Nana Kofi Nti (front) and Courtney Smith speaking at one of their weekly Hope Academy seminars at College of Alameda. Credit: Courtesy of Nana Kofi Nti

For some, the word “entrepreneur” evokes images of gray-suited businesspeople or perhaps the common sales catchphrase “these simple steps.” Hope Academy, a business training program focused on developing Black entrepreneurs, is intent on challenging those associations. 

At 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening at College of Alameda, a classroom of mostly Black people, with others watching online, are gathered to hear a three-hour seminar on entrepreneurship. One instructor is wearing a New York Yankees fitted cap and the other is wearing a letterman jacket from his own sports apparel brand. Their message to the students? This won’t be easy. 

“We’re in this self-help culture now where everybody’s just digesting information but they’re empty on the inside,” said Nana Kofi Nti, Hope Academy’s co-founder and one of the course instructors. It’s a culture that needs to shift, he said, and there is no quick fix, “the way that you would look at a manual only when you need it.”

Whereas many other business courses try to inspire entrepreneurship with motivational platitudes like “this could be you,” Nti said Hope Academy’s aim is to prepare students to navigate the difficult times that often come when building a business from scratch. It’s not enough to build a business, he said—people need a community to sustain it. 

“We realized that we needed to create an environment and a culture around entrepreneurship,” he said, “that allows entrepreneurs to constantly extract value from it.”

It’s not a traditional business course and there’s no certificate at the end, he explained. Rather, it’s about helping students internalize successful business practices so they can adjust to situations as they happen. “Entrepreneurship is not a destination, it is a practice,” he said.

Hope Academy (formerly called A Year of Hope) is a project of 510media Hope Foundation, the nonprofit arm of 510media, a marketing agency started by Nti and his business partner Mashama Carter Thompson in 2005. Initially, it was a photography studio. But 18 years later, the company has expanded into a “behavioral science-based marketing and brand strategy” agency with clients ranging from B.E.T. to the Oakland As to the 49ers Foundation. 

In 2015, seeing a need to help other Black entrepreneurs who might not have access to the information he’d accumulated over his years in business, Nti started the foundation to bridge the gap. The first “Year of Hope” class took place in January 2016 with 40 students. 

To date, the academy has served over 300 entrepreneurs according to Nti, including the founders of the Oakland-based companies Silent Victory, That’s My Jam, The Town Experience, Pinpoint Fitness, and some members of the local music collective Grand Nationxl.

From left: Courtney Smith and Nana Kofi Nti presenting at one of their entrepreneurship seminars at the College of Alameda. Credit: Courtesy of Nana Kofi Nti

Nti’s co-teacher at Hope Academy is Courtney Smith, the founder of Courtsmith, a sports and lifestyle apparel company that has brand partnerships with NBA players and college and prep athletic programs. Courtsmith currently has two locations, in Oakland and Rocklin.

In the class, Smith shares how ego and being unprepared for growth contributed to the rise and fall of his first athletic clothing business, Young Players Association (YPA). Despite being busy with his current business, Smith intentionally makes time to co-teach the weekly classes at Hope Academy.

“Life is like an orchestra. You have to know what instruments to play at what time,” said Smith, explaining that life doesn’t stop while building a business. Rather than strive for work-life balance, Smith seeks to integrate his business practices with his lifestyle. “In the rhythm of life,” he said, “you have to be able to have more harmony than balance.”

Despite their collective experience, both instructors say they’ve continued to learn while shaping the course. “We had to learn how to teach because I wasn’t a professional teacher,” said Nti. “But I had to learn how to teach and then learn how to develop a culturally sensitive pedagogy that speaks towards the African American challenge.”

The class is not limited to Black people but it does center on experiences of trauma, discrimination, and impoverishment within the Black community while recognizing those things are experienced across cultures. “We recognize the racial stories and things contextually from a racial perspective and then we are able to examine that in class,” said Nti. “But we’re still using principles and values and ideas that are applied to all human beings.”

A big part of Hope Academy’s draw is hearing and learning from Black entrepreneurs who look and sound like their students—and it’s a big part of what’s kept me going as a Hope Academy student since I began attending in 2022.

Both Nti and Smith speak earnestly about themselves and their journey, in a voice that sounds like one of my relatives. It is honest, humorous, heartbreaking, and healing all at the same time. The class speaks to me because it feels familiar, and reinforces the idea that people, including successful entrepreneurs, are not one-dimensional and don’t always enunciate every letter they speak (and in Nti’s case, will sometimes tell you a story about their Harley). 

“I think being authentic is one of the most valuable assets you can have,” said Smith. “Because can’t nobody else be you, better than you.”

Hope Academy courses from 2021 and 2022 can be streamed on the 510media Hope Foundation’s YouTube channel. New classes are held on Wednesdays three times per month, with the fourth Wednesday off.

In-person classes are $75 and online courses are $50. All students receive access to a private Facebook group where members share their insights, give updates, and support each other’s businesses. 

Hope Academy’s current course began on Jan. 18 but enrollment is ongoing. For more information on how to sign up, follow the IG page or visit the website.

Brandy Collins is a writer and public services advocate, born and raised in the Bay Area. She is a 2019-2020 cohort graduate from the Maynard Institute for Journalism, a correspondent for Oakland Voices, a blogger, and the funny one in numerous group chats. She is concerned with civic engagement and leadership development toward making public works more efficient for the people. Brandy is full of Scorpio magic and a self-proclaimed Professional Aunty. Follow her on Twitter @MsBrandyCollins or Instagram @story_soul_collecter.