Four Generations in Small Business – Keewa Nurullah

Published: February 16, 2022 by Gary Stockton

We’re celebrating Black History Month, so in this special Inclusion-Forward episode of the Small Business Matters podcast, we’re going to talk about generational entrepreneurship — the idea of following in your family’s footsteps by going into business for yourself.

Our guest today embraced entrepreneurship with Gusto. Keewa Nurullah owns kids’ boutique Kido in Chicago, Illinois. She’s a fourth-generation entrepreneur and a direct descendant of a Black Wall Street Business Owner from Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she’s been featured by CNN and NBC. She was also recently named Black Entrepreneur of the Year for 2021, an award presented by Officially Black Wall street, Clover, and Snapchat.

[Gary]: You’re a fourth-generation Entrepreneur. Can you tell us a little bit about your family’s roots in small business?

[Keewa]: Sure. My Great Grandfather had a tailor shop on black wall street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and after the family was forced to flee during the massacre of 1921. Thankfully, he was able to relocate in Chicago and he was able to reopen a tailor shop on the south side here. And he taught my Grandfather the trade. And so at one point, both my great-grandfather and my grandfather had tailor shops on the south side. And although my mother didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps by being a tailor, she’s an artist and entrepreneur, she’s always been self-employed. And so I’ve kind of followed everyone’s footsteps, I guess, because I’m both an artist and also a business owner with a brick and mortar myself.

[Gary]: So your family story, I mean, being a direct descendant of someone who was impacted by the terrible massacre, you’ve heard details of what happened there. Your great grandfather, his business, was it a casualty of the events in Tulsa? And did he just literally pick up and flee to Chicago straight from Tulsa?

[Keewa]: Yeah. Well, as far as we know, both the business and the home were burned. And so, you know, without knowing the details of his exit story, we know that he was helped out of the city limits at least by a customer of his, and it was my great grandfather and my great-grandmother, my grandfather who was a baby and his sister who was a toddler. So as anyone with young children knows, it’s the thought of trying to escape a very violent and traumatic situation with very small children is a feat in itself. So I feel very, very lucky and honored that he was able to, you know, finagle his way out to safety. For sure. Yeah.

[Gary]: So he comes to Chicago and he’s a tailor by trade. And so he starts just opening his own business and continuing on there with new clients, right? In a much larger city, is there some story there on how his business grew?

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[Keewa]: Not really. We don’t, we don’t have a lot of details, but as I can imagine with other black people who migrated from the south, you know, whether during restoration or, you know, just in the early part of the 20th century without the Internet, without these kinds of technology, I think once you’ve found yourself in that Northern city, you say, okay, well, who do we know? You know, is there anyone else from Oklahoma as their family? And so, all I can do is kind of put myself in his shoes and think, you know, well, first they had to find somewhere to be, and the easiest way to find that was to find your people, you know, but yeah, he had a skill that was necessary. You know, people weren’t wearing jeans and sweatshirts back then, you know, everybody needed a suit. And so thankfully he had that skill to kind of immediately be able to be put, to work, to earn for his family.

[Gary]: Yeah, that’s great. And then his son went into,  did he take over the business or open his own tailor shop?

[Keewa]: So initially my, my grandfather, after learning the trade from my great-grandfather, he enlisted during World War II as a young man. So he was a tailor in the war. And then when he returned from the war, he decided to kind of set up shop for themselves. So they both had their own kind of customer demographic. You know, my grandfather had more of a young guys, more of the fashionable guys and my great-grandfather had, you know, maybe the older set, but they were both able to have their own shops at one time until my great-grandfather retired.

[Gary]: Do you know where the stores were located? Have you have you visited that part of town?

[Keewa]: Well I’m around there all the time. Cause I live on the south side myself, as far as I know, according to my Mom, I think one of their shops was on 47th street and one was on 63rd street in Chicago, you know, back in the, in the forties and fifties, both of those streets were thriving centers for black business. 47th street had a lot of the clubs and music venues that people like at a James and Nat king Cole when they tour, they would go into the black neighborhoods to perform because everything was so segregated. So according to the location of both of their tailor shops, they were also in kind of these thriving black business hubs on the south side.

[Gary]: And of course your Mother pursued her own business. Did you see your mother being independent, not working typical nine to five jobs influencing your path to ultimately become an entrepreneur yourself?

