Go ahead—underestimate Sophia Bush and Nia Batts. They’ve seen it all before. Yes, Batts was one of the youngest Black executives at a media conglomerate ever. Sure, Bush rose to stardom on shows such as One Tree Hill and Chicago P.D., becoming a professional multihyphenate along the way. The women are activists, entrepreneurs and advisers—and growing names in the angel-investing scene. And people have discounted their expertise and experience every step of the way.
“Especially as an actor, I’m accustomed to being underestimated, and I find it to be incredibly humorous,” Bush says, a wry smirk tugging at her lips. “I think being underestimated can be incredible fuel.”
After launching an inclusive salon and accompanying philanthropic organization in Detroit in 2017, their next big project (they’re two of the advisers for First Women’s Bank) combines their decades of philanthropic and entrepreneurial experience. Located in Chicago, it is, quite literally, the first women’s bank in the U.S.: women-founded, women-owned, women-operated.
Because it’s tough to be a woman in the entertainment business, and it’s tough, too, to be a woman in finance. Sophia Bush and Nia Batts know that all too well.
So go ahead. Underestimate them.
They’re battle-tested. And they’re ready to prove you wrong.
Nia Batts grew up in Detroit. Her grandmother was a teacher, her grandfather a postal carrier. Her father, a professional investor and money manager, had a union business managing pension funds, which got her thinking from an early age about how to secure the futures of families all over—not just their own.
“I learned that money is certainly power; it’s also security; it’s also options,” Batts says. “And my parents were always about making sure that I was able to live a full life by preserving as many options for me as possible.”
Bush was raised in Los Angeles, where we’re gathered today, sitting across from each other in a sun-dappled industrial loft. She’s the daughter of an immigrant father and a mother who grew up in a Bronx housing project. Like Batts, she learned when she was very young how money can create options for a family, “but it was certainly not something in enormous supply in my family’s story,” she says.
The pair met the old-fashioned way—at least for philanthropically minded women in the entertainment industry in the pre-social media era. It was during a social impact conference that Batts noticed Bush because she kept raising her hand whenever she had a point to make. She’d arrived a little late, and she asked to borrow Bush’s notes.
Decades later, they’re the kind of best friends you hope you’ll have as an adult, aligned in all things personal and professional. Bush and Batts: It just has that ring to it, like Thelma and Louise, or Laverne and Shirley. (It would also be a mean name for a no-nonsense law firm.) Although Batts is still based in Detroit and Bush makes her home in Los Angeles, they make time for one another and travel often to see one another, even if, on days like today, there’s also a nosy reporter, a photographer and a legion of stylists in the room.
“I think what’s really been special for us is that we met on a mission; we met in a space where people wanted to make the world a better place—before Instagram existed, before there was any sort of trend to do that,” Bush says.
Over the years, their friendship has flourished, grounded in that unified sense of mission, as well as in a shared curiosity about the world around them. Their dual experience in entertainment—Batts behind the scenes as an executive at Viacom, Bush in front of the camera—gave them a similar lens through which to view the world and its many injustices.
But though they have a lot in common, like so many pairs of best friends, Bush is in many ways Batts’ foil. When I ask the two to share some of the ways they’re different, the skills that are unique to each, they don’t answer for themselves, instead taking the opportunity to sing one another’s praises. Bush turns and faces her friend to answer: “You have such an incredibly analytical brain,” she tells Batts.
Bush often jokes that Batts is her work wife, and she has a great deal in common with Bush’s real-life husband, Grant Hughes—both are systems thinkers with logical, ordered brains. Bush just married Hughes this summer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and you can see Batts and her husband, Patrick Linder, smiling alongside them in the wedding photos for Vogue. (Even the wedding was used by Bush as an opportunity for activism, opting to host it in Tulsa and including historic tours led by community leaders and cultural groups as part of the festivities.)
Bush is the more creative, visionary thinker—though Batts shares her creative streak, it’s Bush who takes an idea and runs with it. “I’m like, ‘We should launch this campaign! And this is how we’ll storytell it! And this is the tagline!’” Bush laughs. “And she’s like, ‘Hold, please. I have to run the numbers.’”
“It’s something that I love about you,” she says, turning to address her friend again, “that makes me feel protected, and that I also learn from.”
Both describe their friendship and working relationship as one in which they have each others’ backs, and Batts reflects on the ease with which they can talk to one another about anything. “Coming from entertainment—it’s a world of performance,” she says. “We don’t have to perform for one another. We can be honest.”
That forthrightness has led them to address some thorny topics together. For example: Why is it so difficult for two women—one Black, one white—to get their hair done at the same salon? Why should two best friends be unable to sit side-by-side in styling chairs together?
In 2017, those questions led Batts and Bush to partner in their first headline-making venture: Detroit Blows. The inclusive finishing salon became a place where anyone could get their hair done, and it had its own philanthropic arm, Detroit Grows, which helped other entrepreneurs invest in Detroit. And though the salon closed during the pandemic, it opened the door for another investment opportunity: First Women’s Bank.
Batts has the kind of cool and unshakable exterior that makes her a natural fit for the boardroom. But you can see her get fired up, in her calm and collected way, when she rattles off statistics about women, power and access in venture capital.
