“In recovery, I was always taught you can’t keep anything...unless you give it away.”
If you’ve been on this entrepreneurial journey with us from the get-go, you’ll likely recognize those were the inspiring words Michael Brody-Waite shared with our listeners in his episode of the Navigate podcast.
Specifically Brody-Waite was referring to why he chose to return to the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, now as CEO and a mentor. Just a few years earlier, the EC had guided him and his struggling startup successfully through the murky waters of our local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Will and Tiffany Acuff, co-founders of Corner to Corner, modeled their company’s mission after the same lesson - giving back to those around you. The self-described “scrappy” faith-based nonprofit began in 2011 out of their own home with a single purpose - to assist former offenders with finding meaningful employment - and has since grown to provide programming and outreach to multiple communities across Middle Tennessee.
It all started when the Acuffs found themselves surrounded by talented, hard-working individuals - some of them their own neighbors - eager to contribute to Nashville’s flourishing economy but with no clear path or opportunity to do so. That’s when they launched The Academy - Corner to Corner’s entrepreneurial training program - a ten-week course that helps “underestimated” entrepreneurs plan, start and grow their own small business.”
The program offers participants a circle of support, a curriculum of proven success and access to experts from all areas of the small business world. “We bring in guest speakers who highlight some of their own hard-fought wisdom, as well as some pro tips,” Acuff said. “And it all ends in a huge neighborhood celebration that is one-part party and one-part pitch contest. It's a night for the community to really come together.”
So what defines an “underestimated entrepreneur”?
Last Fall, the Mayor’s office conducted a disparity study to determine whether city contracts were being allotted to competitive companies on an “even playing field” regardless of racial or gender differences. Audra Ladd, Manager of Small Business and Creative Economy for the Office of Mayor David Briley shared the findings of that study with our listeners.
According to statistics by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, of the 30,000 small businesses in the greater Nashville area - defined as those with 5 or less employees - just one-third of them are woman-owned, and only 2,000 are run by minority founders.
In response to the study, Mayor Briley rolled out historic Equal Business Opportunity legislation which paves the way to overhaul the government’s procurement processes and provide additional resources to establish equity for businesses from more diverse backgrounds.
While Ladd admits the passing of this legislation is a step in the right direction, she believes even more can be done to level the playing field and provide additional guidance to businesses that may otherwise never find the opportunity.
The Office of Economic and Community Development supports businesses of all sizes, from startups to global enterprises interested in relocating to Nashville. Ladd’s office is also committed to entrepreneurship and small business development. “We have an amazing group of people who like to work together, who genuinely are invested in seeing everyone succeed,” she shared.
“Everything is here [in Nashville] already,” Ladd said, including the tools to maneuver the sometimes confusing ecosystem. “I think some people don’t realize it’s here. So that’s part of my job to say, ‘Did you know that there are over a dozen resources for you?”
“One thing that I'm working on that will launch this spring is a zero-interest crowdfunding loan program, called Kiva” Ladd said.
The concept behind Ladd’s initiative is that when neighbors invest in each other, the community as a whole wins. Anyone can become a lender too, supporting businesses around them with investments as low as $25, and in return, 36 months later they’ll be paid back and can choose to cash out or offer to re-loan.
Better yet, the city recently received a grant from the state which will be used to help bolster new and small businesses in what they call “Promise Zones” - high poverty communities in and around Nashville where the federal government will partner with local leaders to encourage and enhance the economic investments in the area.
“If you’re an entrepreneur of color or a woman in the Promise Zone,” Ladd said, “we will use the grant funding to match.” So if an underestimated small business can raise, for example, $5,000 through their own crowdfunding efforts, the city will then match that amount using $5,000 from the grant.
Neighbors helping neighbors is the driving force behind what the Acuffs have been doing with Corner to Corner as well.
For the past two years, The Academy has graduated over 100 entrepreneurs, each at various stages of owning a small business. One of those graduates, Shana Berkeley, just took over as Director of The Academy.
Much like Brody-Waite had done with the EC, Berkeley now runs the very program that previously assisted her. “I genuinely can't wait to see what Shana does,” Acuff said. “I think she will grow this thing in a phenomenal way.”
To hear more about The Academy, including some of their graduate’s success stories, or to find out where in the city you can go to get the resources you need, be sure to listen to the full episode above! And don’t forget to subscribe to Navigate wherever you get your podcasts.
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