By T. Anthony BellSeptember 8, 2011
FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 8, 2011) -- Retired Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Cunningham knows ambition when he sees it.
That's why he has no problem giving his personal support to youth who aspire to achieve.
Cunningham, the manager and owner of the Sustainment Center of Excellence Cafeteria located in the SCoE headquarters building, met his entrepreneurial match in 16-year-old Danyelle Parham as he shopped in a local supermarket earlier this year.
"I met her in Sam's Club," said Cunningham, a Quartermaster Hall of Famer and formerly the top enlisted Soldier at the U.S. Army Food Service Training Facility. "She came to me, and she asked me what did I do. I guessed she had seen me before because I'm in there quite often.
"As I explained to her what I did, she said to me, 'Well, I'm an entrepreneur, too,'" he continued, thinking she was a bit forward in her response. "I thought it (was a reality TV show) and started looking for cameras hiding around the corner, but she said, 'No, I am an entrepreneur and my business is called Danny's Delights.'"
Cunningham was impressed, struck by the young lady's self-assuredness and demeanor.
"I'm looking at this young lady like, hey, you might be on to something here," he recalled. Cunningham said he then paid for his items and went out to the parking lot to meet Danyelle's mom, Malinda.
"I told her right off the bat, 'I love your daughter,'" he said.
Cunningham later encouraged Danyelle, the product of a single-parent household, to apply for a worker's permit and offered her a food service position at the cafeteria. She accepted the offer.
"What I really wanted to do is help her grow her business and at the same time help put some money in her pocket and help her with her intent to pay her way through college," he said. "All of that was positive to me. I wish we had more like her."
A conscientious businessman, Cunningham has worked for sometime supporting the area's at-risk youth. He currently mentors eight young people who could use "an extra shoulder to lean on or that extra word of encouragement," he said. The South Carolinian was raised by a single mother and said he took on responsibilities as a young man to help support his seven siblings.
"I know if it weren't for others helping me and my family, we probably would've been separated and placed in foster homes," he said.
Cunningham's life's story is his fuel to empower others. Danyelle has demonstrated that she is more than qualified on take the driver's seat. At age 11, when many girls indulge themselves in hopscotch and double dutch, she was counting the coins she had accumulated from selling candy to schoolmates. By the time she was 15, she said she was making more than $300 a week.
"As I grew older and started to make more money," recalled Petersburg High School junior, "I starting thinking about being an entrepreneur and being my own boss."
The sweetness of success continued for Danyelle, and like a true entrepreneur, she began to reinvest and expand. She started selling cookies and "Delights" was born.
At Cunningham's place of business, Danyelle worked during the summer, making sandwiches and performing other food preparation tasks in addition to selling her own cookies and cupcakes. She said the opportunity provided her with some insights on how a business with employees works in comparison to a one-person shop.
"You have to realize that you're not your own boss," she said. "You have people above you telling you what to do and you have to follow rules and fulfill a lot of expectations."
Danyelle said she had a fruitful experience at the cafeteria, but she clearly prefers calling the shots and handing out business cards with her name on them.
"If you're your own boss, there's a lot you don't have to worry about," she said. "You have to just listen to yourself and make sure things are running smoothly."
And that's fine with Cunningham. It was never his intent to hinder Danyelle's passion for proprietorship but rather provide another perspective in business operations and, more importantly, reinforce what she already believed.
"Ultimately, I wanted her to see exactly what she saw," he said, "that working for herself outweighs working for somebody else."
Danyelle, with the experience of the cafeteria behind her, hopes to pay he way through college, expand her business and look for new business opportunities.