have a problem “putting heads in the beds.”
Greenwood was right, but for the wrong reasons. When she and Pogue opened Akwaaba Mansion Bed & Breakfast in 1995, they discovered that many of their guests lived in the tristate area. They were looking for a convenient getaway. What they found was an elegant 18-room mansion outfitted with whirlpool baths, Victorian antiques upholstered in African prints, and chocolates from Ghana. (Akwaaba means “Welcome” in Ghanese.)
It didn’t take long for word to get out about the black-owned inn, which remains a rarity among the 17,000 inns across the country. At first, the couple, who lived with their daughter, Glynn, in the apartment on the top floor, opened the inn only on weekends, since they were both still working. But as the business grew, they began squeezing in midweek guests. “Here in Bed-Stuy was a B&B you’d expect to see in Charleston,” Greenwood says. “It was like a tree growing in Brooklyn.”
The next opportunity was obvious: a restaurant for Akwaaba guests and Bed-Stuy residents. Greenwood and Pogue bought a short block of buildings around the corner, on Lewis Avenue, and three years after launching the inn, they opened Akwaaba Café. Two years later, in 2000, they introduced Mirrors, a cozy coffee shop — another first for Bed-Stuy. “All of my businesses are things that I felt we deserved to have in our neighborhood — somewhere nice to stay, to eat, to run into friends,” Greenwood says. “I never had a business plan. If I had researched it a lot, I would probably have been too afraid to try it.”
As it turns out, the neighborhood was on the rebound. Between 1993 and 2001, overall crime dropped about 60% in the three precincts that include Bed-Stuy. Meanwhile, between 1989 and last year, the number of households earning over $100,000 nearly tripled. But because it lacked businesses meeting the most basic needs, Bedford-Stuyvesant remained a “dormitory community,” says Adams, the Brooklyn Chamber president. Residents earned their money elsewhere and spent it elsewhere.
Because of Greenwood, that has begun to change. In addition to creating her own businesses, she encourages other entrepreneurs. Crystal and Walston Bobb-Semple were living in San Francisco and feeling homesick for Bed-Stuy when Greenwood called a few years ago. Before long, Walston quit his job at Charles Schwab and the couple was back, opening a bookstore and an antiques shop. “Monique is a doer,” says Crystal. “She doesn’t let an opportunity pass.”
These days, Lewis Avenue is starting to look more like Park Slope, Brooklyn’s hottest neighborhood. There are book signings, a children’s story hour, and book-club meetings at Brownstone Books. There are jazz jam sessions at Akwaaba Café on Wednesday nights along with a $15 seafood buffet ($5 if you perform). And every morning at Mirrors, there are fresh pastries and copies of the New York Times, which wasn’t previously available. “You now have the sort of stores we didn’t have before,” says Jacqui Williams-Foy, a longtime resident and the former director of economic development for the Brooklyn Chamber. “It creates more pride in this community.”
Under New Management
This year, for the first time, Greenwood and her husband are operating two B&Bs through the summer. In two different towns. Three hours apart. The pace is definitely hectic. But more often than not, Greenwood finds that it’s a good sort of hectic: “I love my life now, even when it gets crazy.”
In some ways, Greenwood hasn’t slowed down that much, despite trying to delegate more and micromanage less. True, she did bring in one of her energetic and entrepreneurial tenants, Monroe Shannon, to operate the restaurant. But Greenwood continues to juggle speaking engagements, book signings, and her multiple businesses.
Greenwood still relies on the hand-written to-do list she composes each night. It easily fills the page, not to mention an entire day. Today’s list: family breakfast at 7 AM. Breakfast for the inn’s guests at 8:30 AM. Then calls about everything from flood insurance to a catering business that she might buy. Of course, her list doesn’t include the unexpected items that pop up. A leaky bathroom faucet. A broken light fixture. On it goes.
But as busy as she is, Greenwood continues to follow her own advice and reflect. Tonight, on a breezy summer evening at Akwaaba by the Sea, here’s what matters to her: spending July with her daughter in Cape May. Knowing that her husband has time to sneak in a golf game before check-in tomorrow. Getting to know today’s guests, honeymooners who regaled her with the story (and video) of their wedding. And identifying her next project. She’s considering a line of Akwaaba home décor and a day spa. There’s also a new book. The working title is Life Under New Management: How to Fire Your Job and Become Your Own Boss.
If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, Greenwood insists that it’s not — at least not to her. “I probably still do more than the average person, but it’s not nearly as much as I used to,” she says. “I’m getting better.”
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about Akwaaba on the Web (www.akwaaba.com).