The F Word with Nehemiah Frank, Black Wall Street Times

Identifying a need in his community for better representation, teacher Nehemiah Frank founded The Black Wall Street Times. Despite lacking formal journalism training, he created a publication that is drawing national attention as it offers a new perspective on Tulsa's African American community. Listen as Nehemiah talks about how the failure he experienced in other entrepreneurial endeavors prepared him to create one of the state's most progressive news sources.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Nehemiah: Did terrible on the finances for both businesses. Terrible.

Lauren: This week on The F Word.

Nehemiah: And, oh my gosh, I drove that thing into the ground. I feel so bad.

Lauren: Nehemiah Frank, the founder and Executive Editor of the Black Wall Street Times.

Nehemiah: I have felt at times that I was going to burn out.

Lauren: Representation is a founding principle of pure American journalism. Two years ago, Nehemiah Frank, saw a need for better media representation in the North Tulsa Community, so he created the Black Wall Street Times. It's an online publication that highlights the key news, events, and stories that make up the heartbeat of Tulsa's African American community, and it's rapidly growing, gaining more and more readers and supporters every day. Today, we're going to talk about how Nehemiah got it off the ground while balancing the demands of being a teacher and the owner of other businesses and without a background in journalism. It's a great story. Nehemiah, thanks for being here.

Nehemiah: Well, thank you for inviting me here.

Lauren: Most entrepreneurial stories start with someone seeing a problem, and then having this deep conviction that they have the solution to make it better. And I know that's the case for you. What was the problem you saw and how did you seek to use Black Wall Street Times to make that better?

Nehemiah: I saw this void in the black community. A lot of millennials were not reading The Oklahoma Eagle. A lot of millennials were... it seems we kind of grew up in this era where recycling is good and we don't want to waste paper. Why would we buy a newspaper? Because that's wasting paper. A lot of us tend to stay away from print. We get our news on social media or digitally, by descriptions. That was pretty much the void that I wanted to fill. Was that, these millennials were not connected to the news that was going on in Tulsa's African American community.

Lauren: For those who aren't familiar, what is The Eagle?

Nehemiah: The Eagle, is a historic African-American newspaper. And it's been in the community before 1921, I believe.

Lauren: Wow, it's been around for a while.

Nehemiah: It's been around for a long time.

Lauren: Is it based out of Tulsa or Oklahoma City?

Nehemiah: It's based out of Tulsa, in Greenwood.

Lauren: You saw that they were focusing on print and you wanted to focus on the digital side?

Nehemiah: Right. And then another downside to print, it's expensive. The Eagle only comes out every Sunday. I'm like, man, we need news every day. Things are constantly taking place and two or three days later it's going to be old news. I figured the Black Wall Street Times was the best way to keep up with the times and what's going on in Tulsa.

Lauren: How did it spark? What was the moment when you said, "I need to do this. I'm going to do this, let's do it."

Nehemiah: What was the spark? Well, there's a bunch of sparks and then I just kind of gathered them all together and decided, you know what? Maybe this should happen. I remember I had a friend in college at OSU and we were on the bus together, and my friend was having a difficult time trying to break into the media world as a journalist. He actually had a journalism degree. He was like, "Man, I'm going to have to leave Tulsa." I'm like, "Oh man, we need to stay here. We need brain power in Tulsa. We can't have this continual brain drain taking place." Anyways, he just kind of went off and did his own thing. I would say that was one of those sparks. Another spark was when, not to be controversial, but when Terrence was shot and it was like, "Oh man..." The media demonized him. Not every media company did that, but it definitely seemed like a few media companies were demonizing him as this criminal thug and bad dude. This guy was a father, he was a student. He was trying to make his life better. No one is perfect. We all have our secrets and things that we do, or deal with. I think that every person on the planet has some degree of mental health issues that they're dealing with. Whether it's publicly visible or not. I think that I wanted to help control the narrative. I would say that was another jumping off point where I was like, "Maybe we should start because of that." But at that time I hadn't even started the website. It was just a thought, like, “Maybe I should do this because we would be able to be louder.” And there were situations with the school board and other issues that I had thought about. I noticed that they weren't really getting a lot of attention. The way the schools are in North Tulsa, the performance, it’s just not where it should be, where I know we could be as a society.

