Giving Neighborhood People a Say in Community Development

Think of Pinkberry in Boston’s Back Bay versus Pinkberry in the North End. In one neighborhood, the business thrives; in another, it fails.

Too many neighborhood storefronts throughout Boston and beyond turn over too frequently—or worse, remain vacant. As small-business entrepreneurs, storefront owners, and residents wonder why, Hakim Cunningham, Class of 2017, is providing some much needed answers—and a pathway to future redevelopment success.

Cunningham, who majored in Entrepreneurship and received one of two Innovation Fellowships awarded last year by the Center for Innovative Collaboration and Leadership, has developed a collaborative business model to address this community redevelopment challenge. Rooted in neighborhood-specific data analytics, Cunningham’s Venture Popup Accelerator benefits entrepreneurs, storefront owners, and residents alike by providing access through an online platform to customer income and purchasing data and community funding and planning resources.

Residents get involved

“The Venture Popup model minimizes risk and maximizes opportunities for success with shared risk and reward,” says Cunningham, who graduated from Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School in January. “We’re giving ordinary people a say in the future growth of their community.”

“We’re giving ordinary people a say in the future growth of their community.” -Hakim Cunningham

The platform allows residents to provide input about the types of businesses they want to see in their neighborhoods through an online message portal that’s shared with entrepreneurs and storefront owners, and they can pool money and investments to support those businesses. Real estate owners and entrepreneurs have access to neighborhood-specific permitting, licensing and zoning requirements, and predictive business analytics to assure that their business is well suited to the proposed location. The flexible concierge-type service also helps businesses and real estate owners to arrange mutually beneficial lease agreements to accommodate seasonal businesses, according to Cunningham.

Applying business skills for the community

At age 41, Cunningham, a lifelong Boston resident who’s spent much of his career as a community organizer with the Boston Workers Alliance and Transportation for Massachusetts, is passionate about putting his Suffolk business degree to work in community development and urban planning.

Initially sparked by the long stretches of empty storefronts along Dorchester’s Blue Hill Avenue, Cunningham’s MyBlock business model—now known as the Venture Popup Accelerator—is designed to help cities and towns rethink how businesses can be leveraged to grow communities and to empower residents in that process.

With MyBlock, Cunningham competed in the City Start Boston Boot Camp, finishing second, and went on to pitch the model with the Boston Entrepreneurs Network and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative Unconference in 2015.

But it was at the Sawyer Business School that the pieces of the Venture Popup Accelerator plan came together. Entrepreneurship Professor Robert Smith underscored the importance of analytic data collection to the project’s success. Professor Dominic Thomas, co-director of the Center for Innovative Collaboration and Leadership and its Innovation Fellows Program, and Richard Taylor, executive-in-residence at Suffolk’s Center for Real Estate, were invaluable mentors.

“My professors always supported me and gave me the confidence to go out in the business world and be competitive,” Cunningham says.

He also is working with Professor Lolita Darden and student Eric Tatman in the Law School’s Intellectual Property & Entrepreneurship Clinic to develop contracts and other legal documents for his organization.

Cunningham has organized community panel discussions and is working with the Uphams Corner, West Roxbury, and Washington Gateway Main Streets programs to strategize on how to incorporate his ideas as these programs work on filling empty storefronts.

He is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy beginning next fall at Tufts University.

Student ideas go from classroom to practice

The Innovation Fellows Program, co-directed by Thomas and Professor Jodi Detjen, was developed in 2016 to provide students the “opportunity to pursue passions and transition ideas from academia to practice,” Thomas says. “If classroom learning works, it inspires students to think of new ways of doing things in the world….Jodi and I wanted to provide support for our students’ great ideas to grow and flourish.”

“Now that the business plan is in place, there is an exciting opportunity to launch this effort with several properties and strengthen communities one commercial block at a time,” Cunningham says. “The fellowship funding has been critical to getting the Venture Popup Accelerator off the ground.”

The Terino Family Foundation and Eastern Bank each have committed to endowments of $100,000 for annual Innovation Fellowship awards of $2,000. Thomas and Detjen hope that at least nine more companies will step forward to provide additional fellowship opportunities for Suffolk University students inspired in the classroom and ready to make their visions a reality.

Sara Romer