When entrepreneur Candice Cunningham was 20 years old, she created a nonprofit organization with the intention of giving back to her South Side community. It was not an easy start, but that did not deter her. She also tried to start two separate businesses that flopped in a matter of years because she did not have the proper business skills. But her mindset was unwavering to failure.
She went back to the drawing board and refined her business skills. She took college classes in digital marketing, software development, graphic design and e-commerce. She also made connections with professionals in the industry and learned how they were doing business. Other than that, she was primarily self-taught, just like her motivation.
“Professionalism, maturity, compassion — that kept me getting up the times I fell down and turn that energy into a driving force that nobody could mess with,” Cunningham, now 31, said, now.
In 2014, she was ready for her third business try: she started a marketing firm that helped her acquire her first company, Because of a Case, a charitable online iPhone case store. Next, she created Lav in 2016, a t-shirt company that incorporated all of her talents: marketing, design and selling online.
All the while, her nonprofit was on the back burner. But now, 11 years later, she has enough funds from her for-profit businesses to lift up her passion project.
Called The Black Ecosystem, its aim is to revitalize struggling communities and empower individuals to make positive changes to their community. Cunningham spent the last eight months working with seven teens from Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Ashburn to teach them entrepreneurial skills including starting a business, working with local vendors and marketing a product.
Through the program, the teens created the Rise Collectionclothing line, which includes t-shirts, hats and hoodies with messages like “Revolution,” “Change Everything,” and “Worthy.”
“I felt that by making the teens my business partners, it was a new concept, which is scary, but I figured I can make it work,” Cunningham said.
She paid each student $50 a week for two sessions to show them the power of employment and what it was like getting treated professionally. She said when she first floated the idea, she received pushback about working with teens, but she pushed forward and knew this program was important to help solve economic disparities in the teens’ neighborhoods.
“Economic empowerment and putting money into those communities is the only thing that’s going to help problems in the community,” Cunningham said. “Being from West Englewood, that real-life experience is what I yearned for when I was younger.”
She wanted to give the teenagers what she did not have when she started her businesses. Introducing them to new skills and showing them possibilities can help their career and give them motivation to be an entrepreneur, Cunningham said. “I am teaching them to be responsible and be accountable for their actions; life skills in general are all bottled up into this training program,” she said.
The program encompasses the nonprofit’s mission of helping others. The teens learned to create businesses that could directly support their communities and give back to combat unemployment, violent cycles and change the culture. Cunningham calls this an “each one, teach one” philosophy.
“I help you; you help somebody else, and it just keeps on giving,” she said.
Wilbert Moore, a graduating senior at Bogan High School, is one of the teens in the program and said he has loved every minute of it. He plans to start his own clothing line after this experience, and two other students want to do the same as well.
Moore said he has a strong interest in graphic design and is going to study it at Robert Morris University in the fall, though he plans to transfer to the SEA Institute in Atlanta to continue his studies and pick up music. “I love that this is something I want to do in my life,” Moore said.
He said he has learned so much from the experience, from starting the design process on paper to working with vendors and seeing the final product. He praises Cunningham for her determination and professionalism in working with them. “It feels good because it’s like I am getting a head start in life,” he said. “Most young kids don’t get this opportunity to do what I’m doing. It’s a good thing what Candice is doing for us.”
Cunningham said eventually this program will grow and she wants the original group to come back and support the next wave of students. Moore said he will be there. “I want to teach others how to do it,” he said. “I want to be like her — an entrepreneur.”