Low-income citizens face an uphill battle to create a better life. In this episode, Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to Will Acuff about his non-profit and how he’s helping to launch Black entrepreneurs.
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Dr. Aikyna Finch: Greetings everyone. Welcome to the podcast. I am Dr. Aikyna Finch, and I have the honor and privilege to speak to Will Acuff, the co-founder of Corner to Corner, an organization that launched nearly 700 black entrepreneurs in the Nashville area. He is committed to economic equity and seeing all neighbors flourish. How are you doing today, Will?
Will Acuff: I am doing very well. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: It is a pleasure. And so, tell us about why you decided to become a non-profit CEO or a co-founder.
Will Acuff: I don’t know if I ever did decide that. It just kind of happened. The real beginning in a lot of ways for me was coming out of college, I got to go on a trip led by an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina who was an expert on the AIDS pandemic. And up until that trip I didn’t have any kind of sense of the impact of global poverty and some of the complicated layers that contributed to that. And what this guy did that was really interesting is he made all of us who were going to go on this team meet every single week to read doctrine, theological stuff, as well as economic and policy related papers. And really we were getting a PhD level course on the different layers of poverty. And then we went to Nairobi and instead of going to build something, kind of being like, “Hey, we’re the Americans, we’re here to help.”
Instead, we went to learn what they were doing on the ground and to sit at the feet of leaders from Nairobi, both in kind of the business community and in the faith community. And it was the first time I’d ever been out of the country. And it’s cliche to say, white boy needs to go to Africa to learn that poverty’s real. But that’s what happened to me. And I came back from that trip with this sense that, man, I have never gotten a theology of neighbor, like to love your neighbor as you love yourself day in, day out. How am I going to learn that? And my worldview just kind of dissolved. And from there, that started a slow but very purposeful journey of trying to figure out what does that look like? Which ultimately, once I met and married my wife and she was on board with this adventure, we ended up moving into a historically low-income neighborhood in downtown Nashville, technically the east side, right Lower Dickerson Road if anybody’s familiar with the town.
This was 16 years ago. And we moved in with just that question and a heart posture of learning, what does it look like to learn how to love my neighbor as self? And we weren’t like, “Hey, we’re going to launch a non-profit.” It was like, “Hey, how are we going to learn how to live out these things we say we believe?” And that was the start of a long and beautiful and sorrowful journey that really changed our lives. And they say there’s some paths you take that you can never come back from because you’re never the same. And this was for sure one of them.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: So now that you have decided to come on this journey, tell us about the journey. Tell us, now that we know the why, tell us the how. Tell us how it formulated and why it was so purposeful to you.
Will Acuff: Yeah, so I mean the first thing that happened was anybody who knows my wife, Tiffany, knows that she is a force to be reckoned with. And so, while I was still kind of asking these big questions and wondering what to do, Tiffany went and got a job at the men’s prison here in Nashville and became a former offender job training specialist. So, she right away got some special skills, got some special training, and started putting it to work and helping former offenders transition back to the community with what I would describe as…. It wasn’t a career job, but it was an anchor in the storm of that process of coming home. And because we lived in the neighborhood that a lot of these folks were coming back to, they became our day-to-day neighbors, and we just had an open-door policy. And so, it was regular for just people to be hanging out.
And so, I’d say the first how was being willing to learn and then learn specifically how to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice and let go of some of the things that we were holding onto that we didn’t even know we were holding onto. Biases, prejudices, arrogance, things you don’t know you carry but that you carry. It’s like the scales falling off your eyes slowly but surely. Yeah. And so that happened over a lot of years, but then from a really practical how, we got to the point where we saw some amazing non-profits in the city and really loved the programs they were doing and we were volunteering for everything, but we noticed that as soon as the program was over, whether it was tutoring or volunteer income, tax assistance for the elderly, whatever the program was, the relationship would start and then stop when the program was over.
