The Academy, an entrepreneur program designed to benefit low-income communities, held its largest graduation yet on Tuesday with 150 graduates.
“This is a neighborhood block party and neighborhood celebration so people can know that they are rooting for them, they’re proud of them,” said Shana Berkeley, executive director of Corner to Corner.
Corner to Corner, the nonprofit that sponsors The Academy, held the graduation near downtown Nashville. Students, families and friends convened at Rocketown, a “faith-based youth outreach facility” founded by Christian music artist Michael W. Smith.
The Academy offers a high-quality curriculum for young entrepreneurs, according to Berkeley.
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“The Academy is our entrepreneurship program where we help underestimated entrepreneurs plan, start, and grow their own small businesses,” Berkeley said. “As somebody who has a doctorate degree, I knew the quality of the education in the curriculum.”
Impact on community
Graduates of The Academy are set to bring $15 million to local neighborhood economies in 2022, according to Corner to Corner Co-Founder Will Acuff.
Mikayla Jones, owner of Vena Cava Baking and Company, graduated from The Academy on Tuesday. Jones said she founded her bakery in college, but this program helped her learn to scale effectively and be successful in business.
“The program was amazing,” Jones said. “Every Thursday we would meet for class, and I would leave on fire, with energy ready to attack the week, accomplish my goals, and do good for the community.”
Jones attended a Thursday class, but she said The Academy offers classes throughout the week, throughout the city, in-person and online.
Corner to Corner partners with businesses and program alumni to support recent graduates of The Academy, according to the group’s website.
“Building up my community within the alumni network, the sky is the limit,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to learn how we can support each other and add value to the city.”
Toward the end of the ceremony, Corner to Corner held a pitch competition for young entrepreneurs to win cash prizes for their businesses. A handful of judges, including Tennessee Titans President and CEO Burke Nihill, decided the top winners.
Jessica Bobbitt won first place and $2,000 for her business The Black Candle Company.
“We have so many amazing entrepreneurs,” Berkeley said. “We have people like Marcus from Coneheads, a brick and mortar restaurant off Dickerson. We taught him how to pivot and how to talk to his customers. Because of that, not only was he able to survive in the pandemic, but he was thriving.”
684 total graduates and counting
After the May 17 ceremony, more than 684 individuals had graduated from The Academy, according to Berkeley. Roughly 71% of The Academy graduates go on to start their own businesses, she said.
Berkeley graduated from the program before going on to lead it, she said.
“I was practicing law and I wanted to start a fashion business as kind of a side hustle. I learned about them on Facebook, enrolled in the program, and saw the magic and the education,” Berkeley said. “I kind of was an evangelist. I shared with friends, I volunteered.”
Berkeley joined Corner to Corner full-time in 2019 when she began working as director of The Academy. In 2022, she started working as executive director of the nonprofit.
Corner to Corner is a faith-based group, according to Berkeley.
“What that means is that we believe that you should love your neighbor as ourselves, and we do that through creative, improving programming,” Berkeley said.
Acuff said he started the group when he and his wife, Co-Founder Tiffany Acuff, moved into a low-income neighborhood 15 years ago.
“We really wrestled with the question of, ‘What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself?'” Will Acuff said. “Slowly but surely, Corner to Corner grew out of that organic journey.”
As co-founder of the group, Acuff networks with businesses and law firms to provide a community of support for growing entrepreneurs.
“My job is much more on the connections, corporate development, speaking, and engaging more partners,” Acuff said.
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The alumni network offers pro-bono legal work with firm Bass, Berry, and Sims, marketing classes with partner Black Business Boom, a loan program, classes on how to run an online store, and one-on-one mentoring, according to Acuff.
“It’s the mentee’s goals that are important, so they shape how that process goes,” Acuff said.
The Acuffs intended that Corner to Corner would be a joint effort with the community, according to Berkeley.
“They wanted to co-create and collaborate with the community, to where they created a nonprofit that was for all of our neighbors,” Berkeley said.