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Entrepreneurship
November 1, 2023

Driving Change In Motor City

Written by: Ann Byle

By Ann Byle

Blow-drys, babies and banking: Nia Linder Batts’ lessons in making a difference

NIA LINDER BATTS WANTED TO GET HER HAIR styled without driving miles out of her way, but nowhere in the city of Detroit could she find a convenient salon. As an African American, she searched in vain for a salon to meet her needs that didn’t require heading to the faraway suburbs.

When she couldn’t find what she needed, Batts knew just what to do. She and her business partners Katy Cockrel and actress Sophia Bush, all of whom invested in the company, created Detroit Blows, a downtown salon where women of all races and hair types could find excellent service.

This is just one example of the entrepreneurial spark that fires her efforts to drive change in her hometown. A dreamer and doer committed to inclusion, equity and diversity, Batts blends the heart of an artist with the head of a businesswoman.

She started her post-Columbia University career in New York City as a coordinator for Viacom’s marketing council and ended her time with the company as head of strategic partnerships and social innovation. In that role she helped both big and small nonprofits and large corporations bring notice to their philanthropic work, including GM—a major account based in Detroit that had her traveling back and forth to Michigan and set the stage for her search for a salon.

Detroit Blows opened in October 2017 to national headlines, magazine features and accolades including Inc.’s “100 Women Building America’s Most Innovative and Ambitious Businesses” in 2019. But Batts had even bigger plans than the salon. She founded Detroit Grows, a nonprofit that provides micro grants to female entrepreneurs with a portion of the profits from the salon as well as private donations.

Nia Linder Batts' Photo

“If you take the opportunity to step back, you can see the board more clearly and then plug the holes.”

LESSON ONE: STEP BACK

Detroit Blows didn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered businesses across hard-hit Detroit. What continues to survive is the nonprofit providing funding for entrepreneurs.

“We may explore a return, but the real legacy of Detroit Blows is Detroit Grows,” says Batts. “I look forward to continuing the work of Detroit Grows and continuing making grants in the city.”

Therein lies the first lesson Batts has learned on her entrepreneurial journey. “Sometimes if you take the opportunity to step back, you can see the board more clearly and then plug the holes,” she says of seeing a gap in Detroit services and filling it with her salon.

She spotted similar holes in her work with Viacom, where she helped the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation develop conversations around education in part through funds for research, grants, and new school networks. She and her team had help from basketball legend LeBron James and superstar singer Kelly Clarkson, who talked about their educational journeys via the “Get Schooled” National Education Initiative and a television special called “Get Schooled.” Viacom and the Gates Foundation partnered in Get Schooled to also further the conversation around school attendance among lawmakers, educators, parents, and students.

LESSON TWO: BUILD RELATIONSHIPS

Batts is now working with Detroit Public Schools via the company EQUALSIGN, with help from rapper Big Sean, to get kids excited about school, involve parents and provide wraparound services such as health care, counseling services, and food support—especially needed in the time of COVID-19. Which has led to Batts’ lesson No. 2.

“It’s so important to build relationships and build partnerships,” she says. “So much of what we do is dependent on relationships. All of us have trajectories and goals. When we understand at a base level and know what we want to achieve, we can connect with others along the way.”

Batts has been building relationships from the start, leveraging them to better the community around her, as well as the wider world. Which led to her next discovery.

Nia Linder Batts' Photo

LESSON THREE: RECOGNIZE CONNECTIONS

Batts realized that “there is a relationship between the macro and the micro,” she says of lesson three. “I was the youngest member of the executive team at Viacom, and GM in Detroit was one of the biggest clients at Viacom.”

Those connections took her back to Detroit where she became interested in what she calls “the politics of hair” and wanting to get hands-on about community development. She created a place for females of color (and all women) to get their hair and nails done, where they were cared for and where hospitality was elevated to a new level—with a dollar from each blowout going to Detroit Grows.

That investment led to the development and creation of Birth Detroit, which first opened an easy-access pre- and postnatal care clinic in 2020 and will open its birthing center this year. Batts is on the board of directors and volunteers as a birth doula.

LESSON FOUR: BE FLEXIBLE

The coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rancorous 2020 election forced Batts to think deeply about her fourth lesson: the plan changes.

“We didn’t plan on Detroit Blows closing, but from the beginning we wanted part of its legacy to be the work of the not-for-profit arm, Detroit Grows,” she says. “We continue to see connections manifest through the work of our grantees, like Birth Detroit. We set out to build a business that thought about how to deliver a service to women immediately, but also support them in the long term.”

Batts is a proud board member of Birth Detroit, “which is doing such important work providing safe and loving care to birthing people in the community.” But they still need a lot of support on the journey, she says. “We want to celebrate Black women in Detroit when they vote in record numbers when an election is on the line, but do we keep supporting them when their lives are literally on the line?”

Batts has a few other irons in the fire. She is founding partner of EQUALSIGN, a C-suite diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy dedicated to helping create equitable and diverse solutions for businesses in the new inclusive economy.

“I was gutted that it took the world watching the murder of a Black man at the hands of the police, in the midst of a global pandemic, to force people to look internally at themselves and at the unjust systems they perpetuate, but I think it has challenged all of us to move the conversation and the work forward. We’re not yet talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in every aspect of our personal and professional lives,” she says.

Nia Linder Batts' Photo

“This is the perfect opportunity to… be in relentless pursuit of the world we want to live in.”

MOMENT OF RECKONING

Batts is also one of five principals in the relaunched Union Heritage Capital, an independent investment management firm where her father, Derek Batts, is managing partner and CEO. She is applying her passion for building equitable communities to the financial services industry where, she says, referencing a Knight Foundation study, almost 99% of money is controlled by white men.

Her father, a fund manager for 30 years, is happy to have her part of that discussion. He’s watched her come full circle from her internship at the company in high school when she wasn’t that interested in finance, to now using her passion for creating pathways to wealth for underserved communities and overcoming systemic disparities in that same business.

Derek Batts sees three main strengths in his daughter, gained starting from the time she ran track in high school to her years with Viacom. He describes her as a critical thinker who “has a sophisticated process of critical thinking and analyzing large amounts of data to understand trends and demands.”

He also credits her communication skills and her ability to “relate complex concepts in understandable formats,” as well as her desire to focus on impact. “She sees how products, content, the environment, and other things have an impact on consumers,” he says. “She wants to level the playing field whether in terms of gender equality, food sufficiency, fresh water or micro lending. That impact is rooted in balancing and rooting out inequity, particularly systemic inequity.”

Nia Linder Batts isn’t all business all the time, however. She is executive director of the Modern Ancient Brown Foundation, which works at the intersection of visual and literary arts in Detroit with and through the artist McArthur Binion, and supports the work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists.

Rescue pit bull Rowan takes up a lot of time and energy. A music lover, Batts also enjoys learning about new artists and attending festivals and fairs. She married her architect husband, Patrick Linder, in 2020; their move from Detroit’s Midtown to Lafayette Park is a reflection of their shared dedication to the Motor City.

“This is a moment of reckoning in our country, and the work feels big and expansive because at this point it has to be,” says Batts. “This is the perfect opportunity to make substantive change in a variety of industries, to be in relentless pursuit of the world we want to live in from wherever we stand. I’m optimistic, and I know there are many hard days ahead, but I really do believe that if we stay committed to this path we will learn how to thrive.”

Ann Byle is a writer for national and local magazines, as well as author or co-author of a number of books. Her most recent include The Revell Story: Offering Hope and Help to Readers for 150 Years and, with three other freelance writers, the e-book The Joy of Working at Home. She and her science-teacher husband and four young adult children live in West Michigan.