July 14, 2020
Deborah Koenigsberger: A Reflection on Her Life as a Black Leader and Business Owner
Deborah Koenigsberger is the owner of the French-inspired boutique, Noir et Blanc; the founder and CEO of the nonprofit, Hearts of Gold; and the passion behind its resale boutique store, The Thrifty HoG. She is a successful businesswoman who has made time to help those in need. We thought that, in her role as a black business owner and community leader, Deborah would have a unique perspective on the pandemic, economic meltdown, and the massive call for social justice building in America.
A steadfast optimist, Deborah put her interview with us in this context: These difficult times provide us a unique opportunity. She says that at this moment in history, people are listening. Over the past few months, Deborah has been able to speak to a wide range of people, engage in new fundraising opportunities, and circulate her message. She explains how right now, our society has a special chance to better itself. We have the opportunity during the lockdown to stop, notice, and care . . . we have time to listen to each other.
Deborah’s Drive Makes Her Successful in Business and in Her Charity Work
We asked Deborah how she came to found Hearts of Gold and the Thrifty Hog.
She explained that as a longtime NYC resident, homelessness in her neighborhood had always seemed to be a problem that she couldn’t possibly combat. However, Deborah realized that even if she couldn’t change the world, she could affect one person’s life.
What began simply with volunteering at a church and then a shelter for homeless mothers and children, snowballed into Deborah taking on leadership roles within the organization. Alongside makeup designer Bobbi Brown, Deborah organized personalized gifts for the children and their mothers to bring excitement and smiles to these individuals’ lives. Wanting to do more, Deborah raised money so that gifts and resources could be provided consistently. However, after the shelter couldn’t promise where her funds would be directed, the idea to begin her own non-profit emerged.
Deborah has seen the injustices in society and the failure of our economic system to provide for everyone. This is why for 26 years she has dedicated her time to helping homeless mothers and children by providing them with resources, job training, and support as they transition out of NYC shelter systems and into permanent homes.
We asked Deborah where she is today and how she pressed on during the pandemic?
Today, Deborah has developed her non-profit into a sustainable organization, which she has expanded to include a learning center for children, a retail boutique store to employ and train mothers, a cultural exposure camp, and more.
Throughout the pandemic and shutdown, Deborah has had to navigate new territory with her retail stores Noir et Blanc and the Thrifty HoG, while addressing the pressing social needs exacerbated by the economic downturn. While Hearts of Gold has its usual on-going services, there are always special needs to address from time to time. In the current crisis, most of the mothers are not receiving unemployment benefits, and are now more vulnerable than ever. However, Deborah is on it. No one works harder than she does to see that the lives of these women and their children are made better and brighter.
While Deborah normally has many helping hands around to contribute to the efforts of Hearts of Gold and the Thrifty HoG, Deborah has been working alone during the pandemic to keep herself and others safe.
She has taken upon herself the enormous task of organizing, shopping, packing, and distributing supplies to families, and has converted the Thrifty HoG retail space into a packing and distribution center for supplies for homeless mothers and children in the area.
From providing laptops for school children to food packages for families and snack kits for kids, Deborah has redoubled her outreach to the very needy while continuing to fund-raise to make it all possible. When we asked her what the best way to help her efforts is, Deborah replied that donations are greatly needed right now and especially as demand continues to spike. Sponsoring supplies for one family costs $65. (To encourage donations, Hearts of Gold is also sending donors a tote bag in appreciation.)
In one interview with The Business Journals, Deborah explains how “As a business owner, if you are thriving it is because you are taking from your community. So, there is a responsibility to give back. If you lift it up, that makes it better for you, too.” All of this tells you why Deborah is a great business person, a generous worker for the poor, and a well-rounded human being. She has shown that one person can made a difference — a huge difference, but it takes love, understanding, and lots of work.
Understanding the Experience of a Black Business Owner
As a black business owner for 31 years, Deborah has certainly been successful. However, this has not come without a great many challenges and personal encounters with racism. Her experiences would be lamentable under any circumstances, but when someone as wonderfully successful and generous as Deborah has to endure them, one is struck by the depth of the injustice.
To those who have not experienced prejudice, it is hard to see and sometimes difficult to understand how hurtful a simple statement might be. While most of Deborah’s experiences are amiable, she frequently faces subtle racism in the comments and assumptions of various customers and in varied social circumstances. Deborah recalls instances when customers have come into the stores and asked to speak to the owner. When Deborah tells them that she is the owner, the natural “oh, wow” response shows that this is clearly not what they expected. This response of surprise confirms the customer’s preconceptions about her based on the color of her skin. In addition, when people hear of her many successes, accomplishments, and worldly travels, the resulting shock confirms how she exceeds their impoverished expectations and judgements of her.
Deborah explains how many white people have come to have a pre-conceived negative image when they see a black woman. Therefore, they may feel uncomfortable or confused when these expectations are challenged. Deborah affirms that this is not the norm, but when it occurs it is no less wounding. Luckily, she also experiences the pride and happiness that black people often express for her accomplishments.
Deborah understands that these white people likely don’t even know that they are being offensive. This form of racism is typically not explicit or intentional, but the sad truth is that people often make snap assumptions based on the color of one’s skin and put them into a “box.” Deborah is someone who is full of love for everyone around her, and it saddens her to see people judge others based on the skin that they are born into, instead of the content of their character.
People’s minds are wired to constantly search for ways to categorize those around them and sort them into social classifications. Deborah has seen this time and time again as people try to put her into a “box.” For example, at birthday parties for her best friend’s children, Deborah has been asked if she is the baby nurse or the aide. When she replies that she is just a friend of the family, people often inquire as to how she knows them. Through these experiences, Deborah has come to realize that if you are different, you won’t belong until people can figure out how to put you in a box that makes sense to them.
Similarly, when Deborah tells people that she has two sons, she is often met with remarks such as “that must be tough,” as if having black sons is difficult in ways that having white children is not. When people hear that her sons, now in their mid-twenties, attend Yale and Middlebury, she is met with surprise. The shock at the fact that her sons are very smart and successful stems from harmful stereotypes.
Deborah’s Optimistic Outlook and Fighting Spirit
Deborah knows that there is much more good in the world than bad. She says she sees it every day and relays how it is so important for people to trust and believe that.
Having moved to New York from Jamaica at ten years old, and coming from a multi-ethnic background, Deborah says that she has the heart of an immigrant. She explains how a true immigrant has one agenda: to work hard and make something of themselves. Deborah has followed this ethic her entire life, always moving forward. Despite ongoing challenges, her determination and hard work have made her successful and has allowed her to touch the lives of many around her. NoMad is truly fortunate to have Deborah as a pivotal part of the community, and she has a lot to teach all of us.
Contribute to Deborah’s Charitable Efforts
If you would like to learn more and contribute to Deborah’s amazing work helping homeless mothers and their children, please visit the Hearts of Gold website here: https://www.heartsofgold.org/.