And we are really coming from the standpoint that if you want to see real community change, you have to have neighborhoods with neighbors. And if you’re going to do that, you have to have opportunities to create relationships. And so, our first real practical how was Tiffany, and I did a lot of praying, which I think is a practical step. And then we went down to our local rec center and just said, “Hey, the life of the community is already here, how can we be of service?” And we just entered into dialogue that took about three months, at which point they were like, “Hey, we love what Tiffany’s doing behind bars. Why don’t we do that for free right here at the rec center? We have such a high recidivism rate in the community, let’s do that.” And so that was the very first thing we did.
We got some friends from church to cook the food. It was all volunteer, like Tiffany and I were funding it ourselves. It was really just an outgrowth of what was already happening at our house. And it wasn’t still in our mind to do a non-profit. But that shifted. So that was 2011 going into 2012 and we thought, hey, we’ll be here for a month. This is a four-week program. But then the rec center staff was like, “Can you come back another month?” And then it was like, “Can you come back another six months?” And next thing you know, here we are. And it’s 2022, 14 staff and it’s spread all over the city and it hasn’t stopped.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: So now tell us more about Corner to Corner. I know you have several programs such as the Academy and the B2B program, but tell us more.
Will Acuff: Yeah, so I mean we’ve done a lot of things over the years, but where we’re really focused in on through our area of deep knowledge and also just listening to the community and filling some gaps is around economic equity. And by that we specifically mean finding opportunities for neighbors to economically flourish on their own terms. And so, we do that through two primary programs. The first is focused on literacy, the reason being that we know a kid’s economy and their economic future starts with reading. And in Nashville, two thirds of our kids aren’t reading at grade level. And that’s a stat that hasn’t shifted in over 20 years. And so, for us, we know from human nature, if your kid doesn’t love reading, good luck trying to convince them that they should. Meanwhile, they love a bunch of other things. And so, we leaned into kids’ love of movies and content creation, and we launched a program called Script to Screen where kids watched Black Panther or Spider Verse or another movie they really enjoy.
And then they read the script at the same time, connecting the dots that the thing they love on the screen started on the page. And then they work in small groups to write their own three act screenplay. They learn all the language as they go. And then we put real life-like cameras, lighting gear, all the things in their hands. So, it’s not like one of those programs where it’s like, “Hey kid, that’s a camera that an adult is holding 30 feet away.” But instead, it goes like, “No, no, here it’s in your hands. If you break it, that’s okay. We really want you to have this lived experience.” And the kids, they make these movies and then we do a red-carpet premiere where we get to honor them as the creators that they are. And what we see is we shift it from reading sucks.
It’s not something I want to do to, oh my gosh, I love making stuff and to make stuff better, I need to read. And it fuels that growth. And in pilot data from Vanderbilt University, 55% of our kids go up a full grade level in a 10-week session. So, we’re talking massive impact here. And that ends up for us, again, it all comes back to economic equity. And as we look at the future, a kid who graduates from high school not reading proficiently, they earn $29,000 less every single year than their peer who reads well. So, this is for each individual kid, massive economic gains if you can set them up for that success. And so that program Script to Screen, we start with kids early. And then by far our largest program is the Academy. And the Academy is where we equip underestimated entrepreneurs with the tools to plan, start, and grow their own small business.
To date, we’ve launched nearly 700 actually by the… Depending on when this podcast comes out, after November 15th, that number will be well over 700, maybe even 800 with our next graduation coming up. And the Academy is broken into two phases. Phase one is 10 weeks where we go over all the basics of business. Who is your target customer? What problem are you solving for them? What’s going to be your distribution path? How are you going to market? Those kind of things as well as the nuts and bolts that people don’t like to talk about as much. What is your breakeven point? How are you going to fund this work? What does it look like in month six to make a financial strategy that’s going to carry you through, those kind of things? And also what legal entity types should you be? That is a curriculum that is used in 80 cities that we licensed from them, but we’re now their biggest customer by 10X.
