Kennesaw State partnership equips local entrepreneurs with tools for success

KENNESAW, Ga. | Apr 17, 2024

Iletha Dodds has always wanted to establish her own nail salon, but making the leap of faith felt too risky and daunting.

The Marietta resident said taking care of her son and working full time as a court clerk made her dream seem improbable, so for years, she has settled on decorating the nails of family and friends as her creative outlet. That is, until she received an email detailing the Aspiring Community Entrepreneurs (ACE) program at Kennesaw State University.

“I have a passion for creating, helping people look and feel amazing and providing excellent customer service,” Dodds said. “I’ve always wanted to combine those characteristics into something I could call my own. So when I got the email, I thought, ‘This could be my chance. I’m all in.’”

The ACE program launched in September 2023 through a partnership between Kennesaw State and Marietta-based MUST Ministries, a nonprofit fighting poverty, hunger and homelessness in the metro Atlanta area.

ACE is based on the University of Notre Dame’s Urban Poverty and Business Initiative, which promotes programs across the country that help those who do not have the financial means to start and grow businesses of their own. MUST was approached by Notre Dame to develop the ACE program with KSU, as Notre Dame UPBI leaders felt KSU and MUST could create a partnership that identified participants who would like to start their own businesses for a stable means of employment and provide those entrepreneurs the best mentors and teachers possible.

The ACE program combines the expertise of faculty and students in the Michael J. Coles College of Business with the helping hands and resources of MUST Ministries to provide a “beacon of opportunity for disadvantaged metro Atlanta residents,” said Ike Reighard, CEO of MUST Ministries.

“People in this program have hope again, and they’re realizing that there are people who are very successful who are willing to pour back into their lives,” Reighard said. “To just watch the confidence they gain as they’re putting together a dream they’ve had for a very long time, that’s been one of the best parts of this program.”

KSU’s program was born from a conversation between the University and Judy Boyce, the widow of former Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce. Mike Boyce was attending a University of Notre Dame fellowship at the time of his death, and he learned of a professor’s work in pulling people out of poverty by teaching them entrepreneurial skills.

Shortly after Mike Boyce’s passing, leaders of Notre Dame’s South Bend Entrepreneurship and Adversity Program named an award in his honor and approached Reighard about the joint community entrepreneurship effort between MUST, Notre Dame and Coles College. On April 27, MUST Ministries will host a graduation ceremony for the first cohort of 18 students from the program.

“We jumped at the chance to help local community members incubate new local businesses and create new partnerships. It’s a win for everyone involved,” said Robin Cheramie, dean of the Coles College. “If we can leverage the expertise we have here at KSU to make a difference, that's what we want to do."

The ACE program is unique in that it focuses on people who are facing various disadvantaged conditions - social, physical, economic and vocational - and offers them the opportunity to start a business for themselves, said Mark Hiatt, the program’s director and associate professor of entrepreneurship at KSU. MUST Ministries identifies applicants through the services it offers.

“The program incorporates classroom education, business mentorship and active consulting to provide the participants with the start-up resources that they need to take their business ideas and develop them into a viable plan of action,” Hiatt said. “It’s inspiring and highly motivating to direct a program like this. KSU and Coles College have a standing mission to engage with and help the local community, and this is a perfect example of how we can do that.”

The program began with a six-week bootcamp. Every Saturday, participants heard from Hiatt and experts in law, finance and business development. Through 10 months of coursework, participants were assigned a peer mentor, and business students guided the aspiring entrepreneurs in their work.

Master of Business Administration student Tracey Graves is one of those students. When she arrived at KSU, she immediately began searching for ways to get involved with a service project and was quickly referred to the ACE program. She has an affinity for working with the budding entrepreneurs, who embody hard work and determination.

“It has been an honor to watch their passions come to fruition,” Graves said. “What's more inspiring are the students who want to start nonprofits but have very little themselves. They exemplify that we don't need to have much to give of ourselves when we recognize a need in others.”

For Dodds, the program, the sacrifices she has made, and her upcoming graduation represent a chance to realize a dream decades in the making. Dodds has been a licensed nail technician for 29 years, and with the newly acquired skills from her 10 months of work with ACE, she also plans to open a nail school for high school students and adults interested in becoming licensed nail technicians.

“On top of launching this business, I want to help the next generation of nail technicians like me,” she said. “I’ve met many people who have a nail license and still have trouble getting employed because they have no work experience. The plan is to bridge the gap with students who go through our program by offering hands-on apprenticeships. We seek to empower those with practical, vocational training and meet the growing demand for skilled professionals in the beauty industry.”

Dodds considers the present one of the most exciting times of her life, and gratitude for the ACE program overflows when she looks back on the last year.

“I have to thank all of them for the time, patience, encouragement, leadership, and professionalism ¾ the program is amazing,” she said. “After years of getting to know myself and building my skills, I have a newfound understanding and respect for entrepreneurs. This business is where I can finally do all that I’ve dreamt of in one location. It represents the spirit of, ‘I’ve made it.’”

– By Thomas Hartwell

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit