(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series describing the evangelical work of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s Joy O’Shell as she takes entrepreneurial training to smaller towns around Knoxville.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
You only have to listen to Joy O’Shell for a few minutes to see how passionate the native of Kingston and former big city resident is about rural entrepreneurship.
In fact, the passion becomes contagious as the Director of Outreach for the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) describes changes in her hometown in the nearly two decades she lived elsewhere and the outreach role she is playing with other non-metropolitan communities.
One could easily describe O’Shell as an evangelist, helping communities around Knoxville inspire local entrepreneurs.
“KEC feels like a destination for people,” she says of the Downtown Knoxville location. “That’s good for some, but not for others.”
O’Shell and her trusty Subaru station wagon are visiting with individuals and groups in places like Clinton, Morristown, Rutledge, Sevierville and Sweetwater, as well as her hometown of Kingston, understanding their goals and linking with others to help make dreams a reality.
“I have found a way to go into these communities to talk about economic development in a way that we can do something,” she says.
For those who know O’Shell’s professional background, as described in this teknovation.biz article, focusing on small towns might seem odd. After all, she was away from here for 18 years, working in the music, entertainment and media industry in big metropolitan areas like Chicago, Seattle, Denver and New York City.
O’Shell proudly notes that she is a fifth generation Roane Countian on her father’s side. She even worked at the Toho Tenax plant in Rockwood while attending Roane State Community College and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she earned a B.A. in English.
“I thought I wanted to be an English teacher, but shifted to rock and roll and law,” O’Shell says. Yet, even as her professional opportunities took her to different cities, she never forgot her roots and the economic challenges that smaller communities face.
“This is what I’ve been thinking about since I left,” O’Shell says of the outreach work she is leading for KEC. For the most part, the goal is to help smaller towns thrive. There’s another goal, however, that is related to the way others view Appalachian communities.
“I never understood how we were so stereotyped as hillbillies,” O’Shell says of the perceptions she witnessed firsthand as she worked around the country. “That’s a caricature, but that’s not the amazingly brilliant people I know.”
Now that she, her husband and their three children have returned to Roane County, O’Shell has an opportunity to make a difference.
NEXT: The O’Shell strategy to help smaller East Tennessee towns.