Lauren: So what pushed you from, “Maybe I should do this,” to, “I'm building a website, I'm going for it.”

Nehemiah: Right. I had started businesses before, they all failed.

Lauren: Oh yes, we'll talk about that later.

Nehemiah: But my grandfather, he was an entrepreneur and actually he is probably responsible for building a lot of the mason work that we see in North Tulsa. He owned Frank Builders. A lot of the bricks on the Greenwood Cultural Center, my uncles and my grandfather and some of the women too laid the brick work for that, and some of the brick work that we see on the new buildings down on Greenwood now.

Lauren: Wow, that's cool. You felt like his spirit was kind of in you, driving you to do it?

Nehemiah: Yeah. My aunt, she used to own a Tuxedo, etc. out north. A lot of folks were going to get their prom stuff there. My other grandfather on my dad's side still owns Beard's Body Shop, on Denver. 

Lauren: So that entrepreneurial spirit is like in your DNA?

Nehemiah: Yeah, I was like, "I'm just going to do it. If it fails, whatever." But I remember my friend Michael had told me, when I told him about this idea and I started building the website, he's like, "Do you understand that you're standing in front of a waterfall?" And I'm like, "What are you talking about? What do you mean a waterfall? It's just going to be this little tiny thing here in Tulsa, just for us.” But little did I know it was going to be something that was going to take on a spirit of its own.

Lauren: I love that. You launched in early 2017, which means you've been up for about two and a half years-

Nehemiah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lauren: Still a little earlier on.

Nehemiah: Right.

Lauren: How did the launch go? Tell me about the launch, how it went logistically, and how it was received.

Nehemiah: The launch was slow and quiet.

Lauren: Sometimes that's good.

Nehemiah: Right, yeah. It was slow and it was very quiet. I remember President Trump had just been inaugurated and I was like, "Oh my gosh." And I just kind of took out my frustrations and my first post, it was terrible. Oh my God, that first post, I should go back and read it today, I’m probably... Oh, Jesus it was bad.

Lauren: Just take that down.

Nehemiah: Yeah, hide that immediately. But I was wet behind the ears for sure. I didn't know what I was doing. I just knew that... I wasn't defeated because I could see this could be something really cool. I don't know what it's going to be yet, but I'm just getting started and we'll see where the cards fall.

Lauren: And you don't have formal journalistic training-

Nehemiah: No.

Lauren: Your degree is in political science?

Nehemiah: Political science. Actually I got some slack for that too. Like, "You're not even a real journalist." Folks were saying that type of stuff.

Lauren: How did you learn those skills, and how did you come up to speed on that?

Nehemiah: I just read a lot of books. And I read a lot of articles and studied how the articles were kind of mapped out, and that helped a lot.

Lauren: Once you started pushing content out, how was it received? Did you start to hear a murmur either from the black community or the white community? Or what did that look like at first, the response to what you're pushing out?

Nehemiah: Well, the first few articles, they were political blogs. But the first actual article article I did on my friend Charity Marcus's daughter who is-

Lauren: Oh, a gymnast, right?.

Nehemiah: A gymnast.

Lauren: She is phenomenal.

Nehemiah: She is phenomenal. I actually used to give her private lessons, but this is before she became good. I was just like that little coach.

Lauren: The foundation.

Nehemiah: I do not want to take her coach's credit, or her mom's dedication to making sure she goes to her lessons. But I did an article on her and oh my gosh, people were like, "Oh wow, this is really cool.” That was the first big article that came out. It was this little girl in Tulsa doing gymnastics, following her dreams. It just kind of started to expand from there. And then the next article, I think, I want to say Charity wrote this article about... she wrote two articles. Two really good ones. One was about the whole Greenwood Chamber situation, which was, I don't know if you know that they split. She had wrote-

Lauren: Into Greenwood Chamber and Black Wall Street Chamber...

