I Am Academy explores future careers at MillerKnoll

As the I Am Academy students toured MillerKnoll’s Design Yard earlier this year, they got a taste of what is available in their own backyard — a workplace that values not only innovation, but that values them.

Henry and Lindsay Cherry started I Am Academy in 2020 to empower African American youth to achieve their full potential by cultivating relationships, providing college experiences, supporting educational success, facilitating job readiness, centering their identity, and ultimately changing the narrative and trajectory of their community.

MillerKnoll’s Design Yard is the front edge of the Zeeland-based company’s innovation. Employees in the Yard are designing, engineering, and marketing the office furniture company’s newest ideas — while also testing them out through daily use.

“There are spaces like this in Holland (where innovation is happening and all are welcome),” I Am Academy co-founder Henry Cherry says.” You don’t have to go to Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo or Chicago. You can do well right here in an area you grew up in.”

Do better

Corporate sponsors are seeking out the fledgling nonprofit, because they believe in the nonprofit’s ideals, Cherry says.

“There are a lot of businesses that want to do better in diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace,” he says. “What better way to do it than to work with the students now who could potentially fill those roles in the future?”

At the same time, the students can see what is available right in their backyard and “do some soul searching” about maybe staying closer to home after college.

To be able to see themselves reflected in the faces of leaders — “You can’t put a price on it, to be honest,” Cherry says.

Tara Weymon Leonard, MillerKnoll’s vice president of global contract and field marketing, joined the I Am Academy board in February. As an African American woman, it’s a cause that is close to her heart. Her 12-year-old son participates in I Am Academy.

“Both the personal and the professional side aligned very well,” she says. “We are committed, as an organization, to helping build our communities and specifically with I Am academy to empower African American adolescence in the area to reach their full potential.”

Interactive

She told the I Am Academy students who visited the Design Yard in April about marketing MillerKnoll's vast array of design projects. The students were in fifth through 11th grades.

“We wanted to make it interactive. We wanted to make it very much up close and personal, so they could leave very much excited,” Weymon Leonard says.

They wanted students to imagine what potential careers could look like whether with MillerKnoll or another firm, she says.

The day showed students how MillerKnoll takes a product from ideation to launch through digital design, product development and engineering and brand marketing.

They even designed a hypothetical party — Who would the party be for? How many would attend? What kind of party would it be? — only to find out there was a party waiting for them at the end of the excursion.

The company is also exploring opportunities to involve I Am Academy students this fall. MillerKnoll is one of many businesses and nonprofits participating in I Am Academy’s Juneteenth celebration later this month.

Juneteenth in Holland

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas received the news they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclimation.

Commemorations of the national holiday are becoming more common in the area, and this year’s Juneteenth celebration will be spread out over a week of music, community, and food. It will begin with the Founders and Freedom Seekers: The Secret Histories of African Americans in Michigan Before the Civil War presentation 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, at the Brew Merchant, 442 Washington Ave. A soul music concert will include special guest Entyce 7-10 p.m. Friday, June 17, at the Park Theatre 248 S. River Ave. Tickets are $25 and available at the Park Theatre website. Saturday, June 18, will kick off with the 3-on-3 Juneteenth Jump-Off Basketball Tournament (register here) at Third Reformed Church, 111 W. 13th St.  The Freedom Festival and Market, and A Taste of History Music Festival will fill Kollen Park, 240 Kollen Park Drive, with community booths, food, kids’ activities and music starting at 3 p.m.  

The week will wrap up with the Freedom Forever Fashion Shows by executive stylists Ajiana Wilson and Gezelle Kingdom Grier at 5:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, at the Brew Merchant.

“We don’t have a lot of spaces that are very intentional about having racial diversity,” Cherry says. “It is an open door to the entire community to come on out and to hang out.”

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.