The Academy, an entrepreneurship program designed to benefit low-income communities, held its biggest graduation yet with 150 graduates on Tuesday.
“This is a block party and a neighborhood celebration so people know they support them, that they are proud of them,” said Shana Berkeley, executive director of Corner to Corner. .
Corner to Corner, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the Academy, hosted the graduation near downtown Nashville. Students, families and friends gathered at Rockettown, a “faith-based youth outreach center” founded by Christian music artist Michael W. Smith.
The Academy offers a high-quality program for young entrepreneurs, according to Berkeley.
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“The Academy is our entrepreneurship program where we help underappreciated entrepreneurs plan, start and grow their own small businesses,” Berkeley said. “As a PhD, I knew the quality of teaching in the program.”
Academy graduates are expected to contribute $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 started her bakery in college, but this program helped her learn how to scale efficiently and succeed in business.
“The program was amazing,” Jones said. “Every Thursday we met for classes, and I would go off on fire, with an energy ready to attack the week, achieve my goals and do good for the community.”
Jones attended a class on Thursday, but she said the Academy offers classes throughout the week, across the city, in person and online.
Corner to Corner partners with businesses and program alumni to support recent Academy graduates, according to the group’s website.
“Building my community within the alumni network, the sky’s the limit,” Jones said. “I look forward to learning how we can support each other and add value to the city.”
Towards 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, picked 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 near Dickerson. We taught him how to pivot and talk to his customers. Because of that, not only was he able to survive the pandemic, but he was booming.”
684 graduates in total and counting
After the May 17 ceremony, more than 684 people had graduated from the Academy, according to Berkeley. About 71% of Academy graduates start their own business, she said.
Berkeley graduated from the program before leading it, she said.
“I was practicing law and wanted to start a fashion business as a kind of side hustle. I heard about it on Facebook, signed up for the program and saw the magic and the education,” Berkeley said. “I was sort of an evangelist. I shared with friends, I volunteered.”
Berkeley joined Corner to Corner full-time in 2019 when she began working as the Academy’s director. In 2022, she started working as the nonprofit’s executive director.
Corner to Corner is a faith-based group, according to Berkeley.
“What that means is that we believe you should love your neighbor as ourselves, and we do that through creative and enhanced programming,” Berkeley said.
Acuff said he started the group when he and his wife, co-founder Tiffany Acuff, moved to a low-income neighborhood 15 years ago.
“We really struggled with the question, ‘What is it like to love your neighbor as yourself? ‘” Will Acuff said. “Slowly but surely, Corner to Corner was born out of this 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 work is much more about relationships, growing the business, speaking up and engaging more partners,” Acuff said.
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The alumni network offers pro bono legal work with Bass, Berry and Sims law firm, marketing courses with partner Black Business Boom, a loan program, online store management courses and mentoring individual, according to Acuff.
“It’s the mentee’s goals that are important, so they shape how this process unfolds,” Acuff said.
The Acuffs wanted Corner to Corner to be a joint effort with the community, according to Berkeley.
“They wanted to co-create and collaborate with the community, where they created a nonprofit that was for all of our neighbors,” Berkeley said.