[Keewa]: Definitely, definitely. You know, she had four kids and so if a kid gets sick, you know, if they’re, there’s so many reasons were now me as a parent, I understand the, the need for flexibility to kind of be able to control my income, but also be present for my kids. And so I think, you know, the desire for her to pursue her artistic desires and also have this flexibility to be there for her children. I think definitely informed me in some ways once I chose this path.

[Gary]: So what inspired you to open Kido? I love the name by the way.

[Keewa]: Yeah. I had my Son and I didn’t really have, I feel like the friends that I had at the time he was born either had older kids or they didn’t have children yet. So I was kind of in a position where I didn’t really know what was needed. I didn’t have that immediate network of people who were having babies at that time. And I didn’t really have any family members who had young kids or little cousins or that type of thing. So I was discovering a lot for the first time. And one of the first things I look for was, you know, clothing, once the baby shower kind of gifts run out and you start shopping on your own. And I had a little boy and I just was looking online and shopping for him and just really disappointed by the options, especially for little boys, you know, not very colorful, very gendered, some even like macho messaging, you know, “I’m so tough” or, you know, “Daddy’s little Slugger”, which really didn’t resonate with me or my values or my style. And so I just, you know, with all that time, it was just like breastfeeding and kind of just sitting there when he was asleep, I just started doing my Google researching and just like, what does it take to just print some onesies or kind of develop a few ideas that I had and that, that was the beginning of the business.

[Gary]: How did you start? Did you just go and get a space? Or were doing swap meets or how did you start up the business, what was the plan?

[Keewa]: Yeah, I pretty much just started in my living room. I hired someone for artwork. I used my husband, my husband’s a visual artist. He did some of the artwork. I figured out how to send that artwork to a printer, to print on, you know, some blank, some blank onesees, and everything was just shipped to my home, to my living room. And so we started online. I started a website, I got a logo. I did, you know, I followed all these steps that I kind of researched that other people had done, had a big launch for the website. And then after that kind of first initial push and probably just all my friends bought something, I realized, you know, that’s not going to be enough. I have to have other people buy things for it to kind of be a real business. And so, yeah, I sold in local markets and festivals. And then what I realized once I started to meet my customer face to face was that, there were other parents like me who wanted to meet other parents and families who didn’t have friends too, were having babies at the same time. And so that’s how we started our South Side Storytime. Just kind of as an opportunity to have families in our network, meet in a place where they could have their kids with them. And, and that was the beginning of connecting the Kido brand to events and really bringing community together.

[Gary]: The community really factors in a big way in your approach, the Storytime, music as well. I’ve seen some pictures of the events. The other thing I noticed, it’s multicultural, you know, there are white children, black children. It’s not this, isn’t just a one race thing. You know, this is, this is definitely to bring people together, which I think is so beautiful.

[Keewa]: You know, anybody who’s spent any time in Chicago or is from Chicago knows how segregated the city is. Even to this day, everyone kind of stays in their own neighborhoods and where they feel safe. And when I started Kido, that was a goal of mine was to really connect families and to have neighbors learn about each other, that no one living in such close proximity to each other shouldn’t know what that other person is going through or about their culture. So, that was a goal to kind of bring people together and also educate one another just by being around, you know, do you even know what Muslims celebrate? You know that it’s Ramadan, and you shouldn’t invite them out for lunch today. These are just kind of basic things that like, I felt like meeting other families and parents would really just educate people in a way that was more immersive.

[Gary]: Yeah. Yeah. I love it. Well, let’s talk a little bit about social media because you’ve got a very active presence. I’ve been following what you’re doing on, on Instagram primarily. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re integrating the digital into the bricks and mortar space?

[Keewa]: Once we started having these events, we kind of connected the Kido brand to a vibe. If you will, this thought that like, parents are still cool, parents can still be their individual selves and, and still, you know, have a family. And so meeting more and more families who are like, yeah, I want a party, but I have kids or yeah. You know, let’s, let’s, we still, we should still be able to do fun stuff. We, we, in, in uniting our community kind of also just establish yeah. This vibe. And so, especially in 2020, when all of a sudden out of nowhere, people were unable to come to the shop. We knew that we would have to translate that somehow over a screen so that people missed us so the people, you know, they just felt like they were missing out on something, because I knew that that would encourage people to still support us and look out for us in a way that we needed. And so that’s really, yeah. I feel like our social media became even stronger after the pandemic, because we wanted to translate the vibe across the screen, you know, like, what is Kido up to, like, what do they have in stock, even though families were the people that were, you know, in the house the most, you know, they didn’t necessarily want to shop out in public with kids that aren’t vaccinated yet. So we just wanted them to feel like they weren’t missing out on the party and that they still knew what was going on.

