Using lessons learned about civic engagement and community service at Penn State, two alumni who attended the Abington campus have raised more than $200,000 in eight weeks for their new nonprofit aimed at rebuilding Black-owned businesses nationwide.
In the wake of the coronavirus-induced economic downturn and the civil unrest that damaged businesses following the death of George Floyd, Zelnnetta Clark and Alexis Akarolo were galvanized to create Rebuild the Block.
“This is a community effort to redistribute wealth, resources and knowledge back to the Black community. We are setting Black entrepreneurs up for success,” Clark, a post-baccalaureate pre-med student in California, said. “One hundred percent of the proceeds will be distributed to the community.”
To qualify for Rebuild the Block funding, businesses must be Black-owned, have documentation of their legitimacy in terms of losses, verify that they’ve been impacted by COVID-19 or looting or both, and certify that they were in business before Jan. 1, 2020.
"To make sure we are credible, we emphasize an extensive verification process including demographic information and uploading their tax information and bank statements among other items,” Akarolo said. “We have money coming from donors, and we want to make sure it isn’t donated in vain.”
The first round of grants was distributed to six businesses including ValueNetPC in Maryland, The Blaxican Mexican Soul Food truck and restaurant in Atlanta, and Intriguing Hair Extensions in Boston. The funds have been used to purchase machinery, support development and programs, and pay rent.
How did two members of the Abington Class of 2019 organize a nonprofit, raise money, and award grants in less than two months during one of the most turbulent times in American history?
“My spirit wouldn’t let me rest,” Akarolo said. “We were hearing of the looting and COVID-19 taking money out of people’s pockets.”
So the onetime Abington roommates posted an appeal on gofundme.com and raised almost $100,000 within a few days, garnering support through outreach and sharing on social media.
“Once we saw the support for the Go Fund Me page, we knew it was time to move forward,” Clark said. “We thought we needed more resources but then realized that we’re not too small to do this.”
The pair reached out to their networks and assembled a team comprised of nine people from across the nation to fulfill roles ranging from creatives to risk managers.
“We pulled together people from different walks of life who offered different perspectives so we could make our vision a reality,” Akarolo, creative director at the clothing brand Lovello Elizabeth and a master of business administration student at Abington, said.
“My passion for community service and serving predominately underrepresented communities has been fueled by being involved in community outreach efforts that Abington facilitates for students to get involved in something bigger than themselves."
— Zelnnetta Clark, co-founder, Rebuild the Block
Akarolo and Clark plan to expand their nonprofit’s services.
“We want Rebuild the Block to be a one-stop shop in the Black community, and in the future hope to see this organization grow to be bigger than us. We want this to be the foundation for the future,” Akarolo said.
Clark added: “We are trying to change the narrative with this small business relief fund. We want to be a liaison. We want to have resources for programs like mental health therapy for African Americans and financial literacy programs."
The duo wants to be an example to others.
“We were always talking about using our platforms to help. Anyone can do this. It doesn’t matter what age. Be passionate, driven, and motivated. There are always people willing to support and help. People we didn’t know were supportive. They wanted to know if they could make an app, make a website,” Akarolo said.
Clark spent the majority of her undergraduate career serving in executive positions for the campus’s Community Outreach Workers organization.
“My passion for community service and serving predominately underrepresented communities has been fueled by being involved in community outreach efforts that Abington facilitates for students to get involved in something bigger than themselves,” she said.
Follow Rebuild the Block on Instagram @RebuildtheblockCorp, on Twitter @RTBCORP or visit their website at www.Rebuildtheblock.org.
About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible, and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 22 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.