Nashville Nonprofit Turns Neighbors into Entrepreneurs

In 2019 Adrienne Bowling was a 30-year-old single mother of two in Nashville, studying for her master’s degree, struggling to make ends meet and feeling overwhelmed. Today, Bowling is CEO of A-1 Mobile Notary and credits her success to a program that teaches entrepreneurial skills at Nashville nonprofit Corner to Corner.

“A traditional 9 to 5 job didn’t work for me, so when I saw an ad on Facebook for Corner to Corner it seemed like divine intervention,” Bowling says. “Becoming an entrepreneur was more a necessity than a want.”

Founded in 2011 by husband and wife Will and Tiffany Acuff, Corner to Corner functions as “the elementary school of entrepreneurship,” says executive director Shana Berkeley, a former program participant.

The core of the nonprofit’s work is “The Academy,” a 10-week program that teaches participants how to start their own businesses. The in-person evening classes require 2.5 hours per week for a total of 25 hours. Since the program’s inception, nearly 1,000 participants have graduated and started their own business. In 2022, 298 new entrepreneurs graduated from the Academy and, according to SBA data, $21 million was put back into the local economy from their businesses. Participants pay $140 to cover a workbook and materials.

Beyond Stability

“The secret sauce to what we do is that we stay entirely community-focused and community-led,” says Will Acuff. “Before we started Corner to Corner, my wife and I moved into a historically low-income neighborhood in downtown Nashville because we were compelled by our faith to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

The nonprofit deliberately holds its programs in low-income communities to make it easier for people to participate rather than forcing them to commute to more distant centers, he says.

Tiffany Acuff’s experience as a job training specialist for prison inmates to help them transition to life after serving time led the couple to start Corner to Corner, which was initially focused on workforce development.

“We switched to entrepreneurship because we realized that we wanted people to thrive, not just to get stable,” Will Acuff says. “We started with a curriculum that was being used in recreation centers and community centers around the country.”

The “aha moment” came at their first graduation ceremony, when a 13-year-old girl presented her business idea for custom greeting cards and buttons with the mission to get her peers to form connections offline, Acuff recalls.

“Her goal was to sell 100 units by the fourth quarter of that year and a woman in the audience stood up and said she would buy 100 units right then,” Acuff says. “Another woman bought the second 100 units that day, too. We knew we had something then.”

Another graduate from the first class launched a restaurant and is about to open her second location this year.

“Eighty-eight percent of our students are Black women, typically between 28 and 43 years old,” says Berkeley. “Our youngest student was 13 and our oldest was 71, so we help anyone we can who wants to start a business.”

Growing a Community of Entrepreneurs

Corner to Corner scaled from one site initially to its current dozen sites. Now, the organization anticipates graduating about 300 to 500 participants from the Academy annually. It currently has a waiting list of 4,000 people, says Berkeley.

“I was a healthcare lawyer when I heard about the organization and I wanted to start my own business to help women in the corporate world find their personal style and revitalize themselves by dressing creatively,” Berkeley says. “I have a PhD as well as a law degree, so I’ve been studying my whole life and immediately recognized the good teaching and good curriculum at Corner to Corner.”

Berkeley started her business, Fashion Chase, and volunteered at Corner to Corner to help other entrepreneurs before leaving her law firm to accept a full-time job at the nonprofit.

“Students in the Corner to Corner Academy just need the drive and interest to start their own business, then they can learn from the program how to write a business plan, to identify their mission, the legal structure they need and more,” Berkeley says.

For Bowling, the program helped her convert what she thought might be a side hustle as a notary into a full-blown business that generates a six-figure income.

“I saw that becoming a notary was easy to get into with a low investment and a high return,” Bowling says. “The Academy helped me transition my mindset into a business owner.”

Additional Income Streams

Bowling learned things such as what her break-even point would be, and how many customers she would need at what price point to pay her costs and herself.

“I generated another $30,000 in 2022 on top of my regular business by becoming part of the National Notary Network, and then I started teaching notary classes and signing-agent classes for another stream of income,” Bowling says. “I’m really proud that I’m providing mobile notary services to people who are immobile, plus I’ve built my network of subcontractors with people of color who have been disenfranchised or who have mental illness but are able to do this job.”

Bowling provides mobile notary services to local hospitals, where she uses her background in clinical psychology to talk to patients to ensure they’re making decisions with a sound mind.

Graduates of the Academy earn anywhere from $200 a week for a side business to $300,000 and even $1 million a year as full-time entrepreneurs, according to Berkeley.

Among the many successful graduates of Corner to Corner are an entrepreneur who teaches digital marketing for Black-owned businesses in seven cities; a designer and installer of balloon arches for events at private homes and locations such as Top Golf and Vanderbilt University; a luxury candle maker whose goods can be found at West Elm and Pottery Barn; a maker of hair care products sold at Walmart; and owners of a yoga studio.

Partners, Mentors, and Other Tools

After completing the Academy, participants can become part of Academy Amplified, which provides more opportunities to increase their knowledge of things like insurance, accounting, marketing, and legal services. A mentorship program is available for one-on-one advice.

“Our programs provide people with access to the tools and mentorships that they need to succeed,” Berkeley says. “Our facilitators are small business owners themselves, so they have direct experience to share. While it would be great to have Oprah to inspire our participants, Oprah doesn’t know how to run an effective Facebook ad or how to open a business bank account like these business owners do.”

Bowling says her teachers felt more like partners on her business journey when she attended the Academy. “The neighborhood connection is so important because we see each other all the time in our community and continue to support each other,” Bowling says.

Through the Academy Invested program, which launched in 2021, Academy graduates can get a small business loan of $250 to $1,000 at 1% interest. In 2022, Corner to Corner loaned $15,500 to Academy Alumni.

Corner to Corner has partnerships with organizations such as the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at Notre Dame (LEO), which provides research to support the nonprofit’s programs; Bass, Berry & Sims, a law firm that provides pro bono legal advice to some Academy graduates, and Goldman Sachs’ Black Women in Business Initiative.

Literacy Component of Corner to Corner

The second main program at Corner to Corner, known as “Script to Screen,” is a creative afterschool program aimed at improving literacy by connecting movie scripts to reading.

“We know that two-thirds of the kids in Nashville are not reading at grade level and that a proficient reader earns an average of $29,000 more than their peer who isn’t a proficient reader,” Acuff says. “That shows how important literacy is to economic mobility.”

Students in the program read a movie script while watching a movie such as Into the Spider-Verse or Black Panther, then write their own script, direct, edit, and produce it. The results of the pilot program are strong: 55% of students improved their reading by a full grade level in the first year.

Corner to Corner has an ambitious goal for the next decade: to create 10,000 more entrepreneurs in Nashville. The nonprofit plans to keep their focus on Nashville and maintain the deep community ties they’re already developed rather than expand outside the area.

“We know there’s talent here, so we just need to build a bridge and light it well for more people to create their own economic mobility,” says Acuff.