Many in Nashville do not earn enough to meet the growing cost of living. Corner to Corner turned to CO.STARTERS to bring grassroots entrepreneurship to the surrounding neighborhood and boost economic potential.
If we told you that a small community organization in Nashville, led until recently by a staff of two, has launched over 500 businesses in the last five years and poured $13 million into the local economy in 2021 alone, would you believe us?
If you wouldn’t, that’s because you haven’t met Shana Berkeley or Will Acuff of Corner to Corner.
The organization, founded by Will and his wife Tiffany, began as an initiative providing job training to former offenders in 2011; an after-school center for children to practice their literacy and math skills was later added. In 2016, they decided it was time to expand their services to adults in the community’s labor force.
Community Led, Community Located
Nashville’s living wage at the time was $24.65 an hour, while Will and Tiffany’s lower-income neighbors made $9–12 an hour on average. This glaring gap between need and reality birthed “The Academy,” a 10-week business education program. Their first cohort, consisting of 13 entrepreneurs, launched in a local rec center in 2016.
“CO.STARTERS was the perfect fit for us. We found it really accessible to our community. And the structure of the program sessions enables us to build community during class time.”
– Shana Berkeley, Executive Director
“It was important to us that the program be held in a space that was owned by the community,” Will explained. “Our philosophy at Corner to Corner is ‘community led, community located.’ We didn’t want to ask our neighbors to drive all the way downtown to an office or incubator. It was really important for them to feel like this program was theirs from the start.”
When it came to the actual content of the program, Corner to Corner needed a curriculum that explained standard business concepts at a level anyone could understand.
“CO.STARTERS was the perfect fit for us,” explained Shana. “We found it really accessible to our community. It’s written at a grade-school reading level and full of practical case studies that our entrepreneurs could see themselves in. And the structure of the program sessions enables us to build community during class time.”
Shana herself was a graduate of The Academy’s third cohort, where she worked on her own fashion consulting business. A former healthcare attorney, Shana’s strategic mind proved to be exactly what Will needed in someone he could pass the Executive Director title to.
It’s not unusual for Corner to Corner to recruit its Academy graduates as volunteers or staff; in fact, it’s an essential element of their philosophy.
“We’ve invested lots of money and time into training our graduates, who are themselves new small business owners, to become the facilitators for future classes,” Will explained. “We want people at stage 10 of their business, not stage 1000, facilitating our programs.”
This approach means that Corner to Corner has dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers, mentors, coaches, and facilitators to draw from. With the growth of their committed alumni network, Corner to Corner’s cohorts have also seen tremendous growth. The Academy just launched a class of 230 entrepreneurs (comprising smaller cohorts of 10-15 each). Will and Shana expect future programs to grow even larger.
“Sometimes we’re asked if we risk compromising the program by running such large classes with no real vetting process,” Will smiled. “And that’s something I would worry about if I was running an accelerator for competitive tech companies. We do have leadership training twice a year along with weekly facilitator training—our staff and volunteers are well-equipped. But this is for the neighborhood, and we want the door to open as widely as possible. We want more numbers, because that’s how you attain the massive entrepreneurial spirit we’re trying to generate here.”
Spreading the Word to 10,000
Many entrepreneur support organizations would hear about a cohort of 230 and justifiably ask: Where in the world did you find so many people who want to start businesses? Filling the program pipeline proves to be a challenge for many community organizations; finding 230 interested people in one year alone defies the experience of many Program Directors.
But Corner to Corner sees their success differently. According to various recent studies, 13 percent of white men own businesses nationwide—double the entrepreneurship rates of black men, and a staggering number when compared to black women, whose business ownership rate hovers around 0.5 percent.
For Will and Shana, this gap provides an opportunity to find the unrealized black entrepreneurs in their community, estimated to be 10,000 people in and around Davidson County.
The only question then becomes: how do you get your message out so that all of those untapped entrepreneurs think of your organization as the place to go?
“The strategy we use is three-fold,” Shana explained. “The first component is social media. We want an organic reach that feels welcoming and fun, so we do it all—Instagram Reels, TikToks, Facebook live streams, the whole nine yards. We run some paid ads too. And now we’re everywhere. The joke is that you can’t be black, live in Nashville, have a Facebook, and never see my face.”
“Shana’s Nashville famous, at this point,” confirmed Will.
It’s true. Corner to Corner’s Instagram page is filled with short videos of Shana dancing, answering commonly asked questions, offering small tips, interviewing Academy alumni, and sharing impact stats.
“It’s hard work, but it’s totally doable,” said Shana. “And we started with 0 followers. Now we have over 5,000.”
The second leg of Corner to Corner’s strategy is event attendance. And not just entrepreneurship-related events. “I show up at churches, PTA meetings, neighborhood cookouts, anywhere where there’s a mic. I’ll ask to talk for just two minutes. Obviously, I can’t show up everywhere, so I carefully select the events I think will bring the largest return.”
The third tactic they use is a smooth user experience on their website. “I don’t want it to take more than two minutes to sign up for the Academy,” said Shana. “And for payment, we’ll take a $25 deposit at signup and allow them to pay the rest over the course of the program. Then we make sure their experience is epic so that they want to stay.”
Tapping into Existing Talent
Even when taken together, Corner to Corner’s strategy doesn’t account for their massive numbers by itself; 65 percent of their registrants sign up from word-of-mouth (and having 500+ graduates means there are plenty of mouths spreading the word).
But their social media and local outreach efforts do help to reinforce the legitimacy of the program to people who have already heard about it.
“Most people who come through our program already have some kind of business idea,” clarified Will. “Because many of our neighbors are not making enough at their day jobs, many of them already have some sort of side-hustle or project that brings them additional cash. Our job is just to come along and build the bridges of opportunity they need to amplify their creative potential.”
“We’re just answering questions that many of these people are already asking, like: How can I monetize this? Can I turn my dream into reality?” Shana added.
“Most people who come through our program already have some kind of business idea. Our job is just to come along and build the bridges of opportunity they need to amplify their creative potential.”
– Will Acuff, Co-founder
One final way Corner to Corner reaches new entrepreneurs is through their Celebration night, the last session of the CO.STARTERS Core program. Celebration looks different across the CO.STARTERS network; in some communities, it’s a pitch competition. In others, it’s a more intimate evening with family and friends. At Corner to Corner, it’s a full-on neighborhood blow-out.
“Even when it was just 40 people, we did it over the top. This year, we’ll have DJs, a village of vendors lining the street, flashing lights and screens, live streaming, and a pitch contest with $20,000 worth of prizes,” beamed Will. “It’s definitely a ‘come celebrate and honor these entrepreneurs’ moment, but it’s also something for the community: Come see what is happening in this city.”
To stay informed about Corner to Corner’s work, you can follow them on Facebook or Instagram (@cornertocorner). Learn more about their impact by reading their 2021 report or watching their 2021 graduation feature.