Nita Penn’s Unapologetic Approach to Leveling Savannah’s Economic Arena
My Zoom call with Nita Penn is taking a little longer than usual to connect. I get a message I haven’t seen before. It reads “Nita is taking a while to connect, so she can’t hear you right now.”
I never received this notification in other Zoom meetings, but I’m impressed with the alert. We finally connect, and I tell her about how nice the notification was.
“See, this is why it’s important to do user research!” she exclaims. “Just take that in, just take it in.”
Penn has just put her twins down for a nap. At the time of our conversation, she’s beset with meetings while preparing for the upcoming Creative Coast event She Hustles, a night highlighting the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs in Savannah. She wastes no time in telling me that she is incredibly principle-based and comes from a place of high moral fiber.
“I try to do the right thing most of the time,” she says, laughing. But her real passion lies in understanding the intricacies of problems, specifically issues that interfere with making progress.
“I’m trying to understand the root cause of pain,” she says. ”Problem-solving, understanding, discovery, asking for feedback, and actually understanding the needs of people.”
Penn was recently named as the Director of the Savannah branch of the Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) Women’s Business Center. ACE is a nonprofit community lender dedicated to providing economic development assistance to both low-income and minority populations. The mission of ACE is closely tied with Nita’s personal mission of bringing marginalized communities into the fold of business.
“I will always center social and racial equity. There are so many people who operate from the guise of, ‘We all have the same shot, we all have the same opportun…” Penn cuts herself off mid-sentence, chuckling at the irony of the statement. “I’m laughing but it’s not funny. It’s so idealistic, but the reality of the situation is that this is not our reality.”
Penn’s statement accurately reflects Savannah’s current demographic. Columnist Bill Dawers identifies the racial disparities in Savannah’s neighborhoods in his 2019 article focusing on the influx of white residents into largely black neighborhoods.
“I do think the word ‘gentrification’ is broadly applicable here,” Dawers opines, “but the word itself does not capture the nuances of the changes that we are seeing on the ground.”
“What does a thriving business in Savannah look like?” Penn asks, engaging me to explore this question with her. She breaks the momentary contemplative pause, stating, “It is people that have moved here, that have been incentivized to move here to start businesses. When we talk about booming industry, it is not typically of a Savannah local.”
Nita’s goal is to expand opportunities for both upcoming and established local, low-income, minority, and black women-owned businesses across the city of Savannah. She intends to use the ACE women’s center to hone in on her three-prong approach to working with these communities, specifically: relatable and restorative business practices, community outreach, and collaboration. She argues that this approach will help entrepreneurs grow in the face of rejection instead of abandoning their projects altogether.
“I’m working with our community partners to make sure that when people are rejected, that they understand why, and understand how they can get to a yes,” she says. “Every single woman that I know that is doing hair, taking care of children, has a lifestyle brand, or whatever…There are so many women-led businesses that are operating through Cash App, that aren’t licensed, and they’re all so talented. I want to see businesses like that actually have brick and mortar spaces.”
She’s working to spread the word about the ACE center’s opportunities through community-building practices like forums to address “pain points” that women are having as they work to establish their business. Nita emphasizes an individualistic process by learning the needs and challenges each person faces as they look to grow their businesses.
“Professional and personal development are not separate entities,” she says.
Nita’s final goal is embedded in her vision for the future of Savannah’s economic landscape.
“For me in five years, it would be seeing a lot of those women coming out of the shadows, and no longer in the forgotten space of business, and have working relationships with banks,” she says. “To have confidence to reach out to mentors and for these women to legitimize their hustle.”
For more information on ACE, please visit www.aceloans.org
Keep up with Nita and her work! Visit her site at www.nitapenn.com