So really proud of the growth of the academy. And we went from one site at McFaren Park Rec Center to now 12 sites. Yeah, been pretty phenomenal. And this year, we’re on track to put $18 to $20 million back into the neighborhood economy through that work. And I should say all of our sites are community located, so family rec centers, resource centers, historic neighborhood churches, and they’re all led by former graduates. So, we think it’s really important that we not just model that your neighbor can launch a business so you can too. But also, that we have early-stage starters who are close enough to their starting point to point out those first couple steps for our graduates. It really accelerates their growth. That’s phase one. Phase two is our alumni support program.
And you mentioned B2B, that’s one of those programs that is three months with a mentor where the mentee is defining what success is and then the mentor helps get them there and walk them on that path. And again, goes back to when we started, we wanted to create opportunities for deep, meaningful relationship, create neighborhoods with neighbors. And mentoring is one of the most beautiful and effective ways that that happens. We also do things like e-commerce class. We teach you how to launch your Shopify storefront.
We have a 1% interest loan pilot that we’re doing, which I should say shout out to Dr. Finch. You are on that committee who is helping review those loan applicants, which I love that this is a loan process that we don’t say no, we say not yet. And here’s what you need to work on. So, it’s a loan that has built-in educational pathways, which is so much different than a banking relationship that just says, “See ya.” We say, “No, no, no, you’re not ready. But here’s the educational path.” So, a bunch of different things like that. But our big-time mission is we’re trying to launch 10,000 black owned businesses in Nashville in the next 10 years. Something that’s never been done in the history of the nation.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Oh, my goodness. That is amazing work. So now that you’re doing this amazing work, how has this affected you, as well as the staff that’s part of this?
Will Acuff: So, I’ll start with, for me and my family, I was working in the tech sector and there was a path that was laid out that was pretty clear there. And so, this was a really intentional, “Hey, we’re going to take a left turn.” And so, it has affected our family in a lot of ways, definitely financially. If you’re going to go into the non-profit world that there’s no exit strategy. You’re going to work just as hard as a for-profit, but you’re not going to sell it one day. So, I think that affected us with an eyes wide open, what are we going to be about? And that is an ongoing dialogue, but has led I would say Tiffany and I to feel very free in our day-to-day life. We don’t feel like we’re trying to keep up with anybody. We already kind of made a choice and now we’re living out that choice.
And I’d also add that to walk alongside your neighbors in a neighbor first way. And what I mean by that is a lot of the non-profit sector comes alongside people as their hero or savior. I’m here to save you. And then it’s a pity thing and nobody likes that, right? Nobody wants to be an object of pity. And so, our approach has always been this neighbor first approach, which means that we are receiving as much as we are giving. And that has happened in a million small and large ways from Nashville directly as well as the community of the graduates here at Corner to Corner and the families. To give a specific example, my wife is Mexican-American. Both of our kids are through domestic adoption.
So my son is black and my daughter is Afro-Latina, and I’m just a random white guy who might vaguely be Portuguese, can’t really tell, but you get into black hair care for the first time and you’re looking at YouTube and you have no idea what to do, but you go to your neighbor and go, “Hey, I’m lost right now. Please come alongside of me and make sure that I’m loving my child really well and honoring their cultural background.” So, things that are deep and vulnerable and beautiful. So, it’s shaped our family in a million different ways on that front.
And then I’d say for the staff, I heard a friend recently say, “Once you do something that everyone said was impossible, you never believe anything’s impossible again.” It means it might still be really hard, right? No one’s saying the mountain’s not steep, but you know that you can climb that mountain because you’ve climbed it already, climbed the one behind you, and now you’re climbing the next. And I think for our staff, when we started, no one thought that this thing would have legs. Everyone told us over and over and over again, “Hey, we just want to look for high-growth businesses. So, businesses that are going to make 50, 100 K are just not interesting to us. We don’t want to help launch those.”
