How entrepreneur Khadijah Robinson pivoted from criminal justice to economic justice

Khadijah Robinson achieved her childhood dream of becoming an attorney, graduating from Harvard Law School. The Spelman College alumna was on a fast track to becoming an assistant U.S. attorney when she made a shift. Seeing the bias and inhumanity toward Black people on a daily basis, she refocused her energies on economic justice. Robinson started The Nile List with a modest spreadsheet. Now it is a digital platform where “Nil-vigators” can browse through categories of hundreds of Black-made products. On the Dollars and Sense podcast, she talked about her journey and how she ended up in Nigeria during the height of the global pandemic. Here are some edited highlights.

How The Nile List got started

One of the things I did as my therapy when I started feeling really stressed about what was happening in court was I started going out and finding black businesses that I heard about, read and research, find different brands, and put them into a spreadsheet. I would learn about them. What kind of things do they sell? Who’s the founder? How did they start?

I would find so many dope businesses. This company makes a smoke that you can put in your bourbon to give it extra flavor. I would have never thought about that. Or this company makes batteries and who knew there was a Black-owned battery company? I did that in my spare time, whenever I wanted to de-stress. I got to 700 businesses and to the point where people started asking me for recommendations.

The criminal justice system is not about justice

Another awakening that led me to launching Nile — it seems a little unconnected, but it was that upfront, everyday exposure to the criminal justice system as a clerk sitting in the courtroom every day and night, being a part of that decision-making process when it came to the criminal defendants. Seeing that on a regular basis really shifted what I saw for myself…I just had to reorganize the way that I live my life. When I spend my money, where am I spending it, who am I supporting? I don’t want to give my dollar to somebody who was going to take that dollar and use it in a way that furthers this prison system…this criminal system that we have, because there’s not a lot of justice involved. But that experience really helped me shift a lot of things including how I spend my money.

How she ended up in Nigeria during the pandemic

I launched Nile on March 1, and I was so exhausted after that. I went to Nigeria to visit some family I have there and hang out for what I thought was going to be a couple weeks. The week before I was leaving, I was like, “yo, this COVID thing seems like it’s getting real interesting…I might have to stay a couple extra weeks in Nigeria. Man, I was in Nigeria until…eight months later.

One thing that I love about Nigeria is that it’s so entrepreneurial. There’s an up-and-coming tech scene. A lot of places are starting to outsource their tech talent in Nigeria. I met some awesome founders, and got tapped into some cool stuff that’s happening there. But there are some things that just fundamentally do not work in Nigeria. And I think there’s a baseline level of stress associated with living in a place where certain elements of infrastructure, and basic societal structure is either lacking or is being purposefully circumvented by authorities, which is why you see this End SARS movement popping up now. But the whole everybody is poor or living in huts and that kind of imagery people still have — you got to get that out of your mind, because there’s a lot happening in Nigeria.

Why it’s important to support Black entrepreneurs

When you come to our site, you can search by product and we will tell you different Black brands (Nilists)  that make and sell the products that you’re looking for — very simple, streamlined, online shopping with Black businesses. And now we are re-examining what we are offering product-wise and rebuilding our platform to make it even easier for people to connect with brands. And not just to shop but discover, just learn about the breadth and the variety of the things that black creatives and entrepreneurs are doing. So many things that I wished I could have bought, or wish that were available, I am now able to actually contribute to bringing those things to fruition.

Why Spelman was better than Harvard

I really view Spelman as my accomplishment and Harvard is like the icing on the cake. The Spelman experience has enriched my life in a way that is completely unparalleled by any other institution that I have been a part of. I dreamed of going to Spelman. My parents are all about HBCUs. They graduated from Alabama State. So I decided at age eight, I was going to go to Spelman.I was going to be a lawyer. Apparently, that really stuck. It was such a critical decision.

When I decided to go to Harvard, I entered that space in a way that so many Black folks do, of feeling fortunate to be there. I am happy that lasted for a short amount of time because I realized that a lot of these folks aren’t as smart as we think they are, and when you see them up close, and when you see them in action, you really get to understand and appreciate that at a different level.I was looking at some of my classmates, like, damn, I really wish that some of these hood people that I grew up with in Savannah had the same opportunity to be here, because they would have blown these people out of the water. It really changed my whole perspective.

The institution itself is built on a lot of the same mythology. If Spelman had…the same endowment that Harvard had, (Editor’s note: Harvard’s endowment is $40 billion; Spelman’s is $390 million) and had been able to benefit from that level of money and support, at a time when Black folks were being enslaved, we could be looking at our institutions and a societal sense in the same way that the Harvards are elevated. And Harvard Law was literally founded with slave money.