Like many theater rats, the actress Delissa Reynolds had juggled auditions with an on-and-off office job, “daylighting” as a temp at Citibank. She had some success as an actor, even landing two roles on Law and Order. But by 2002, Reynolds faced a reckoning in a field notoriously challenging for anyone who dares to age, particularly women. “I was 40, and did not want to be a 50-year-old temp,” she said.
9/11, still fresh in New Yorkers’ minds, had already led her to question how she could be more involved in her community. “So, while I figured out what’s next, I supported the firefighters because they had lost quite a few of their guys,” she said. “Once a week, I’d host a dinner. It was just beans and rice and boxed wine. And I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have something like these gatherings, but in a bigger space?’” That idea became Bar Sepia, one of a few small businesses that helped build a vibrant block in a then-rough part of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn—before a wave of development gentrified the neighborhood, and a new landlord decided to sell the building where her business was located. Earlier this year, her bar closed.
As an African American woman, Reynolds was at the forefront of one of the fastest-growing groups of entrepreneurs in America—but her experience also showed her how banks, funders, and developers need to repeatedly invest to ensure those entrepreneurs’ businesses survive. I spoke with Reynolds for The Atlantic’s series Exit Interview to learn about what it feels like pour yourself into a business and run it with integrity. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.