[Gary]: I saw that you were doing things with bookshop.org where you’ve got a store on bookshop.org is that like an affiliate program where you still get some revenue, but people can have the product shipped directly to them, but you have this, you can choose the product mix. Right?

[Keewa]: Yeah. I can only have a very curated collection of books, but we sell more books than anything. We’re in the Booksellers Association. So we’re about a five bookstore, but we have a curated collection that’s really focused on inclusivity, representation, you know, multicultural education. And so people come to our shop, they’re obsessed with the book collection, but we don’t have everything. You know, we don’t have, you know, your, your classics or somethings that families might be looking for if they don’t know, you know, what we’re about. So being on Bookshop kind of allows us the opportunity or really allows our customer, the opportunity to support us and buy any book they want. We love bookshop because they’re really like an Amazon alternative, you know, for people who want any kind of book, but you’re supporting independent bookstores who really need their help as opposed to the big guy. So we love bookshop. It’s a very new platform, but in such a short amount of time, they made a huge impact for independent bookstores. So very thankful for them.

[Gary]: I became aware of them during the holidays. When we we had our first Festivus, you know, Secret Santa, but we did a virtual Secret Santa, which I’m like, well, how are we going to do this? Have I got to ship something to somebody, and we ended up doing it with gift cards, but they were virtual gift cards. And there’s a little platform that allows you to really just do it as if you were in person. And I had some Bookshop.org certificates. So that was a lot of fun.

[Gary]: Has the area changed much since you opened Kido?

[Keewa]: I would say so. It’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows just out of the city and small businesses within the cities, since the pandemic started after the looting and even up until maybe, you know, six months ago, our downtown area and the gold coast is still not what it was before. All of the kind of luxury and big box stores that got looted. A lot of them didn’t reopen. So in the Loop and in the Gold Coast and the Central Chicago area, you still have this, you still have these visual reminders of what happened in 2020. Where we are in the South Loop, our small businesses are trying to stay strong, but we have seen kind of a second round of closures after 2020. You know, a lot of businesses weren’t opening in 2021 after we got over the hump. And, and now with the latest surge and just the kind of cumulative effect of just wearing this pandemic, we’ve seen this kind of second wave of small businesses closing, and it’s unfortunate, you know, people who have made it all this way. And then when they tell you, you know, you gotta get vaccination card checking at the door and you need all of these kind of PPE requirements again, and then some people can’t make it. So, there’s that kind of change and that kind of visual reminder that we’re still in this very challenging time.

[Gary]: Yes. It’s really tested Entrepreneurs. And like you’ve been doing with digital, integrating digital. I think the real resilient businesses are the ones that are open to change and open to challenge. And you’re winning awards. I mean, you were awarded Black Entrepreneur of the Year in 2021. Congratulations. I mean, what was that like to receive that recognition from such a prestigious organization?

[Keewa]: Very surreal, you know, I won’t get down on myself and say that I don’t deserve it. However, any entrepreneur knows that. My business has been around for three years, the brick and mortar that has been around for three years, we’ve been around for five years online. There are businesses that have been open, you know, 30 years, 35 years. And they’re so many entrepreneurs that I admire for the way that they’ve been able to stay in the game or the way that they’ve been able to be leaders in their industry. And so I know that that it’s a, it’s an accomplishment, but I also feel like, well, anyone who has survived, I’ll take it. And it really validated something in me to keep going, but I also am, am sharing it with all of my fellow business owners who have made it through this time. For sure.

[Gary]: What’s the most important piece of advice that you’ve received as a business owner and entrepreneur?

[Keewa]: Really just listen to your customer. I think a lot of people have a product that they, they’ve had the idea they’ve gone through all the steps to put it on the market. And they are so intent on selling their specific vision to a customer that may not even exist yet. And some people don’t take the time to really listen to what their customer, or potential customer or what people in general actually need. And that’s something that I think I’ve become better at, especially during this pandemic. The fact that we started as a clothing company and at the top of the pandemic families were, we were sheltered in place. We were in our pajamas all day. So, so if I kept pushing clothing and I wasn’t listening, I would be out of business, but instead I’m listening and I’m like, okay, well, let’s bring that way down. And then we amped up, you know, board games, puzzles, toys, because we were just in tune with what our customer was going through and what they needed at the time. And I, I feel like you need, you need to listen, listen, listen, and be flexible.