Which by the way, directly leads to some of the racial disparity in our country where we have 13% of white men owning businesses compared to 0.5% of black women. We know that that is not a talent gap, that is an opportunity gap. And so, what we said was, “No, no, no, you guys on the high-growth focus mindset, which is fine, we need high- growth companies, but if that’s all you focus on, then you’re always looking for the next Uber and you’re always missing your next-door neighbor.”
And so, our staff, they got lit on fire by this vision of, “Oh no, no, no, we can do this. Look what we’ve already done.” And so, when we look at the mountain of 10,000, we say, yes, we will be the first to do this in the history of the nation. In 10 years, we’re going to be throwing the biggest block party that the city of Nashville has ever had at the Titan Stadium and we’ll be celebrating the $250 million of annual economic impact our black neighbors are putting back into the neighborhood economy through their own God-given passion, creativity, and drive. And everyone’s going to be looking around going, man, that was the Nashville economic miracle. So yeah, I think that’s how it’s affected us.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, I want you to talk to the people that are listening to your story about your impossible that was made possible. And I would like for you to give them some steps about how they can make their impossible possible as well.
Will Acuff: I think the first thing is, I heard this quote along the way too, that I think is really impactful. It was we overestimate what we can get done in a year and we underestimate what we can get done in 10. For us, a big value is the ministry of consistency, which is keep showing up. And I think when we look at somebody else’s finish line and compare our starting line to it, we often feel discouraged. We look at somebody on social media, we read somebody’s book about how they crushed it, and we just feel so far away from that. And I think instead we need to say, what is my opportunity right now today? How do I take steps to achieve that today? And then ask the same question tomorrow. And when we have that approach, we end up with this step-by-step mindset that leads to the kind of growth that you cannot do in one day. It’s got to be days compounded.
So, for us, what that looked like was we knew we wanted to walk alongside of the neighborhood in a way that was life giving and that was led by the community. But if you said, “Hey, do you know what that’s going to look like?” No, that required three months of dialogue, three months of dialogue. So, if you were looking for a quick let’s just do it on Tuesday, you’d already be out. You had to do that long-term kind of approach. So yeah, I would say to anybody who’s got a dream right now to be comfortable if their dream is in seed form. It won’t always be in seed form.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: So, Will, what would you say to the non-profit leaders out there and the fledgling non-profit leaders that are getting ready to make an impact on this world, but maybe getting a lot of naysayers? What would you say to them?
Will Acuff: Man, the first thing I would say is don’t let anybody tell you that the world already has too much. I hear that a lot. We already have too many non-profits, we already have too many whatever, fill in the blank. And I look around and I still see a lot of my neighbors in need. I still see suffering; I still see pain. As long as that’s happening, we haven’t figured it all out. So, whatever the problem is that you feel sparked, you get that fire in your bones to go out and solve, go solve it. And don’t let anybody tell you that one, you’re not needed. Or two, that you’re not the right person to figure it out because the skills you need and the talent you need to develop, all those kinds of things, they will develop as you move forward. There are very few people I know in any field who started as good as they would one day get, They got the skills, they got the knowledge, they got the insight as they took the next step on the journey.
So, I would say do it, move forward, figure it out. And then the second thing I would say is if you want to fast forward your growth, really clearly define the problem you’re solving in the community and be able to articulate that really, really well.
Dr. Aikyna Finch: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Will, for being with us today. And this story was so powerful because I have seen it in action and it has been amazing to see you pitch competition, fundraising, different opportunities. Going from one site to, I mean, my goodness, we’re probably getting ready to be 20 sites soon. And it is so amazing to see the impossible become possible. And to the audience, this topic when it first came to me was called The Power of Non-Profits. And I hope that y’all see that the power of non-profits is that will, that drive, and that motivation to help your neighbors. Help them be better people by the services you provide them. So, thank you. Thank you so much for listening. Be safe and be well.