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Zenat Begum

The entrepreneur & organizer talks about feeding NYC and the WMNS Air Jordan III 'Laser Orange.'

All of Zenat Begum's efforts begin and end with community. In 2016, the first-generation Bengali-American opened Playground Coffee Shop in the former location of her father’s hardware store in Bed-Stuy. A Brooklyn native, Zenat has championed her young staff and neighbors by listening and adapting.

Since then, Playground has expanded to include Playground Annex (a bookstore and shop), Playground Radio and Playground Youth (a nonprofit). Most recently, Zenat and her peers have joined forces to set up refrigerators with free produce throughout the borough. To celebrate the release of the Air Jordan III 'Laser Orange,' a colorway inspired by strong women, we asked Zenat to share her story.

How did growing up in your father's hardware store impact your work ethic?

I'll start from the beginning. My dad's been a contractor; he's built houses before and has a lot of skills. He was very forward-thinking in manifesting the economic power that he never had before. That inspired me to work hard. In creating Playground, I wanted to pay homage to my dad and all of the opportunities he gave me as a child. Now, I’m able to create space and give opportunities to other folks.

What was the vision behind transforming your dad’s hardware store into a coffee shop?

At the time, I was enrolled in a liberal arts college, and I was studying at coffee shops, as many young people do. It's a place that supports creativity. I wanted to provide that experience for other people, too. We don't have a lot of sober spaces, where people can hang out during the daytime and get some work done. That was my primary focus — a place for people to utilize during the day, so that they can make advances in their own careers.

How has community outreach always been a cornerstone of your work?

Just to start Playground, I had to do community outreach. I reached out to people who are sign painters. I reached out to people who were making chairs. It took a village to make Playground, and it still does to maintain it. We’ve held town hall meetings to ask our neighborhood and community members what they want to see. We've had movie screenings, drives, bake sales, self-defense training, financial literacy classes, radio shows and more.

Knowing you’ve always done community work in the shop, how have you pivoted out of the shop by setting up the free produce refrigerators during quarantine?

We started doing mutual aid work not long after quarantine started. I was approached to do a community fridge by my friend, Priscilla Aguilar, who was a middle school peer of mine. They got the fridge and gave it to us the same day. We were immediately able to get produce from a friend of mine. Things fell into place so naturally.

You’re from Brooklyn, and basketball is woven into the fabric of New York City. Growing up, how did you connect with the game of basketball?

I remember just being a kid in New York, seeing who had the best sneakers and noticing who was on the court wearing what. New York is all about basketball and ball-oriented games, even handball. Seeing kids play basketball, particularly in public school, is a really inspiring way to come up on sports.

Today, you're rocking the Air Jordan III 'Laser Orange.' What do you think about this fresh take on such an iconic sneaker?

Sometimes, the colorways that come out can inspire the colors we bring into our own lives, if that makes sense. They can help guide what you wear. Every time there's a new shoe or a new color, it has the power to attract a different person or crowd. I think this colorway is going to reinstate a new love and appreciation for the shoe.

What's been the most valuable lesson you've learned as a small business owner, especially through this social and health pandemic?

What I've learned is that if you don't have community, you don't have anything. I was in a really rough spot at the beginning of quarantine. I'm very appreciative of the people who've kept me sane during the last few months, because this is not easy work. Playground is a place that has to be around forever, because we're doing the work. We're going to continue doing it, no matter what.

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