(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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.
Several recent events have further energized Joy O’Shell’s passion for helping leaders in smaller communities in East Tennessee inspire entrepreneurship among their residents.
“I want to breathe new life into downtown spaces,” the Director of Outreach for the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) says. “It’s happening everywhere I have lived, and it can happen here, too.”
Thanks to O’Shell’s passion and KEC’s commitment, new initiatives are underway in Roane County, her birthplace, as well as places like Clinton, Morristown, Rutledge, Sevierville and Sweetwater. Each undertaking reflects the distinctive nature of the communities, but all involve a catalytic role that O’Shell is bringing to the new initiative.
“I always carry a box of CO.STARTERS books in my car,” she explains. The program was developed at Chattanooga’s CO.LAB and is designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn business ideas into action and turn a passion into a sustainable and thriving business.
CO.STARTERS is a nine-week series that KEC has licensed and is using with entrepreneurs locally as well as in smaller communities that surround Knoxville.
An invitation last October to participate in a Tennessee Main Street Program event helped advance O’Shell’s thinking that collaboration with other organizations was a key ingredient. Shortly thereafter, a group in Sevierville that hosts a monthly coffee attended by as many as 150 people wanted to have a special meeting focused on downtown entrepreneurship.
“We would have been pleased if maybe five people wanted to attend,” O’Shell says. The number that showed-up was actually two dozen.
“It blew away all of our expectations,” she added. Now, as a result of follow-on meetings, one new lease for vacant space in Downtown Sevierville has been executed and three more are in the pipeline. Plus, a new arts alliance called the Sevierville Commons Arts Council formed as a result of that first workshop. The next event will be with the Sevierville Commons Association on June 11.
Today, there are Main Street Incubator projects underway in Morristown, Sevierville and Sweetwater.
More recently, O’Shell has been working with the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce to run the CO.STARTERS program in the community that already has a well-known antique market place in Downtown Clinton and with a group in Rutledge to run a coding camp. She also recently joined the board of CodeStock, a two-day event for technology and entrepreneurship. O’Shell has also just started Leadership Anderson County’s class of 2017.
“Working with downtowns was a Eureka moment, but not all communities have a downtown, so we want to find a way to meet them where they are,” she notes. That was the case with an entrepreneurial initiative announced in December in Roane County.
Sam Weaver, President and Chief Executive Officer of Proton Power Inc. that is located in the Roane Regional Business and Technology Park, and his wife, Carol Jane, created a new entity named Sizzle TechStart that will help launch new companies in the very same building where Proton Power was started.
O’Shell is working with the Roane Alliance and the Knoxville Area SCORE office to spearhead new business starts that take advantage of KEC’s programming and the space available for up to six companies in the farmhouse where Weaver launched Proton Power.
“The farmhouse is an alternative to downtown revitalization for those who don’t have a Main Street program but may have other great assets,” O’Shell explains. “We’re hoping Sizzle TechStart becomes a repeatable model for other rural places across the state and region.”
As she works to help communities take advantage of their individual assets and inspire entrepreneurial passions in their residents, O’Shell is also championing one of her own – the arts. She’s laying the foundation for a one-day pilot event under the working title of “St(Art)ups.” KEC and The Biz Foundry in Cookeville are linking two of their respective arts assets – the Joe L. Evins Appalachian Center for Craft and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
It’s an experiment, but one that O’Shell embraces avidly with the passion of an entrepreneur wanting to make a difference.