By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
We conducted the interview by phone, but you could clearly hear the exuberance in Lori Fuller’s voice as she described the Knoxville Chamber’s inaugural Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) and two of the students who will participate in it.
The program has been in development for more than a year. When it launches in mid-October, the local YEA! effort will join about 100 similar programs around the country, but will have the distinction of being the first in Tennessee.
“The great thing about kids is they believe they can do anything,” the Chamber’s Vice President of Marketing and Events, says in describing the program that adds a much-needed and critical new component to the emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem in the community.
To underscore her point, Fuller described two of the 24 young people who begin the 30-week program on October 12 with an orientation session followed by the first class the next night.
She and Mark Field, the Chamber’s Senior Vice President of Membership, have tag-teamed for more than a year to get the program up and ready to launch. It has clearly become more than a project, more like a real cause, particularly as they interviewed nominees for the limited number of slots.
One of the applicants that Field interviewed was a high school football player who would miss one day of practice each week if accepted into YEA!
“Mark asked him how this (YEA!) was going to work with football,” Fuller recalled. “The response was, ‘I’ll drop football if I have to do so. I don’t have a future in the NFL, but I do in business.’”
Before Fuller interviewed a then 11-year old, she wondered if the young lady might need to wait a few years. After all, the median age of the inaugural class is between 13 and 14 years old. What Fuller found was an individual who was already selling jewelry via an ecommerce site, the only applicant with a “live” business.
YEA! was founded in 2014 at the University of Rochester with underwriting from the Kauffman Foundation.
“It had a lot of success and caught the eye of the U. S. Chamber,” Fuller told us. As is frequently the case, one seemingly isolated event propelled the Knoxville Chamber on the YEA! journey.
“Mr. (Jim) Haslam was invited to sit on a judging panel for the 2014 finals in DC and asked Mike (Edwards) to join him on the trip.” Fuller said. Edwards is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville Chamber.
“After the trip, Mr. Haslam said we need to do whatever it takes to have one of these (YEA!) in Knoxville,” she added.
The initial goal was to launch YEA! last fall, but Fuller and Field quickly learned that the undertaking was a challenge, something described by Fuller as “a logistical monster.”
So, after a year of planning and preparation, YEA! arrives this month.
NEXT: The “ins and outs” of the Young Entrepreneur Academy.