What Surviving a Civil War in West Africa Taught This Michigan Entrepreneur

By Amanda Lewan on January 30th, 2014 / Comments

At fourteen years old Nameh Grigsby remembers walking through the streets of the market in Liberia, West Africa, barefoot. On his arms he had lined up plastic bags all the way to his shoulders. He’d sell the plastic bags to anyone who listened. He’d also sell fried doughnuts made in their house nearby. He did what he could to help his family get by.

At a young age, his family was just an Auntie that raised him. His mother had left for America, and most of his memories of her were made through phone calls. His father was there, but wasn’t around.

Nameh would return from the market to share what little he made with his Auntie. She took care of him and taught him how to cook and bake. He learned mostly how to cook by just watching her.  At twelve years old while the civil war raged in Liberia and many of his friends were injured or killed, Nameh was able to take a job as a cook at the local UNICEF camp.

“There was no food, no parents. I took the job to work and eat, and to take food home to my auntie,” said Nameh. “That’s where I really learned how to bake.”

Nameh smiles his wide smile and says, throughout the meeting we had, how grateful he is to be alive. He learned to fry donuts and bake bread during those years in the UNICEF kitchen and he took this passion to bake with him to America.

When he was sixteen he joined his mother in Detroit. He brought photographs of her to the airport to help recognize who she might be. He went to a school for the first time in years. During the war, he says, there was no one who went to school.

Nameh knew he had discovered a love for baking, but he went on to vocational school to work with automobiles and eventually for Coca-Cola for 12 years. He was injured on the job and had to undergo back surgery, but he was able return to his passion for baking.

“I survived the war to come to this country,” said Nameh. “I didn’t get hurt during the war, but I got hurt here. It must have been the plan God had for me.”

After a couple of semesters back in school, an opportunity to purchase a bakery came along. He saved up enough to purchase the bakery, and learned from the old owners how they had managed the business.

Nameh has a natural inclination for making others feel comfortable, for making sure everyone around him is served and welcome.

“I used to walk into the market to sell plastic bags. I sold little fried donuts,” said Nameh. “All of those things I did showed me I had a passion for customer service and for serving people. I enjoy the bakery and most importantly, I enjoy talking and serving my customers.”photo (2)

Nameh admits he doesn’t know how to decorate the cakes he bakes just yet, but he’s been learning quickly. He has two professional decorators and their store will be celebrating one year this March. His favorite cakes are a hamburger shaped cake that kids call “The Krabby Patty” (left)  and a chocolate Bumpie Cake that was unforgettable, like Nameh and his story.

His advice for opening a business is to treat others with respect: “In life, you have to treat others with respect; treat them the way you want to be treated. If I had not lived by this motto during the civil war, I don’t think I would be in this situation today.”

He shared with me a story about a couple that had wondered into the bakery in the summer, wanting to try the cupcakes. They forgot their wallet on them. He insisted they take the cupcakes anyways, and was surprised when they returned months later to pay him back, and purchase more cupcakes.

“We have a lot of returning customers. I thank God every day the door is open and every time the phone rings,” said Nameh. “I thank God I made it through the civil war to get to come to America.

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About the Author

Amanda Lewan

Amanda Lewan

Editor @michipreneur. Co-founder Bamboo Detroit. Follow me @Amanda_Jenn. I love telling the story of entrepreneurs and innovators.