[Gary]: Do you hope to inspire your children to become entrepreneurs?

[Keewa]: I have to inspire them, but they can become whatever they want to, you know, I think especially being the descendant of a black wall street business owner and being a mom, I of course desire to build some kind of generational wealth. But they can do with that, what they want. You know, I don’t want to impose anything on them. But I hope they’re inspired by something that they have the freedom to do as they wish.

[Gary]: So during COVID, did you face challenges getting access to any of the government programs, paycheck protection, or any of the grant programs that were, that were available?

[Keewa]: Oh, wow. That was very, very, that was a very interesting.

[Gary]: Tell me bout it.

[Keewa]: The first round came and went and then we heard the news stories of the Lakers got a bunch of money and Potbelly’s got a bunch of money, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. And I think all small business owners were just sitting here, like what’s going on? That’s not who needs help. So the second round came along and thankfully I was approved for a PPP and, but then even after that, I hear a people who don’t even have businesses scamming and getting way more money than I asked for. So I just, that whole situation was very perplexing. And I tried not to put all my eggs in that basket. You know, I was really just grinding, trying to make the business work to its maximum potential, even though, you know, I’ll take what I can get if it’s, if it’s “free money”, but it was just disappointing to see how people really took advantage of that help and how so many small businesses may have ended up closing because they didn’t have access to that money that they needed. It was, it was very, you know, it was unprecedented. We hadn’t had to do anything like that ever before, but I was just disappointed at the people on the top and the bottom who kind of grabbed for all that they could while the people who it was created for, you know, were just left in the dust pretty much.

[Gary]: There was, I mean the first round, I think it was difficult because they wanted to roll out a lot of money quickly and the banks weren’t prepared to do that quickly. And I think for businesses that didn’t have those existing relationships with their banks or the, they had, shall we say, loose ties with, with lending organizations that it was just impossible and so very frustrating, but businesses of color just did not get the access to capital that they deserved and needed and something, I mean, if we go through another pandemic, I hope, you know, I hope it’s at least a hundred years from now. I don’t want to go through another one of these anytime soon, we’ll be better prepared with PPE and all of that stuff. I mean, it’s been quite a journey.

[Keewa]: It really has when you think to the, to the very beginning and the struggles that we had and just how those have morphed into these current struggles. It’s, it’s been a whole lifetime. I’m definitely ready for it to be over. But you know, for us as a business focused on children, we’re still in it because our parents, our families still have children under five who can’t be vaccinated. So that comes into play. You know, when we think about our foot traffic levels or we think about, you know, we’re still not having events again yet, it’s we have that customer in mind because that’s me as a parent and that’s a lot of our target audience. So we’re still in it.

[Gary]: I get a sense of joy when I talk to you about your business Keewa, it’s obvious that you really enjoy being an entrepreneur. Would you, would you agree with that?

[Keewa]: I do. I’ve had, you know, this, I feel like as my second chapter of life and I, when I think of the first chapter, I think of all of the, the ups and downs and the uncertainty that, you know, as what I, what am I doing? Am I supposed to be doing this? How am I going to make any money? You know, that, especially in my twenties, just that uncertainty of am I going in the right direction? And I feel like with Kido, I’ve, I’ve found my purpose. I know that this is what I was supposed to do. And so there’s so much relief from that, that I feel like that opens me up to the joy, you know, to, to really just be happy about bringing these moments to families about spending time with my family, both at work and at home. And yeah, I can’t suppress that sometimes. You know?

[Gary]: Well, Keewa, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. You’re an inspiration. What can I say? How can our audience learn more about Kido Chicago?

[Keewa]: Well, yeah. Where our website is kidochicago.com. We’re, on Instagram at kidochicago, where I’m, TikTok at kidochicago and Facebook as well. Stay tuned. We’re we’re on hold for events right now, but hopefully they will be backup. So for any local Chicago families come and check us out.

[Gary]: Thank you very much.

[Keewa]: Thanks for having me.

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