“There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” – Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
In the spirit of Independence Day, rolling out caught up with an empowered woman who epitomizes Kofi Annan’s assertion. Taneshia Nash Laird is an economic development guru who is passionate about helping social entrepreneurs and municipalities improve communities of women and people of color. Even before she realized it was a real vocation, Laird tapped into her niche and started learning everything there was to know.
“I have always had this passion around Black economic development, in particular. When I was in college I fashioned my minor around Black economics,” Laird explained. “At the time, there were not classes on the subject, so I made my own independent study.”
Book knowledge was important, but she also had a keen insight on how to deepen her understanding and use it to propel herself toward her goals. Early on, those goals were super lofty, as she wanted to own both media and music empires, like a combination of News Corp and BMG.
“I was always seeking out opportunities, and making my own opportunities while I was in school. For example, I was part of the school radio station as a reporter and ‘personnel director,’ so I was able to use that media credential to meet people I wanted to meet,” said Laird. “One day back in ’92 or ’93, I reached out to Len Burnett, then ad director and future publisher of Vibe Magazine – completely cold-called him. A girlfriend of mine had told me she knew someone at the magazine and, since I wanted to be in that business, I picked up the phone. While other people applied to formal internships restricting them to specific duties and hours they had to work, I just called Len Burnett and said, ‘I just want to shadow you … just to understand what you do.’ He was silent for a solid minute, then he said, ‘You know, I probably could have used you today. When are you going to come by?’ I did whatever he asked me to do, but I was able to float around and meet all of these incredible and inspiring people.”
To this day, Laird maintains connections with most of the people she encountered during her formative years, and her ability to leverage information and resources is a key success factor for her consulting company, Legacy Business Advisors.
“My focus is on impactful, large-scale projects. All my clients have passions just like I do, and what I’m doing is helping them achieve their goals by using all of my knowledge and all of my contacts. For example, just the other day I put a client on the phone with a company he had been seeking to meet with for years. I arranged for a sit down with the principal of the company, and now it looks like they are going to be in business. To be able to help people achieve their dreams while also being a benefit to the community … I can’t even describe the feeling of hearing in their voice or seeing in their face,” Laird explained.
Although most of her clients are not millionaires, she helps them attract tens of millions of dollars in support of projects that will improve communities both big and small. Laird recently landed a significant municipal contract that will serve an impoverished town on many levels.
“Though I’m based in New Jersey and was raised in New York, I serve clients throughout the country. I’m working with a village in the Midwest I had never heard of that is 94% African-American and happens to be the hometown of several celebrities. I’m helping them implement a comprehensive plan to develop the downtown area. It is going to have a significant impact on this community and surrounding communities, because it is also what is known as a ‘food desert’ that hasn’t had a supermarket for forty years,” Laird gushed with pride. “The development plan will create a walkable downtown district with a full-service supermarket, which will have a significant impact on the community.”
Growing accustomed to being the first exposure decision makers have had to a professional Black woman in her field, whenever possible Laird makes an effort to smooth the path for those who may come behind her. She had such an opportunity with the downtown district project.
“I met with the mayor, the administrator, the clerk, and one of the planning board commissioners over three days, and they said they’d never worked with a professional that looked like me before. I don’t want this meeting to be the only, as I’m also very passionate about developing other people, so I was happy to be able to utilize a nearby subcontractor whose principal is a Black woman,” Laird said.
Laird also seeks to smooth the paths of those coming behind her by offering great advice and sharing her experiences through mentorship.
“My advice to young people is don’t be afraid to discover and pursue opportunities, constantly seek out people who can be your mentors and champions, and don’t burn bridges,” she said.
Nash went to Temple University for two years, then came home to New York and worked while taking a few classes when her mother got sick. Upon returning to Baruch College at the age of 22 to finish her degree when all of her peers were graduating, she was fortunate to find two professors who were willing to act as her champions. She graciously pays it forward by supporting those who work for her and giving them pearls of wisdom like “failure is not the end, your location in life now does not have to be your destination, always look forward, and never look back,” unless it is to remember her when she needs them to give her a job, Laird laughs.
“Every job I’ve had, I’ve met great people along the way who I can still reach out to today. Even today, there are people who have worked for me and I have said to them, ‘Alright look, one day I might be asking you for a job.’ They laugh, but I let them know I’m serious,” recalled Laird. “I think being around those people and being somewhat fearless, which is what I’m trying to recapture now, and exploring things I wanted to do was key … as was not burning bridges.”
We will keep an eye on Taneshia Nash Laird as she continues to build bridges of development and empowerment.