For Two Brooklyn Entrepreneurs, Wins On and Off the Court Start With Teamwork
Producer Elle Clay and coffee shop owner Zenat Begum share a passion for their Bed-Stuy neighborhood and community activism, but the people around them fuel their success.
“Game Recognize Game” is a series of head-to-head discussions among peers in the worlds of sport and creativity to unpack how they accomplish wins on and off the court.
Elle Clay knew both Playground Coffee Shop in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and the shop’s owner, Zenat Begum, were special from the moment she walked into the cafe.
“I’m a bit of a coffee snob [and] would just kind of pop around the neighborhood to different coffee spots,” recalls Elle. But this visit wasn’t just about a good roast, she had seen Zenat on Instagram and been inspired by her work. “So, I came in and I asked for [her]. I looked around, and I was like, Ooh, it feels different in here.”
Indeed, Zenat’s Playground isn’t like other coffee shops. Since it opened in 2016, it has become a community hub. In addition to serving great coffee, as Elle’s endorsement affirms, the café is also a space for poetry readings, workshops, radio broadcasts and book swaps (neighbors are free to leave or pick up a book). In the past year, Playground has also participated in a community fridge initiative that launched across New York City, in which neighbors donate food and others can take what they need.
Zenat learned the ins and outs of managing a small business from her father, who owned a hardware store in the same location for 20 years. Elle also knows what it’s like to take lead on a project from the ground up. She's the founder of Wild Child NYC, a production company that specializes in experimental storytelling and marginalized narratives. She hosts her own podcasts and has worked on a number of other projects in film and audio.
Elle and Zenat’s combined love for their Brooklyn neighborhood and community activism, as well as passion for their businesses, turned them into fierce collaborators on events at the multi-use Playground space. Here, they discuss how they each build successful teams around them to support their community and what role basketball (another shared love) has had in their work.
Elle: Zenat, since I met you, you have been about your ’hood. You’ve always been about the community. When COVID hit, Playground really separated itself from everyone by taking the lead to really embrace the community and provide resources for people protesting, but also food with your community refrigerators. How did you, I won’t say pivot because you’ve always done community work, but how did you go from being inside the shop to outside the shop?
Zenat: An old friend from high school brought the idea of doing a community fridge to me. The farmers’ markets have been overproducing vegetables and produce for the last few months. They’ve just been handing it out or distributing from the food banks. I put out some Bat-Signals, and before I knew it, we were up and running. Then I started meeting Playground regulars and locals who were taking from the fridge every day. This was an array of service workers, essential workers, people who work on construction sites, people who run day cares and couldn’t stop going to work because it would be a detriment to their finances. While I’m talking to you, I’m actually looking over at the fridge. Almost 10 people have dropped by in the last hour to drop stuff off and also pick stuff up. The project has been going really amazingly. There have been hiccups along the way, as many projects do... But you have to work past that because a greater vision is that we’re feeding people at a time that it’s desperately needed.
Elle: How do you problem-solve and manage your team when there are hiccups?
Zenat: There was a huge hiccup when I realized, “Oh, wait, I’ve been devoting all my time to [the community fridges], and I still have a whole coffee shop to run.” If I want the Playground staff to understand me and be able to effectively communicate with me, they’re going to have to get involved [as well]. So, everybody was super on board and understood that hiccups are part of the journey. The hiccups have been a great reminder to keep myself humble.
The people that you often get inspired by are the people who you’re surrounding yourself with, right? So how do you decide what kinds of people or friends to bring in to help execute your vision?
Elle: I think a lot of it’s based on feeling. It’s based on the energy between the person. I can say you and I are compatible, because we’re both earth signs. I’m a Capricorn, and you’re a Virgo.
Zenat: Let’s get grounded, baby.
Elle: We understand how to work in tandem…But I think it’s also really about people who inspire me. I think it’s about being able to see the potential in what we can create together, but also about their energy and their kind of bandwidth…if they’re available, if they’re excited, enthused about it.
Zenat: Part of being a team leader and also being a team player is knowing people’s strengths and weaknesses and how to amplify and uplift people, but also to work around some of the things that they might not be so interested in or even have any knowledge of.
“The hiccups have been a great reminder to keep myself humble.”
So, Elle, when you are working with collaborators, how do you set up a team play?
Elle: I think that I’m learning with each project. This is what this is about. Ball is life. Having been a basketball player and coach, having been a [producer] and production assistant, I know you have to be able to clearly communicate with people and make sure that you’re always on the same page. It really is about the team. If my goal is to win and I see that my teammate is not necessarily working as hard as I know they can, then we have to do a check-in. We have to figure out how to recalibrate and restructure responsibilities.
Zenat: Tell me, what are your strengths and your weaknesses when you’re managing a team? How have you learned to move past the weaknesses?
Elle: I think one of my strengths as a producer is trusting my vision. I can’t have my team trying to execute my vision if I don’t even trust it. My weakness is having clear lines between friendship and collaborators…and not taking things personally. I’m sensitive and criticism can feel like rejection, or it can feel mean-spirited. Being able to trust the relationship and know that this person is giving me this feedback so that I can better myself, that’s been something that I’ve really had to adjust to and deal with.
Zenat: I think it’s a good indicator of what your character is when you’re able to work with people who are very different from you and still produce something that’s amazing and radical. It’s about the storytellers that you will meet down the line and being able to perfectly use your lens to capture their narrative.
Elle: The chemistry with your team is unmatched. Everybody is a role player, but also no one hesitates when there are moments to step up and perform. And that’s how you win championships, baby!
Zenat: Totally. I think that’s important because it’s also understanding that [wins] come in many different ways. [They] might not happen during an event where everything is amazing, but maybe on a day where somebody left us a review saying, “Playground has the best coffee.” It feels organic, you know?
Elle: It’s really organic. It’s about being locked in and understanding what the vision is and agreeing to say you’re all going to execute the vision properly.
Zenat: Even before you generate your vision, you have to cultivate your vision. You have to put in place things to harvest your vision. I like to bring everything back to farming. We are humans that require a lot of tenderness and care. If we’re guarded toward the people around us, then we won’t work effectively. And this won’t be a positive experience for anyone.
Elle: You have to nurture yourself if you’re going to really nurture other people.
Zenat: How do you find time to center yourself before you go into work?
Elle: I’m still working on that. I think right now, some people have had a lot of time to get to know themselves on a different level, dealing with processing an overwhelming emotion with what’s happening right now. So I think before all of this, that wasn’t a priority for me, to think about how do I fortify myself? How do I reset, restore and kind of maintain or achieve some sort of balance? In the last few months, I think my pace is slower, but steadier...and just trying to figure out how to incorporate things that are good: self-care and going for walks, working out, meditating.
Zenat: You’re playing basketball, I’m sure.
Elle: Listen, I’m out there. They’re not ready for me around here.
Zenat: I haven’t seen you on the courts.
Elle: I keep it off the ’gram because I’m a little rusty and a little dusty, but I’m back out there.
Word: Darian Harvin
Video: Travis Wood
Reported: November 2020