“Less than 10% of general partners at venture capital funds are women,” she explains. “You have $83 trillion of assets under management, and 98.6% of those resources are managed by white men. And they’re not even the most highly performing demographic of investment managers.”
Here are some more statistics, in case you’re not feeling as fired up as Batts quite yet: In 2020, Black and Latino founders received just 2.6% of venture funding, according to Crunchbase data. Among venture capitalists, 58% are white men and 11% are white women; just 2% are Black men, and only 1% are Black women.
“There’s a reason that 42% of small businesses are founded by women, but women are only accessing around 6% of lending capital for small business,” Bush says. “Women tend to be more analytical. We have had less opportunity to borrow, less access to get in those rooms.”
Over the years, Batts and Bush came to realize how much we don’t talk about in polite society—particularly when it comes to money—and how that kind of financial secrecy ultimately hurts those without. Very early in their friendship, Batts says, their experiences as women in different avenues of media led them to wonder why, though money seemed to be everywhere, so little of it was available for creatives and entrepreneurs, especially creatives and entrepreneurs of color.
It made them want to understand money more intrinsically, “Because the stories are powerful, but the thing that really felt the most powerful—and that tended to be held back by gatekeepers—was access,” Bush says. “So, how could we begin to invest? How could we begin to fundraise for philanthropy? How could we begin to surface conversations about financial equity in spaces where women in entertainment, traditionally, weren’t having those conversations? And that’s really been the journey for the two of us.”
One of the things they quickly realized was how much further their investment dollars went in cities like Detroit, like Chicago, like Tulsa. As an executive, Batts was familiar with writing seven- or eight-figure checks from a massive media conglomerate to huge philanthropic organizations. What if instead, the women wondered, they wrote $5,000 or $10,000 checks? And what if those went to local organizations, say in Batts’ hometown (and Bush’s home away from hometown) of Detroit?
“So many more people and so many more places deserve as much access and attention,” Bush says. “It’s very much the way we feel about financial equity—the more opportunity you create, the more ROI you create, the more dividends you create. It’s not that someone gets less, it’s that everyone gets more.”
They’ve been so successful in networking in those untapped markets, Batts says, investors are approaching them to learn more about them, asking who they need to know in the flyover states.
With First Women’s Bank, specifically, they’re building a collective of some of the best financial minds in the world to provide tools and build curriculums for women in business. As advisers, they sit alongside a powerful group of women (and a handful of men) that includes Leah Bradford Francis, senior program officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Margaret M. Mueller, board director, president and CEO at the Executives’ Club of Chicago; and Angela Miller-May chief investment officer of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.
Soon, the bank will offer tailored trainings for women in business, along with mentorship and networking programs, virtual and in-person events and inspirational and educational content. The goal is to be more than just a bank—though that is revolutionary in itself—but also a community of support specifically designed to grow the economy and enhance women’s roles within it.
“I think as women in business, and especially—becoming friends in our mid-20s—as young women in business, we know what it is to be overlooked,” Bush says. “All we want to do is say, ‘Gotcha!’ And we want to help other people do that.
“We don’t want to be the two odd ducks in the room,” she continues. “We want more and more people who look like us and think like us in those rooms. And those are pathways we’re very passionate about creating.”
Shifting influence and access, changing what the seating arrangement at the table looks like—none of this can be done without struggle, without perseverance. Money is power, it’s true. But people tend to want to hold on to power.
“Being mission-driven means you’re willing to invest in longevity,” Bush says.
They’ve seen lots of people get involved in investing because they’re looking for a quick fix, a fast turnaround. That’s never been the case for these two.
Bush worked on her first Obama campaign back in 2007; it wasn’t until 2021 that she got a call from the former head of the Small Business Association under Obama, who said, “I want to talk to you about First Women’s Bank.” That’s 15 years of volunteer work—work she did because she believed in it—that eventually led to this growth opportunity.
Batts and Bush have always believed that you have to be in it for the right reasons, and it’s why they’re able to see the value in Detroit, in Tulsa, in communities they’ve spent time in. A lot of the work they do? It’s not about financial return. Often, there’s no money changing hands. It’s about changing access points to capital, about identifying who needs what, who has what, and honing the pathways that connect the two.
As a result, investors are starting to see these communities as economic ecosystems ripe with opportunity. “It was a good thing to do, and now it’s the best business decision to do,” Batts says. “It just goes to show: Go places for the right reasons, do things for the right reasons, and ultimately, it works for everyone.”
“If we do well in our business ventures alongside our activism, then what it does is, it proves to a lot of people who are less mission-driven that maybe they should be,” Bush says.
It’s been a long road to get here, and it hasn’t always been easy. At times, it’s been outright exhausting. But it has been worth it.
“Early in our activist careers, I thought by now that would’ve gotten through to everyone,” Bush says. “Now, I realize how pervasive competing narratives are.… It has made me more patient and certainly even more committed to replacing those older systems with newer and better ones.”
Batts and Bush are as confident as ever that through their way of investing—doing more with less, trusting their gut and investing with heart—they’ll continue to identify overlooked, undervalued and underrepresented entrepreneurs, giving them the means by which they can succeed.
“Sometimes you have to go out in the world and prove it by doing it,” Bush says. “I know how fun it is for me when I get underestimated. So when other people are like, ‘I’ve been underestimated,’ I’m like… you want to burn some s–t down?”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Sela Shiloni.