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November 11, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Brandon Bruce is Knoxville’s modern day Renaissance Man

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Our friend Brandon Bruce is clearly the Knoxville region’s modern day Renaissance Man.

Defined as a person with many talents or areas of knowledge, the term fits him to a tee. Bruce is first and foremost an entrepreneur, having co-founded and exited one venture – Cirrus Insight – with a college classmate and now serving as Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Uncat, winner of the “Crowd Favorite” award during last month’s “Startup Day” in Knoxville.

That’s just for starters. He’s Chair of the Board of Directors of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Muse Knoxville, Junior Achievement of East Tennessee, and local start-up SmartRIA; founded the 100Knoxville initiative focused on Black-owned businesses; chairs the Knoxville Chamber’s eKnox Broadband Task Force; co-founded the Knoxville Technology Council with John McNeely and others; launched the Startup Knox site with John Bruck; serves on the “Innov865 Alliance Steering Committee” and the Board of Directors of Cherokee Farm Development Corporation, the latter as overseer of the University of Tennessee’s Research Park; and was the force behind the November 8, 2017 successful effort to surpass the number of individuals who were simultaneously learning to code as confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Now, Bruce has added high school teaching to his mix of accomplishments, teaching two classes daily at Webb School. His topic should not be surprising; it’s “Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking.” When Spring Semester starts, he’ll teach one introduction course and two honors classes.

“It’s a challenge to make each class excellent,” Bruce told us when we visited one day and he was fixing his tie, an adornment that is required of all teachers at Webb. “I’ve taught in high school classrooms in the past, but just as a guest speaker.”

Today, he’s working with 34 students divided equally between the two sections. The course is an elective, so the students want to be there. The class in the morning is about equally divided between male and female students, while the afternoon class is predominantly males.

So, how did Knoxville’s Renaissance Man add high school teaching to his mix? It no doubt starts with the fact that Bruce’s mother was a teacher, and his wife is also a college professor. In fact, we met Bruce when he was Director of Gifts and Grants at Maryville College before co-founding Cirrus Insight with Ryan Huff.

“It’s a unique opportunity to join two things I’m passionate about – entrepreneurship and education,” he explains. “I’ve always had tremendous respect for teachers, and I have even more now that I’m in the classroom each day. My goal is for the students to dig into the world of entrepreneurship and get their hands dirty.”

The day that we visited one of the classes was a Monday after Bruce had just returned from a week of riding 426 miles from Nashville to Knoxville with 18 others for an initiative named Pedal for Alzheimer’s. It raises money for the dreaded disease, just one of the causes that inspires Bruce.

Bruce welcomed the students to class and interacted with them in his typical upbeat, cheery manner. He asked about the past week’s classes when they had a substitute teacher before engaging them in a give and take about a book that he had assigned them to read. Some liked it, but others did not. At least one said he liked the podcast better than the book. As those who know Bruce would expect, he inquired about their thinking about the book and their reasoning in a non-challenging way that also caused them to have to think more deeply than they might normally.

One of the on-going assignments is to invite an entrepreneur of each student’s choice to visit the class one day to share the experience of being an entrepreneur and the lessons learned. After all, it’s all about an “Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking.”

If you want to see the results of those visits, check them out on the “Startup Knox” podcast website. There were 17 posted from the classes as of yesterday.

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