By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Oh, to be so young with all of the enthusiasm, energy and inquisitiveness that was evident in a college classroom one recent evening when I had the opportunity to observe a “YEA!” session.
It was one of 30 weekly classes scheduled well into next year where two dozen young people with an average age of between 13 and 14 are learning about entrepreneurship – taking an idea and developing it into a business.
“YEA!” stands for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a national initiative among chambers of commerce that launched locally in mid-October. The Knoxville Chamber brought the program here, working in cooperation with the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee (UT), where the weekly sessions are held.
In a previous post on teknovation.biz, Lori Fuller, the Chamber’s Vice President of Marketing and Events, accurately captured the environment that we witnessed during about 90 minutes of the Tuesday night session.
“The great thing about kids is they believe they can do anything,” Fuller said at the time. Her words were echoed by Mark Field, another Chamber executive, who attended the recent session. “They are so smart,” the Senior Vice President of Membership, observed.
Fuller and Field were well-aware of just how bright the participants are. They helped conduct interviews with the more than 80 applicants to select the final 24.
Not surprising to those who know me well, I arrived ahead of the announced starting time for the third weekly session so I would have the opportunity to see how the young men and women interacted with each other. Like you might expect, they gathered in small groups, talking about a variety of things.
Also not surprising, most of the female students sat on the front row, while their male counterparts opted for the second or third row of seats in the classroom.
The enthusiasm we saw from the students comes in no small part from the two “more senior” leaders with whom they worked that night – Mackenzie Fox and Haseeb Qureshi.
Fox, a Knoxville native, serves as the Chamber’s Program Manager, overseeing all sessions. She will graduate from UT with her B.S. degree in December and plans to attend law school this fall.
Qureshi is well-known in the Knoxville entrepreneurial company, currently serving as Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Audiohand. He is instructing the first 10 weeks of YEA! which focuses on idea generation and validation.
Qureshi, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who moved to Knoxville in 2007, clearly had established a good rapport with the students in previous sessions. Acknowledging that he was not a traditional instructor, Qureshi engaged in an active, on-going dialogue with the YEA! participants and laughed much of the time.
He even used a cup of coffee as a prop to reinforce important points such as the product a company makes, how it is packaged, words or slogans printed on the package that resonate with buyers, and even corroborating evidence that there is a market for the product,
Early in the evening, Fox asked the students to commit to paper the idea that they wanted to start pursuing. She said they could do so individually or in teams. It appeared that most, if not all, opted for the latter approach.
As Qureshi walked through the classroom engaging with the teams, he reminded them, “I’m not here to tell you which idea is best, just to help you think about them.”
Later, after an instructional period on business plan development, three teams presented their early ideas. One was an app to help individuals track and keep-up with their culture and possibly make donations to charitable causes that are important to those efforts. Another was a versatile golf putter that could be used by young people. The concept was the ability to adjust the length and also be usable by lefties as well as those who are right handed.
The final idea presented was the equivalent of an airplane tray for those riding in the backseats of cars. The initial idea was a way to more easily do homework in the car. But, in typical entrepreneurial fashion, the YEA! students began to offer many suggestions such as incorporating a DVD player screen and adding an outlet to recharge iPads and game devices on long trips.
Then, amid a loud round of cheering, it was off to the computer lab to begin the all-important research on the ideas they were pursuing to determine the competitive landscape. That seemed like a good time for me to leave, but we’ll be back in a few weeks to see how the ideas are evolving.