The Academy, an entrepreneurship program designed to benefit low-income communities, held its largest graduation ceremony Tuesday, with 150 graduates.
“This is a neighborhood block party and a neighborhood celebration so people know they root for them and are proud of them,” said Shana Berkeley, executive director of Corner to Corner.
Corner to Corner, the non-profit organization that sponsors The Academy, held the graduation ceremony near downtown Nashville. Students, families, and friends gathered at Rocketown, a “faith-based youth service organization” founded by Christian music artist Michael W. Smith.
According to Berkeley, the Academy offers a high-quality curriculum for young entrepreneurs.
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“The Academy is our entrepreneurship program where we help underappreciated entrepreneurs plan, start and grow their own small businesses,” said Berkeley. “As a person with a doctorate, I knew the quality of the training in the curriculum.”
impact on the community
According to Will Acuff, co-founder of Corner to Corner, graduates from the academy are expected to contribute $15 million to the local neighborhood economy in 2022.
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 scale effectively and thrive in business.
“The program was fantastic,” said Jones. “Every Thursday we met for class, and I left energized, ready to attack the week, achieve my goals, and do good for the community.”
Jones attended a Thursday class, but she said the academy is offering classes across the city, in person and online, throughout the week.
According to the group’s website, Corner to Corner works with companies and program alumni to support the Academy’s recent graduates.
“There are no limits to building my community within the alumni network,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to see how we can support each other and add value to the city.”
Towards the end of the ceremony, Corner to Corner hosted 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 great entrepreneurs,” Berkeley said. “We have people like Marcus from Coneheads, a brick and mortar restaurant near Dickerson. We taught him how to spin and how to talk to his customers. Because of this, not only was he able to survive the pandemic, but he was doing well.”
684 graduates in total, and counting
As of the May 17 ceremony, more than 684 people had graduated from the academy, according to Berkeley. About 71% of academy graduates start their own businesses, she said.
Berkeley completed the program before she directed it, she said.
“I was practicing law and wanted to start a fashion company on the side. I found out about it on Facebook, signed up for the program and saw the magic and the education,” Berkeley said. “I was a kind of evangelist. I shared with friends, I volunteered.”
Berkeley joined Corner to Corner full-time in 2019 when she began serving as Principal of The Academy. In 2022, she began working as the executive director of the nonprofit organization.
Corner to Corner is a faith-based group, according to Berkeley.
“That means we believe you should love your neighbor as yourself, and we do that through creative, self-improving 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 wrestled with the question, ‘What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself?'” said Will Acuff. “Slowly but surely, Corner to Corner grew out of this organic journey.”
As a co-founder of the group, Acuff connects with companies and law firms to provide a community to support growing entrepreneurs.
“My role is much more of the connections, business development, talking and onboarding with other partners,” said Acuff.
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The alumni network offers free legal work with the law 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 the flow of this process,” Acuff said.
According to Berkeley, the Acuffs intended Corner to Corner to be a collaborative effort with the community.
“They wanted to work and collaborate with the community, where they started a nonprofit organization for all of our neighbors,” Berkeley said.