How One Woman Is Helping Teens Become E-Commerce Entrepreneurs

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Written by Ann Brown
Candice Cunningham
Photo via Candice Cunningham

Candice Cunningham is on a mission. She wants to create a mass network of teen entrepreneurs across underserved communities in Chicago.

Cunningham, 31, who owns two online stores, has been training teens from several South Side high schools to create their own clothing lines through her nonprofit, The Black EcoSystem.

The first group of teens recently completed their training and their clothes, which include T-shirts, hats and hoodies with messages like “Revolution,” “Change Everything” and “Worthy,” debuted at a “Rise Collection Apparel Pop-up” in June.

“I am teaching teenagers how to become entrepreneurs and how to start an online business,” said Cunningham. “I feel like I’m changing people’s lives and through changing lives, you never know if you’ll be saving someone’s life.”

For three years now, Cunningham has run two successful online stores – including a T-shirt business, Looklav.com

Cunningham talks tech and teens with Moguldom.

Moguldom: What are the goals of The Black EcoSystem?

Candice Cunningham: The goals and the vision is so huge and complex, so let me try to sum this up into one sentence. The goal of the Black EcoSystem is to create hundreds of Teen Entrepreneurs and break the cycle of poverty and violence while providing solutions to multiple problems that exist in society. 

Moguldom: Why do you think it’s important to create a mass network of teen entrepreneurs across underserved communities in Chicago?

Candice Cunningham: I think it’s important because in order to break the detrimental cycle of poverty and violence, we must provide opportunities for our youth. I’ve seen first hand that our young people have unlimited potential and they are super innovative and bright – they just need someone to pull it out of them and give them the tools to be successful. I want to make sure these bright kids can focus on creating solutions to problems that exist and on making the world a better place instead of focusing on tragedy and struggles.

Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 59: Brandon Tory, PT 2 They discuss the high stakes for Black America not scaling up in technology and the potential to weaponize tech against us, whether hip hop dumbs the people down and what a hip-hop summit would look like in 2019.

Moguldom: How does it work?

Candice Cunningham: Teens ages 16-19 are selected to participate in the 16-week Entrepreneurial Training Program. We brainstorm a business concept that will have a positive impact on the world and then I help them create it from start to finish. We cover setting up the business, web design and development, product development, branding, marketing, finances, and personal development.

Moguldom: What happens during the 16-week Black Ecosystem Entrepreneurship training program?

Candice Cunningham: We brainstorm a business concept that will have a positive impact on the world and then I help them create it from start to finish. We cover setting up the business, web design and development, product development, branding, marketing, finances, and personal development.

I also expose them to other resources such a hands-on training in fields such as coding, graphic design, and careers that they can make a decent living without going to college for 4-8 years. 

It’s four-month training, but their participation lasts a lifetime because they are actually a Partner in the business we create. During the initial four months we brainstorm a business concept that will have a positive impact on the world and then I help them create it from start to finish. We cover setting up the business, web design and development, product development, branding, marketing, finances, and personal development.

Moguldom: How is the program funded?

Candice Cunningham: For now, I am funding it myself from the profits generated by Candice Companies LLC.

Moguldom: What does the Rise Collection do?

Candice Cunningham: Rise Collection is the result of my business partnership with the teens who participated in Black Ecosystem’s 16-week Entrepreneurial Training. The apparel line features text that promotes positivity. It also features trendy graphics that the students came up with themselves and went through the process of sketching designs, working with a graphic designer to make the designs come to life, and then following the steps to putting the designs on the shirts, working with manufacturers, printers, working with templates, learning pricing, and using our custom-built software to track inventory. 

Moguldom: How did you get involved in tech?

Candice Cunningham: I became interested in tech and e-commerce back in 2008. I went to a conference and they were selling e-commerce platforms. This was before people started realizing that online stores were a big deal. I’m talking before sites like Shopify were born. With Shopify, BigCartel, Woo Commerce you can set up an online store for $500 to a couple thousand dollars. Back then that was impossible…all your development had to be custom coded and that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Well, at this conference they were selling online store platforms for like $5,000-$10,000 so it was a pretty good deal. They also offered support (so they said). Make a long story short it flopped. My first two stores were not successful and I lost a lot of money – money that had been entrusted to me by my family to follow my dream. I was determined to be successful so I started teaching myself using several methods. 

Moguldom: Tell us more about Candice Companies LLC?

Candice Cunningham: Candice Companies LLC is the parent company for all my other endeavors. I have a few different online stores and recently I’ve gotten involved in real estate rehab projects so that’s the master company that everything else is under. 

Moguldom: When did you start your two online stores?

Candice Cunningham: Lav which is an apparel store was started in 2016. BecauseofaCase was started in 2017.

Moguldom: You have started other ventures that failed, what would you say were the lessons learned from the experience?“

Candice Cunningham: Don’t break. Stay strong, be resourceful and keep moving. If you’re tempted to put out negative energy in any way…pause…figure out how to do exactly the opposite and instead put that positive energy into achieving your goals. 

Moguldom: What are your goals for this year with your various ventures and with the Black Ecosystem?

Candice Cunningham: I want to expand the Black Ecosystem’s business model nationwide starting with Los Angeles and Atlanta. I’m also building a few more e-commerce stores for myself, my mom, my sister, and few other people that have looked out for me. I want to help them get to six figures before the end of the year. 

Moguldom: How do you juggle everything?

Candice Cunningham:  I don’t know. It’s hard as heck and I don’t know how I’m doing it. It has to be God/ The Universe because I don’t get much rest at all. I have a to-do list of almost 30 difficult items every day. I have hardly any time for anything fun or passive and it really sucks. Forces bigger than me are definitely providing me with the strength and connections I need to keep going. I’m so grateful for that. 

Moguldom: What do you like the most about being an entrepreneur?

Candice Cunningham: I get to do what I need to do when I need to do it. Secondly, I get to create the lifestyle I want to live and help others a lot because my cup is full now. I’ve never been good at following a faulty system created by someone else. I noticed so many faults in the current systems we follow and now I can create better ones that help myself, my family, my community, and the world by being an entrepreneur. Also, I can work from anywhere in the world which is a big plus. 

Moguldom: What do you enjoy the most in dealing with teens through the Black Ecosystem?

Candice Cunningham: That I’m hands on with them and able to listen directly to them and see what issues they struggle with. That way the solutions we design together will be effective. And then we become business partners and scale our solutions so that we can help communities across the Nation. That’s the most satisfying thing in the world to me.