Nahjee Grant is an American social entrepreneur who has founded several companies, including Cool Smart Learning Centre. Grant has created a learning facility that tutors school children techniques in resilience and mental well being, which is being rolled out in schools across Philadelphia and other states in the USA. He is also the author of nine children's books.
Laura: Tonight, I'm excited to welcome Nahjee Grant. Nahjee Grant runs his own business, he is also an author. And he's an all-round, very interesting entrepreneur. Hi Nahjee, how are you?
Nahjee: Laura, how are you? My favourite!
Laura: I’m great! I know, It's almost like you're kind of in my living room. You're far away over in the US, so it's lunchtime there. It's kind of coming up to evening time here. So welcome, Nahjee, I know you’ve viewed a few of my Instagram lives and also, we've worked together with one of your companies. And I wanted to kind of give a brief introduction and then ask you to introduce yourself as well. So, this is Nahjee Grant everybody and he lives in the US and he runs several different companies, but the one I know a little bit about is something called Cool Smart Kid, which is a learning centre. And the idea and premise behind that are to give school children the skills to help with their reasoning skills, their mental health, and wellbeing. So that is one of Najee’s companies, and he is also a very established author for children as well. So welcome, Nahjee!
Nahjee: You know, you're the true Queen of England. When I got the request, I had to come. I don't do a lot of interviews, but you are my buddy Laura so I appreciate you for having me.
We were teaching in school but because of the pandemic, we've shifted to online. I appreciate you for helping out. I'm a children's author, which I started about 10 years ago and now we have about 15 books in the catalogue. We do at least one or two a year. We just wrapped up our last one last week and we have two more that we are working on for this summer. So, it's more about keeping the ball rolling with the children's books and publishing. I also run a children’s not for profit as well, we donate books to libraries in underserved communities throughout the Greater Philadelphia area here in the States. So, our work is literacy-based, community-based, it’s about doing our best to uplift and motivate our kids here in the US.
Laura: Absolutely, and hopefully in the UK, we do unfortunately lag slightly behind the US, as regards implementing and integrating mental health and wellbeing into the workplace and schools here. I do think we can definitely learn from you our US cousins about how to do that, and also implement things like cool smart kids, or other types of mental health and wellbeing in our daily life, for adults as well. I just think it's a really interesting concept and it comes from experience, doesn’t it? The fact that you started writing your books, do you want to give other kids an understanding of your experience of your childhood and what happened? Do you want to expand on your background and how you came to be a children's author?
Nahjee: Well, I guess you know it very well from teaching this session. When I was in high school, I wasn't a great student and I end up failing my first year in high school. This happened because due to a lack of, well I would say lack of respect for myself. In fact, I didn't care about my education. I didn't care about going to class. I was focused on other things and it caught up with me because I ended up failing a lot and I had to redo 9th grade again. It taught me a lot about falling behind, not staying focused on the things that are the most important to you and I ended up getting myself back together, but it took a while for me to get there. And you know my senior year in high school, I was just plugging along, trying to graduate on time because I was so far behind. I took a class for writing short stories, a creative writing course that was almost mandatory because I needed the extra credit to graduate with my class. And that was the only class in my whole four years in high school that I enjoyed. It was different from the traditional classes, you know, math, science, social studies, history. I got creative in that course, I was doing very well and the teacher was also encouraging me. If it’s something you want to pursue, the sky is the limit for you and she was tough on me as well. When I graduated, I was just trying to find my way like everyone else. When I graduated high school and I said, you know, what? Let's see where these short stories can go. Let's see where we can go with these and I ended up perfecting my craft while still working my quote-unquote nine to five and trying to figure out how to make money etc. And I got in touch with the illustrator who I happened to know since I was in kindergarten. She was the best artist in elementary school, middle school and high school in our schools and I ended up getting with her to do our first book and it just took off after that. You know, year after year, we just kept pushing one book after another and then just end up, five years in, it became my full-time career.
