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February 25, 2016 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: YEA! showcases our community’s entrepreneurial future

YEABy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

For the second time in about 48 hours this week, Knoxville put its entrepreneurial ecosystem on display, and the latest event truly showcased a bright future for the region.

The occasion was an “Investor Pitch Night” on Tuesday where 21 young men and women with an average age of 13 to 14 years presented the ideas they have been developing during the inaugural year of the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, better known as YEA!

The program, which started last fall (see Part 1 and Part 2 of our series) and continues for the next several weeks, was launched by the Knoxville Chamber, sponsored by Pilot Flying J, and supported by the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee.

I had the privilege of joining a team of other individuals to decide how to invest $7,000 in the 12 ideas that were presented. While the funding available was about two-thirds of what the teams sought, everyone received some level of investment to continue to advance their ideas. And, just like older entrepreneurs, all pledged “friends and family” dollars, much of it coming from the students’ own personal savings.

One word probably best describes the electricity that permeated the Chamber’s Market House room Tuesday evening, and it is “passion” – from the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends who came to support the 21 participants to mentors like Doug Minter (“give them the money”), instructors like Haseeb Qureshi, and the Chamber staffers most involved in YEA! like Mark Field, Lori Fuller and Mackenzie Fox, a UT student who coordinated each weekly session.

Yes, the students committed to attending a session almost every week for a total of 30 nights. It was not for the faint of heart, and they showed their heart on Tuesday in their pitches.

Each of the 12 ideas presented reflected a passion that the individual or team of students had. They ranged from societal causes (Ashton Mayo-Beavers and Alise Ndacayisaba for their Culture DNA, Dareece Blue’s ABC Movement, and Paint the Path, an idea from Katherine Chen and Sierra Shuck-Sparer) to personal hobbies turned into businesses like Mick Rash’s Classroom Aquatics and ideas based on personal needs like Christian Crawford’s Stitches by Design.

There were even new products (an adjustable putter, a travel table, and a dice game to determine trip destinations) and even an innovative new technology that appears to prevent rust on metal. It was discovered by Noah Smith of Campbell County while he was in the eighth grade. We will not divulge more as the Jacksboro teenager pursues a provisional patent for his technology, dubbed Eco-Rust.

Oh, by the way, it is also environmentally friendly.

Eco-Rust was the idea the judges selected to represent the community at the YEA! national pitch event, known as the Saunders Scholars Competition. It will be held in May in Rochester, NY.

For those who worry about the future of the country and the generations coming along, you would have been proud of these young people for the ideas they advanced, their ability to present them in a very understandable manner, and their poise at the podium.

“Are you not unbelievably impressed,” Field asked after the 12 presentations. The answer was a unanimous “yes.”

Want to see the 12 ideas on display? More important, want to see our community’s future business leaders on display? Come to the Chamber’s “Schmoozapalooza XIV” at the Knoxville Expo Center, 5441 Clinton Highway. Click here to register.

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