COMMENTARY: Regional support critical for entrepreneurs

Big Idea FinaleBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

One of the really good things about Tuesday night’s finale of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea?!” business competition was the number of area entrepreneurs and other supporters who turned out to support the finalists.

It’s important to continually find ways to encourage individuals who follow their dreams and start a business while, in many cases, holding down full-time jobs and also playing the role of spouse and parent.

It’s not easy, and the support of others, not just friends and family, is a critical component of a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem. So, too, is the celebration of participation, even if you don’t win, and the encouragement to continue pursuit of your idea if it is, in fact, a viable business concept.

Todd Napier, Executive Vice President of the Development Corporation of Knox County, one of the key players in the annual event, noted that 20 entrepreneurs applied for this year’s competition, 15 were selected, nine advanced to the “Knock-out Round,” and three made it to the finals before the addition of a fourth company selected as the “People’s Choice.”

In the end, there could only be a single winner. Yet, last night, I heard a number of positive comments about many of the presenting finalists. That’s a good sign for them to at least consider continuing to explore their vision.

The community needs to thank this year’s “Big Idea” coaches – Guille Cruze, Founder of The White Stone Group Inc.; Misty Mayes, President of Management Solutions, LLC; and John Sharpe, President of a number of companies including ARG Executive Search and ARG Financial Staffing. The trio gave generously of their time to help mentor three teams each.

We also need to thank the Development Corporation, Knoxville Chamber, and Tech 20/20 for their work each year in bringing the “Big Idea” to life. Ironically, Tuesday night was the birthday of Shawn Carson of Tech 20/20, but he was doing what he loves to do – helping entrepreneurs succeed.

And, we need to acknowledge those entrepreneurs who turned out to encourage their colleagues and others from the community who make entrepreneurial support a key component of their personal and professional lives.

I was not taking roll, but here’s a partial list of those I saw, in addition to Cruze and Sharpe: David Morehous of the Morehous Legal Group PLLC; Tom Mann of TrakLok, Inc.; Jian Huang and Steve Chin of Survature; Tommy Thomas and David Page of 3rd Dimension Technologies; William Milam of Resource IO; Parker Frost of Gigmark Interactive Media; Kevin Kragenbrink of Estrada Strategies; Gavin Baker of Baker Labs; Frank Podlaha of Street Jelly; Jed Eaton of LineShark; Jim Biggs of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) along with his colleague and Jonathan Sexton who served as the emcee; and the judges, all entrepreneurs in their own ways – Roger Kiger of Visionary Horizons Wealth Management, Bill Malkes of Aldis, Michael McIntyre of the University of Tennessee, John Platillero of, and Lisa Skinner of Fee/Hedrick Family Entertainment Group.

To borrow part of a familiar phrase, “it takes a village . . .” In the last year, I’ve experienced two such events where I really felt this community was providing that sort of support – “Start-up Day” last November and Tuesday’s “Big Idea” finale.

Let’s keep it up, Knoxville and Oak Ridge. The entrepreneurs need your encouragement and support. The region needs more successful entrepreneurs. Your next opportunity is Tuesday, August 5, when KEC holds its “MediaWorks Demo Day.” Put it on your calendar now and look for details soon.


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