Laura: It's so difficult to imagine now, because obviously, I know you as a very successful businessman, that that happened all those years ago. But I think it is really important to talk to kids, we talk a lot about role models in your workshops and about how to find that role model. It could be a teacher. It could be someone at home. It could be maybe a family member like an uncle or someone from the community, your church leader or someone else who inspires you. And in your case, it was that person that you met, that encourage you. And you probably wouldn't think about writing or being creative in that way if there hadn't been for meeting that person.
Nahjee: Right, yeah, honestly, it was more than that. There was a very encouraging teacher and I appreciate her for that. Also, when I graduated in 2007, which feels like a lifetime ago, right? That was when Senator Barack Obama was running for president and that's what jolted me to focus on what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school. I wrote down a massive plan for my life for the next five years. And I said, let's see how different my life can change if I pursue everything on this list. I wrote down, I wanted to be a children's author. I wanted to run for public office, I wanted to be a community organiser, I want to be a business owner. I want to be a radio host, TV host, I wanted to do all these different things. I wrote them all down and I pursued every single one of them on that list. One way or another, whether it came true or not, I tackled everything on that list. So, Barack Obama became my mentor from afar, I never met him. But just through his actions and everything that he was able to accomplish, and I looked up to him, that moment changed my life as well. You know, your mentor does not have to be anyone that you know, it could be through books, it could be through magazines, interviews. There are plenty of people who are doing great work that you can look up to from afar, channel them and model your life after these successful people.
Laura: Oh, absolutely yeah, and having somebody to inspire me or just kind of look up to, I think even as an adult is very important. And of course, that person might change as you get older or there might be new people. I guess for me it's probably artists and people like that. You know, probably people that had already died like Vincent Van Gogh. As an adult, I will say I love later a comedian, she is famous here, she is called Jo Brand and she's just absolutely brilliant. She's written a whole series of autobiographies and they're just so funny and she's just a brilliant, brilliant woman. So yeah, I love that Barack Obama was super important for you he is globally famous, everybody knows him.
Nahjee: Absolutely, and again in certain neighbourhoods, in certain environments, it's hard to find those people, and a majority of the other people are not in the same mindset as the role models. So, guys, I just shared its importance, if there's no one in your immediate community or neighbourhood that you can look up to, the library has plenty of people dead or alive. Also, the internet, you know, just navigating through the negative to get to the positives.
Laura: Oh, definitely, so does he still inspire you today? Or have you found someone since Barack Obama that inspires you?
Nahjee: I’m inspired every day. Of course, there are things that I watch from afar that inspires me
Laura: Definitely because of the past year, we’ve all have to be very creative in the way we worked, how we've changed and adapted to the pandemic. Have you got like a moment in your career thus far? Do you want to share with us? That was quite exciting for you. Do you get a story to share?
Nahjee: Ha-ha so I. I thought about this last night and I'm like I had. I wrote down so many things that I thought I wrote in the Bible in one night. But that one that stands out for me. So, a couple of years ago I had an author visit at an elementary school. And the day before the event, I would always normally get a brief note about how many kids, what age range, stuff like that, so I know how to prepare for it. And it's a one day that I did not get anything the day before. And I woke up late that morning and I didn't eat breakfast. And I get to that I drive an hour away to the school. I'm hungry, I'm tired and I have no idea who is going to be there. And I get there, and I say OK so where is the classroom, so that I can do my thing, and do my story time. And the Principal goes, classroom? No, we're not going to the classroom today. And am like, where we going? To the hallway or somewhere else. She goes, no we are going into the auditorium. And I'm like for what, you know. And she goes, oh because the whole school was coming. I'm like what do you mean, the whole grade level of their school. You know, I’m tired. I'm hungry, I'm like wiping my eyes, what are you talking about. It ended up being an auditorium with a school presentation for the entire school, staff, everybody was there. There were over 500 people. So, I went to the bathroom. I said excuse me for one second, can I go the bathroom real quick. I jumped into the bathroom. I wiped my face, I slapped myself like four or five times, like now you got to get it together, right? And I ended up pulling it off. And I was extremely tired and hungry when I was finished, but I remember that moment.
