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February 21, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

Cortney Piper shares her road to success at Vol Court

Vol Court wraps up next week on Tuesday, February 27 with students making 90-second pitches for the prize money.

In the third and final session of the Vol Court Speaker Series before next week’s pitch competition, Cortney Piper took the stage at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) to share what it takes to start a business. The Vol Court is a program operated by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) in the Haslam College of Business. The speaker series concludes with a 90-second pitch competition, where students can share a business idea with the chance to win $1,500 in start-up capital.

Piper got her bachelor’s degree in political science and environmental sociology at UTK. Her dream, at the time, was to use her undergrad as a basis for pursuing a law degree.

Cortney Piper, Piper Communications

“It didn’t pan out that way. I knew I wasn’t a good test taker, and I didn’t think I could pass the Bar Exam,” she said.

Instead, Piper decided to conquer just about everything else. She started her career with Keep Knoxville Beautiful, where she first learned how strong communication can lead to real community change. It was that position that inspired her to run for Knox County Commission.

“Running my campaign and managing volunteers was something I had complete control of. I thought to myself ‘I can do this,’ and that’s what gave me the bug to start my own business,” she said.

While the election didn’t work out, her efforts did not go unnoticed by the community. She was asked to step into a role as a political contributor for WATE and asked to help run Mike Padgett’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

“That role wrapped up in late 2008, and nobody was hiring due to the recession. So, I decided to freelance and make my own way,” she shared.

Her first step to finding freelance work was to “get in the know.” She offered this advice to students – figure out what you’re passionate about, learn about it, attend events, and meet the prominent figures in that sector.

She reached out to Tom Ballard, who at the time was the Director of Partnerships for Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Now he serves as the Editor and Publisher of teknovation.biz. He helped connect her with a lot of the innovation happening at the national lab.

Piper was able to identify her strengths: strong communicator, ability to simplify complex topics and results-driven work. It was on this basis that she founded Piper Communications in 2008.

From there, things have only grown for Piper. She completed paperwork to become a Small Business Administration (SBA) Woman-owned business, her company was selected to organize and promote Innov865 Week, she has added new public relations clients every year, and her team has grown the 13 employees. The firm is also the administrative arm of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council.

Piper Communications takes a unique approach and has been able to establish itself as a PR agency focused on clean energy and technology companies.

“Something that has helped us thrive is our ability to help founders, entrepreneurs, and scientists, communicate their complicated technologies. We always ask, ‘So what? You may have spent years of your life on this big innovative thing… but, why should people care? How does it affect my daily life?’”

She said young entrepreneurs, like the ones at Vol Court, should be asking themselves the same questions when they introduce their businesses.

Vol Court wraps up next week on Tuesday, February 27 with students making 90-second pitches for the prize money – $1,500 to the winner, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for third place. The cash prizes are sponsored by The Scott and Dianna Roe Foundation. The competition will take place at 5:30 pm in room #202 of the Haslam College of Business.  Find more information at this link.


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