Nehemiah: Right. And she had started. She had put together this piece about that and oh, people were just so interested in what was going on with that. People wanted the black perspective. Well, we know what Tulsa World is, and all of these other media outlets are saying, but what are our people saying about this? She did a really good piece there. Then there was another piece that she did. Oh yeah, it was about entrepreneurship and the opportunities that are here for all Tulsans, including black Tulsans. I think there is this misperception that Tulsa doesn't want to offer everybody something. And here's the thing, it does. There are resources here. It doesn't matter what your race is. It doesn't matter how old you are, as long as you have the discipline and you have a plan and you want to fulfill it. People will help you get to where you want to be at. This is Rose Washington's organization. And they offer loans to...

Lauren: TEDC (Tulsa Economic Development Corporation).

Nehemiah: Yes, that's it. She wrote an article about that. Oh my gosh, she really opened a lot of doors for folks. And that was a pretty big piece too. At the very beginning.

Lauren: You're informing people who wouldn't have known, otherwise.

Nehemiah: Yes, absolutely. There are resources here.

Lauren: That's huge.

Nehemiah: It's huge. And the person that's over it, is a woman of color, a woman of color. So she's going to be your ally.

Lauren: Speaking on content more. The content on your website, I was looking through it and it ranges from serious topics like politics and government and policing all the way to features on art galleries and cool high school students. Can you talk about your method for curating content? Do you have set percentages you want to hit? Or how do you know what will serve your community best, and what you want to feature on this publication?

Nehemiah: Going back to that first article... Charity doesn't even really know how much she actually helped jumpstart The Black Wall Street Times. I noticed how much that article that I wrote about her daughter, how much traffic it got. I was like, people don't want to just be boggled down with reading politics. People don't want to just be boggled down with criminal justice stuff, because a lot of that is negative. People want to see positive stuff like, little kids winning gymnastics meets. And a kid going to Washington DC, and competing in a national debate, from North Tulsa. I want to have that range where you can go and get what you need out of the Black Wall Street Times. That's one of the reasons why, although it says The Black Wall Street Times, we're millennials, we grew up in this integrated society. We're not as scared of one another as our parents' generation, our grandparents' generation was. The content that Nate's putting out, the content that Joshua, is putting out. And these are just two white folks. They're bringing perspective. And the coolest thing about it is, they're pulling in white folks who otherwise would have been like, "I am never going. I'm not going to go into that world because I might get called out, even though I have good intentions." It's given them this space where they could secretly go in and see what other white people are thinking. I love that. I think that's probably one of the-

Lauren: Yes, certainly that's good journalism.

Nehemiah: Yes. It's like the biggest success of the Black Wall Street Times. It's like this is the Black Wall Street in the 21st century. Everybody has a voice.

Lauren: With your diverse content you have, have you had any local news outlets, more mainstream outlets reach out to you and want to partner or come alongside you, and elevate your brand at all?

Nehemiah: Yes. I would definitely say so. I would say the Tulsa World has been a big ally of the Black Wall Street Times, and I didn't think that would happen. Now, I sit on their Community Advisory Board. Then, The Eagle and I were going to work something out because, we do have an issue. Our issue is, we want to reach an older generation but we don't print. The Eagle prints. We're going to actually start having some of our articles featured in The Oklahoma Eagle, and the Eagle is going to start having some of its articles featured in the Black Wall Street Times. That way we can kind of bridge the gap between the millennials and the latter generations.

Lauren: You don't feel competition then?

Nehemiah: Nope. Not even close.

Lauren: You mentioned this earlier and I want to talk more about it. You had multiple businesses before you started Black Wall Street Times, and in your own words, they all failed.

Nehemiah: Right.

Lauren: Can you talk about those businesses and what you learned in that season that prepared you to be in the business you're in now? Because I think a lot of entrepreneurs might hate admitting failure, taking defeat from a business that's just not working. How did that serve you to go through those failures now?

Nehemiah: I would definitely say that I learned that you have to have the discipline to keep pushing...

Lauren: What were the businesses you had?

Nehemiah: I used to own a business in Las Vegas called, Cheer Nation. I actually bought that business from a friend of mine. And, oh my gosh, I drove that thing into the ground. I felt so bad. But it was a learning experience. The thing is I think that that business was just too big for me to run, and I was just too young and inexperienced that I had no business running that business.

Lauren: Was it a cheerleading company?