It was funny, you never know what's going to happen, whether you are prepared or not prepared. And it was just a good learning moment because I thought to myself man, two years ago I was just trying to get my books out there and just being new and fresh, and here you are performing in front of hundreds of people, but you're just like not prepared for it mentally. So that's kind of my funniest moment where I said, you know what I go to, I'm happy that I'm in this moment, but you got to be a little bit more prepared because you never know what present during the day, so that was funny.
Laura: Sometimes it can work though, not being completely 100% prepared. I think you can work yourself into a tizzy, especially as you get older, you do almost too much preparation for everything. And when you are younger, you sort of launch into things without knowing anything about whatever it is.
Nahjee: Laura you're all wholeheartedly correct. I also share with you that in my first ever public speaking engagement back in 2010, I was only talking to five people. And I was so nervous, I over planned. I was so focused on this little small presentation and I was so nervous. I remember jumping, going to the bathroom and trying and get my nerves together.. And just like trying to focus on what I wrote down instead of having it come naturally to me.
Laura: That's right, when I started doing these videos, I was saying um and ah all the time, and now I've almost completely edited that out, which is brilliant, just from practice. There's no other reason for it. Just doing something over and over again does help perfect whatever it is you're trying to get better at. So, I want to ask you, what are you working on at the moment. Are you working on writing a new book or there are other projects that you're working on?
Nahjee: Yes, we have a few projects that we're working on. We just wrapped up the last book, two different books. One book called Aaron and the Police give Back to the Community, which is a book on community policing that is very important. At least I know here in the United States. You know how the community can engage in a positive way with police officers, especially in underserved communities. We just finished that book and now we're working on getting this working with police departments all across the country, and engaging with youths all across the communities.
And then we have a new book that we are working on called Sold by Tina which I'm working on with a real estate agent teaching kids on how to invest and learn how to sell real estate. how to build generational wealth through real estate and other strategies from an early age. There's plenty of books for teens and young adults but we're trying to indoctrinate, feeding this information from a young age.
Laura: Really important, you are right because I remember I attended an Instagram live, similarly on this very topic. And you know how some kids are brought up with that kind of thing, understanding money better, understanding good debt and bad debt, things like that. And then all of sudden you become an adult and you can’t buy a house, you are earning a salary, and there is a pension. When I was at school, there's no information at all about it. The only way I learned that was through my parents. So, if you're not learning that at home, how are you supposed to be learning it? It’s so important.
Nahjee: You are correct. If you don't get it from home, you know you're not going to get it at school, right. So, if you don't get it from first-hand experience from someone in your family or from someone who you know who does that particular work, you're not going to get it anywhere. So, we're trying to put this into the books, so it’s not only just for the kids, but, for the families and the adults who are reading for the kids, they also gain that perspective as well. Then lastly, apart from this program, we are also working on an initiative to reduce gun violence ere in Philadelphia. Here in the United States, there's a big emphasis on reducing gun violence, especially for the youth. So, we are working on a program to curtail that as well. Through literacy, financial literacy and wealth-building strategies? So, it's not just about how to get guns out of the kid’s hands but focus on the root causes of it to where hopefully in the long term, it’s not even on their mind on even needing or using a gun. They focus on so many other things in the future that they are not even focused on needing the tools like a gun. So again, these are some of the programs that we're working on, hopefully over the spring and summer or the summer and fall, we can make that a reality.
Laura: Yeah. And like you said earlier, early intervention is really important with all of this kind of thing, keeping kids out of crime as much as possible.
