By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Those who have been intimately involved with the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) know that one of the key team members is the always upbeat and smiling, but unassuming Tom Graves.
The Johnson City native spent a career in the corporate world for Caterpillar Inc. before joining ACEI, where one of his first initiatives was to launch the undergraduate business plan competition that allowed UT students to pitch their ideas to for money.
So, it was only fitting that the contributions of ACEI’s Director of Operations have been recognized in a very special way. The pitch competition that he helped organize will now be known as the “Graves Undergraduate Business Plan Competition,” thanks to a one million dollar gift from a couple who has asked to remain anonymous.
“Tom Graves has dedicated great personal energy over the past eight years to nurturing and honing the entrepreneurial visions of UT students,” said Steve Mangum, Dean of UT’s Haslam College of Business, in a news release. “For Tom, this is a labor of love as well as a professional passion. To now have the competition bear his name is beyond appropriate. It is a lasting testament to a diligent, caring educator.”
The competition was launched in 2008. Since then, $170,000 in funding has been awarded to 50 start-up ideas. More than 70 percent of those ideas resulted in established companies.
During the pitch event, students present their ideas to business professionals who evaluate each of the start-ups on the strength of the pitch, project innovation, and feasibility. Graves handpicks the judges from the business community, creating an authentic entrepreneurial pitch experience for students.
We first met Graves soon after we joined PYA, and posted a profile on him in March 2012. In that article, Graves talked about the fact that his best professors in graduate school came out of industry. With this experience and his desire to help students, it was only natural that he would gravitate to UT, initially in a part-time role.
That role quickly evolved into at least a full-time undertaking as additional initiatives like the twice-a-year “Vol Court Pitch Competition” and “Boyd Venture Fund” were added to ACEI’s mix of activities.
In characteristic fashion, Graves focused on what the endowment does when we asked him for his thoughts.
“This amazing gift insures that the competition continues in perpetuity,” he says. “It allows us to more effectively reach aspiring student entrepreneurs from across campus, providing them with funding and feedback that validates their ideas and encourages them to move forward. I am grateful for the endowment and humbled to have my name associated with it.”
Those who have worked with Graves, as I have as a judge for the “Vol Court” program, would agree that the honor is truly well-deserved. His passion for entrepreneurship and his caring, but “tough love” offered to student entrepreneurs when needed, make a significant difference for ACEI.