Nook to Nook’s Academy graduated 145 budding marketers in Might

In 2011, Will and Tiffany Acuff formed a faith-based nonprofit called Corner to Corner as a way to help train offenders with skills they needed to find meaningful employment.

That initial offering expanded to include multiple programs, such as the organization’s entrepreneurship program called The Academy. It’s a 10-week program that equips “underestimated entrepreneurs” with skills to plan, start and grow their own small businesses.

On May 17, 2020, The Academy graduated 145 entrepreneurs from the program during a live event held at Rocketown in downtown Nashville. The Academy’s inaugural graduation in 2016 was a class of 13. Currently, The Academy has a waitlist of people wanting in the next program for the fall that is capped at 250.

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“These graduates completed a 10-week course that goes over the foundations of business,” Will Acuff said. “Everything from your financial model to who is your target customer and details about distribution.”

He said too often entrepreneur training starts at rung 5 on a 10-rung ladder.

“We really focus on rung 1 and help people figure out how they make their first $100, then $1,000 and build something that will last,” Acuff said. Among the basics taught in the course are how to start a Quickbooks account, how much to charge for your product or hourly fee for a service, and how to find – and reach – your customer base.

Academy classes are held at local rec centers and places embedded in each community, and that’s by design.

“You don’t have to go downtown to a shiny big building to get access to this,” he added. “People can walk over to their local rec center. Mentally and emotionally, you already own the space. You feel seen and celebrated from the minute you walk in the door.”

Academy graduate to executive director

In 2017, Shana Berkeley was a health care attorney who discovered she had a knack for advising her coworkers on how to have a little more fun with their wardrobe. She entertained the idea of ​​her hobby evolving into a side-hustle business, but wasn’t sure how to make it happen. She enrolled in The Academy, graduated later that year and started her side business, The Fashion Chase, where she helps women define and redefine their personal style.

In 2019, she became Corner to Corner’s executive director.

“After I graduated from the program, I was evangelizing to everybody about it,” Berkeley said. “I was trying to accentuate the community, friendships and the knowledge that I received. I went to Vanderbilt undergraduate and Belmont University College of Law. I know good education. This curriculum was so good.”

Student-turned-mentor

Marcus Buggs, another graduate of the program, was doing some catering and knew he wanted to open a hospitality concept with his wife, Jennifer. His mom’s restaurant in Madison, Cal’s Country Kitchen, was closed on Saturdays, so he would occasionally run a brunch to test things out. That’s where he met Acuff and enrolled in The Academy in 2016.

In 2019, the Buggses opened Coneheads on Dickerson Pike, which offers a fun twist on chicken and waffles: chicken served in a waffle cone. Despite the fact that he opened three months before a tornado would blow through Nashville, followed by a nationwide quarantine, Coneheads survived and even thrived. Since opening, Buggs has sponsored 15 food industry entrepreneurs to go through The Academy by covering all of their costs.

“Even signing up for the program is a big step in the journey for a lot of people,” Buggs said. “To help create a pathway for them to get in and absorb that knowledge was something I wanted to do. I was fortunate because I grew up in business watching my parents do it. But I wanted to see other people do well who didn’t have that same background I had.”

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This year, the Buggses opened their second business, Plane Jane, an extension of the catering business and bar that offers food and simple, three-ingredient cocktails made with Buggses’ own simple syrups. The couple plans to expand Coneheads into a food truck as well as a second permanent location.

Buggs said through the 10-week class he met people in various steps in their journey to opening a business and was able to make a number of great connections through the program.

“Will did a great job of getting guest speakers in from all different fields telling how they got their start,” Buggs said. “We heard from people who self-funded projects to those who did crowd funding to get their thing off the ground. That helped me start Plane + Simpl Catering, which is still our umbrella we operate under.”

Calling all budding entrepreneurs

The Academy is now accepting budding entrepreneurs to its wait list for the next class in September. Enrollment begins June 16.

Acuff said The Academy just partnered with Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities to do a three-year research study that will examine the economic outcomes for the graduates. Joining the study is, Robert Fairlee, one of the leading researchers in the nation on small businesses.

“It is an honor to have been selected by Notre Dame and we are really hopeful that we learn even more ways to be effective in equipping early-stage neighborhood entrepreneurs with the tools they need to plan, start and grow their own small business,” Acuff said.

Berkeley added she sees it as an enormous gift to be able to honor her community and help her neighbors.

“We don’t give them passion, talent or drive,” she said. “They already have that. We eliminate barriers. We help get them on-ramps to opportunity through networks, tools, community and resources.

“To date we have almost 700 graduates from this program. Last year our entrepreneurs put $13 million back into the neighborhood economy. This year we are on track to do $18 million.”

For more information on Corner to Corner or The Academy, visit cornertocorner.org.

Melonee Hurt covers growth and development at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Melonee at mhurt@tennessean.com.

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