Kenya McKnight-Ahad's great-grandmother, Memphis Tucker, was the first mover in her life. Her mother, Sharon McKnight, was the second.
McKnight-Ahad, founder and chief executive of Black Women's Wealth Alliance in Minneapolis, is driven by their lives to help Black women live better.
In the past year, she bought a building in North Minneapolis, now called ZaRah, that she's transforming as a center for wellness spaces, from massage and acupuncture to a spa and maternal support.
"The goal at ZaRah is to build a neighborhood oasis in health and wellness," McKnight-Ahad said. "Over $20 million annually leaves the North Side for these services. We will recycle those dollars and build wealth that helps build a Black middle class."
McKnight-Ahad, who is now 45, worked her way through Henry High School and college to a first career as a teacher on the North Side.
Her great-grandmother in the 1950s migrated from Mississippi to the Chicago area, where she started a candy store. Her mother moved further north to Minneapolis in the 1980s, raising five children in public housing.
"I grew up around Black women struggling to make ends meet,'' McKnight-Ahad said. "Mostly working-poor. Sometimes drug sales. I experienced street life and homelessness. But I always looked for a better life. I always had a job, since high school."
After a younger brother was killed in a gunfight, McKnight-Ahad worked for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. Then she won two fellowships in community engagement and economic development, worked for the Northside Economic Opportunity Network and helped care for the children of her deceased brother and another in prison.
"I'm the matriarch, the fierce auntie who has tried to step up and help my family," McKnight-Ahad said. "I've been a provider. I also see a shift in the next generation, their children. School, internships, graduation, work."
Some of her acquaintances call her a "shero" and bring their kids to visit the building, at 1200-1202 W. Broadway Av., she bought last year. Ironically, she once vacated her space in the building because she couldn't afford the rent.
"She was back as a tenant when she called to buy the building and it was the perfect full cycle," said Stu Ackerberg, the Minneapolis developer-owner with North Side roots, who over 15 years has renovated or sold several West Broadway buildings to locals through his Catalyst Community Partners nonprofit business.
McKnight-Ahad acquired the building from Catalyst for $1.1 million, including $100,000 in equity. Ackerberg completed significant renovations to what had been an abandoned mortuary and added Breaking Bread Café.
McKnight-Ahad brought the tab to $1.5 million with more improvements, including a main entrance and landscaping. She gave it the name ZaRah, an Arabic-rooted word that suggests radiance and beauty.
"Kenya has vision and courage. She hadn't done real estate before. But we worked together. And she had this concept of creating a Black middle class on the North Side," Ackerberg said. "She is part of changing times and turnaround on West Broadway."
Like home ownership, commercial real estate evaded Black entrepreneurs for generations, for well-documented reasons rooted in racism, redlining, lack of commercial connections and commensurate inability to generate generational wealth through ownership.
Thanks to demographic growth and opportunity, the percentage of Minnesota businesses owned by people of color grew from 6.3% in 2007 to 11% in 2017, according to the Census Bureau. And Small Business Administration loans to Minnesota Black businesses grew 250% from 2020 to 2021.
To finance the purchase of the ZaRah building, McKnight-Ahad turned to Sunrise Banks as principal lender, followed by a no-interest $500,000 Minneapolis Commercial Property Development Fund Loan (CPDL). It is one one of several made to minority owners in inner-city corridors damaged by the riots in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
Erik Hansen, city economic development chief and a former North Side project manager, said McKnight-Ahad qualified because of her "proven track record" of running her businesses successfully. And she has recruited, housed and mentored other Black women businesses owners who are driving household wealth.
McKnight-Ahad's expansion will accommodate Aisha Wadud, a veteran massage therapist and North Sider who moved her business, Nura Holistic Massage & Bodywork, from south Minneapolis.
McKnight-Ahad rented to Wadud after a Black Women's Wealth Alliance forum for about 70 women with tracks on business formation, housing, financial planning and wellness trends. Wadud's wellness workshop proved most popular.
Appetite for Change, parent of Breaking Bread, plans to buy its own building to house the café and a variety of nutrition programs tied partly to North Side's growing urban-farming economy.
McKnight-Ahad said she plans to replace the cafe with a restaurant with evening hours.