Nahjee: So, I appreciate that, we've been doing this for the past ten years. But I will say this. I do keep in touch with people who reach out, especially some students who are older now. So, I was at a store last Saturday and I walked by, I see a kid, but he's a young adult now. I walked past him and he gives me this look like he kind of knows me, he doesn't know me, I'm not sure, I walked past them, I bought what I was buying. As I'm at the register, he approaches me and says, do you have any more books out. And I didn’t look directly at him, I have to look up because he is twice the size of me. He's 14 years old, he is twice the size of me and I remember him from a couple of years ago in elementary school with me reading to him, and now he's a full-grown man, but I appreciate those moments where he can remember me, he remembers the messages that I was conveying to him, like in my speech. And he knows that I write books and he was inspired as well, so that's what keeps me going when I see people like that through my journey,
Laura: I think like from working in education as well, it's just wonderful to see people develop over the years and then use the knowledge that you’ve impacted and use that in their daily life too, improve themselves or just be better citizens. I just think it’s quite a responsibility Nahjee. And then going back to your books and the point that the illustrations are a key part of children's book writing and publishing, aren’t they? The illustrations, especially when a child is learning to read. The reader may not understand all of the words in the book. Is it important for you that the images and the feel of your brand reflects your vision? Do you have a lot of input into how those books look in terms of their visuals?
Nahjee: Very good question. Yeah, so I have complete control over the whole process of my books, right? So yeah, as an independent publisher, though I also have an agent and I also go through the traditional route of publishing as well. But for my own publishing company that has total flexibility. The illustrations are very, very important for me. We just actually just published, I collaborated on a baby book that comes out today with the organization that I collaborated with. And I said, well, they can't read, writing for newborns, but it's important to have a good story, and the illustrations have to be on point. So that's most important and I make sure that I collaborate with people who are very knowledgeable on, not just how to convey or bring out my story, but also like again if let's say there was no text, they can just follow the illustration.
Laura: Yeah, like you know, little kids sort of point at things. I think like one of the most successful childhood stories was Peppa Pig, which I think it’s also big in the US as well. Little kids could recognise and understand the little characters and family members and things like that and that’s why it was so successful. So just the idea that they recognize themselves in the characters in Peppa Pig. And that's what they could do with your book. They won’t necessarily understand all of the concepts or complicated narratives behind the story you are telling. Nahjee, we are running out of time, I know that we could talk for much longer!
Nahjee: Yeah, I think I can talk to the Queen of England all day!
Laura: I know, we have to do another one in few months. So tell me, where do you want to be in five years or 10 years? Because you seem to have achieved rather a lot already.
Nahjee: I appreciate that, I don't know. I always come up with five-year plans to keep me focus on the vision I have for myself and others. I could see our books becoming movies, TV shows, having other mediums that are we can use for a story tell and other areas. I’ve been a community organizer for quite some time. You never know, in the next five years you could see me in a different role politically. So yes, it could be something in the political realm, political spheres or having our books converted into movies. Technology is going to add to how we expand and serve more people.
Laura: I'm thinking Disney, Netflix. Amazon.
Nahjee: They are all nice, I can think of all of them plus more, I think that is needed. I think they're more diverse and diversity is always good for everybody. I think we have a lot of stories that people can relate to. And again, how do we serve more people, if the answer is TV, streaming, whatever it is, I am all for it.
Laura: Absolutely, before we go, how can we contact you? What's your website or do you like people to follow you on Instagram?
Nahjee: Yeah, appreciate it. My website is nahjegrant.com My Instagram is Nahjee. Obviously, I am here on Instagram, and on Facebook, my handle is iamnahjee. And am also Nahjee on LinkedIn If anyone's in business networking, social networking as well, but yeah, look me up on Google and you'll find me.
Laura: Absolutely, Nahjee thank you so much. It's been wonderful chatting with you. And yes, all the best with everything, I know we're going to keep in touch anyway.
Nahjee: Laura, where we've been best friends for a couple of months now so you're stuck with me for a long time.
Laura: I know. It seems like a lot longer; it was like February or something that I met you officially. But it does seem like a long time already, and yes, very, very excited to get to know you better and be more involved in your learning centre. And yeah, thanks so much for joining me.
Nahjee: See you soon, thank you.