Nehemiah: It was a cheerleading, yes. I remember the rent was $15,000 a month. I think that's how much what it was, no, maybe it was 11,000, I don't know. It was some high number like that. And I'm like, "This is ridiculous." I don't have any business running this big business like this. There's just too many responsibilities. That didn't work out. I sold the company to another cheer company and they ended up taking all those kids, which is great. The second company that I owned was this little business called Tumble Time. What I really wanted to do with Tumble Time, and I still might do something with it, is...

Lauren: That’s a true entrepreneur.

Nehemiah: Yeah, right.

Lauren: Like they never totally shut the door.

Nehemiah: They might not shut the door today yet. Was a little after-school program for kids in Tulsa to be able to do little gymnastics and tumbling, type of stuff. Perhaps the kid wants to be a cheerleader when they get to middle school or something. My friend and I, we bought this huge blow up track to where the kids could tumble down it, and it was so much fun. But here's the thing. Sometimes the school would like close early or something, and I guess the folks were like, "Oh well you guys were using the gym." The gym would be occupied. They were like, "Well, you guys are going to have to be outside today.” So it’s like, “Do you know that it's still August? Or like you know it’s September? It's hot.”

Lauren: Maybe it's 125 degrees outside.

Nehemiah: And so the track was getting hot and all the little kids were burning, getting their hands burnt up and stuff. It's just like, "Okay, well, this is not going to work out, and I'm tired of rolling this thing up and putting it in a car.”

Lauren: What'd you learn in these seasons? Whether that's about managing people or managing finances?

Nehemiah: I did terrible on the finances for both businesses. Terrible. I didn't know how to budget anything. Then these last two years, I've really just been trying to map out, how am I going to bring in the type of money that will sustain the Black Wall Street Times?

Lauren: I think a problem a lot of entrepreneurs face is feeling stretched then. Whether that's managing all the parts of their business or also trying to work a full time job, while they're getting their business off the ground. You are a teacher?

Nehemiah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lauren: And this year you've been a co-principal of a school. Are there moments when you feel you can't do all your jobs well? Like how do you balance being a great teacher and a journalist and running a business and being there for your kids?

Nehemiah: Right. I think you hit it on the head when you said, “Do it well.” Because I'm committed to teaching, but I'm also committed to ensuring that the community has what it has. I had to forgive myself for the little mistakes that I would make. I knew that you can't...

Lauren: Mistakes like what?

Nehemiah: When it comes to... I might have a typo or something in the article, or I may not be able to make every event. I literally had to forgive myself for that, which sounds crazy, but it really helped. Like I literally forgave myself for not being able to commit 100%. Because some people are like, "Oh, you can only be successful if you commit 100%." That means you have to drop every single thing that you're doing and just focus on this business. But that's not true. Most people who are successful business owners, they own multiple businesses, and they're able to keep up with multiple businesses. You just find the right folks, the right team to help you out, and you can make it work.

Lauren: How are you making it work?

Nehemiah: Nate. Nate Morris helps out a lot. This year we're going to have an intern this summer, which is going to be very helpful. But having help and trying different things like, I do have a limit when it comes to... well, I don't want to say it to limit, it's more like an average when I'm writing. It's got to be between 400 and 600 words. Or 400 or 800 words. If I'm feeling really tired that day, but something really needs to get out, I'm like, "Okay, this is a 400 word one, boom, boom, boom, boom, and then we're done. Let it out.”

Lauren: Do you feel you're at a point where you need to say no to things, or cut things out?

Nehemiah: Oh, yes. That was hard. Saying no was another tough lesson because I have felt at times that I was going to burn out. I have felt like that before, but I would always think about how much of an impact it's had already and I'm like, I can't burn out. I just started saying no. And sometimes when you say no, people get upset.

Lauren: Yeah?

Nehemiah: Yes, they get mad. Or you think that they're there for a friendship, but they're really there to use your platform because they know that you have that social power.

Lauren: How do you handle that?

Nehemiah: I call a friend. Call a friend, say, "Look, I'm about to have an anxiety attack because such and such, such and such.” I don't handle it by myself though. I see a therapist like once every three months. It's good to make sure you're taking care of your mental health. That's important. Then I talk to my friends, because they really keep me grounded and say, "Hey, you know what? It's okay," and say, “I've dealt with everything that you're dealing with, you're going to be okay."

Lauren: Looking forward, we're only a couple years away from the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. And I've heard a lot of murmuring that your publication is going to play a big role in how that is remembered and commemorated, and talked about. Do you have any plans for the centennial? And what are you excited about around that?

Nehemiah: Well, I'm definitely excited about being able to record history in the making. I'm humbled by this whole thing really. I don't know, there's just so much. Just listening to you say what you just said, is like, wow. It's a big deal. I would say that The Black Wall Street Times isn't solely going to play a role in it because I definitely, I'm always looking back at The Eagle and bridging the past to the present. I would say that both of us will play a big role together in presenting our narrative of 100 years since the worst massacre of black lives in America. As far as the paper goes, I'm prepared to take it nationally. Like officially nationally. We already had people reading it from all over the place, but that year, probably in 2020 moving into 2021 is when we'll start to push for a more national audience. Yup.

Lauren: Will it be a national audience or also national coverage, taking contributions from all around the country?

Nehemiah: Well, I would say, well both, really. National audience and taking contributions from everywhere. Yes.

Lauren: It won't be Tulsa-centric?

Nehemiah: Right, right.

Lauren: It will be more, here are the stories of black America rather than black Tulsa.

Nehemiah: Yes, that is. That is where we're headed

Lauren: There's surely a lot more competition at national level.

Nehemiah: Yes, there is.

Lauren: There are a lot of very successful black publications. How do you plan to compete?

Nehemiah: Well, I think for one, just the name alone, the Black Wall Street Times just reels you in. It's like, well, what is that? Everybody wants to be on Wall Street. Well, what is this Black Wall Street?The video blogging, that's something that is... or the vlogging is becoming really popular. We're definitely going to amp that up. I think because we have such a unique history here that that history alone is one of the things that will attract more people to what we're doing.

Lauren: Yes. A lot of people don't know. Back in the twenties people came from all over to live in Tulsa and build their lives here.

Nehemiah: Right.

Lauren: Black Americans would come from the coast to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma because they knew this is where you could build a successful life, and be a part of a thriving community. Do you think that still resonates with people around the country?

Nehemiah: Totally. If you look across the country, there are little Black Wall Streets everywhere. And people will start, oh this is Black Wall Street Barbershop in Miami. I'm like, "Do you know that we’re the original?” There's a Black Wall Street Row in Fort Worth, Texas. I went to Orlando last year and did a speech at Rollins College, and I remember they had their own little version of Black Wall Street. It's just, there's something about it. And I think also that, because we talk about issues around race and police brutality and we're always focused on the issues instead of some TMZ thing where so-and-so moved in front of so-and-so, and so-and-so snapped her head and she was upset. We're focused on things that actually affect black America. Yup.

Lauren: The question we always end with is, how would you encourage another entrepreneur who might be experiencing a failure or made a big mistake? How would you encourage them to keep pursuing these solutions to these problems?

Nehemiah: I would just say don't be afraid to try. I don't know what type of business they may have. I can't give them any advice on exactly what it is they need to do. But I will encourage them to go to Barnes & Noble's or go to Amazon and get books about what you're doing. That helped me out a lot. I bought books about how to brand myself, how to reach a larger audience with social media, just how to put an article together. I bought books to help me. You can go to YouTube. We're living in such a transparent age where you can get the information that you need in order to be successful. If that's what you really want. Never give up, have the discipline and the grit to sit down and just get it done. There's going to be times where you don't want to do something, but you have to push. Don't be afraid to get yourself out of your comfort zone.

Lauren: That’s good. Nehemiah, thank you so much for coming in to share your story and what you're working on. We wish you all the best of luck.

Nehemiah: Well, thank you for inviting me. I really appreciate you guys lending your platform.

Lauren: Next week on the F Word.

Muriel: I want to see who I am without this big corporation. And do I have the chutzpah to do my own business?

Lauren: Muriel Fahrion, the artist behind Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, talks about the highs and lows that led her to entrepreneurship.

Announcer: The F Word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's basecamp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community, and resources, visit 36n.co.