By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Jim Biggs uses action verbs like “inspire,” “celebrate” and “catalyze” to describe the role he sees for himself as the new Executive Director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) and for the Market Square-based organization that he now leads.
“We are the hub to build bridges out to the community,” the California native told us just days after he was named to the position, succeeding inaugural Executive Director Mike Carroll. After a 90-minute discussion, it is clear that he is committed to successfully building and sustaining those connections.
“This region has such great potential,” Biggs said. “Our role is to spur activity . . . to encourage and support more people to be entrepreneurs and to successfully take advantage of opportunities here.”
In his case, Biggs knows the culture, both of a vibrant start-up ecosystem and of the entrepreneurs that populate it. He came to East Tennessee about 18 months ago after two decades in the Bay Area of California, long known for its entrepreneurial culture. In addition, he has been part of several start-ups.
“It’s always a challenge,” Biggs says in describing being an entrepreneur. “When the initial euphoria fades away, you realize it is hard work, but that’s a good thing. The more you plug away, the more you realize you can succeed.”
Biggs believes that “persistence pays off, and KEC will serve as a resource for start-ups as they work through that process.”
As far as his newly adopted hometown, KEC’s Executive Director offers nothing but praise.
“I’m really impressed with the people of Knoxville and what this town has to offer,” he says while adding, “Knoxville is full of surprises.” Two of those Biggs cited were The Plaid Apron, where the interview was conducted, and Wild Honey, a nearby record shop that he said was among the best he had ever seen.
“Both would be right at home in San Francisco – just the types of gems that attract entrepreneurs,” he says.
Biggs is also very upbeat about the organization that he is now leading.
“KEC is off to a great start, thanks to the vision and hard work of those who founded it,” he said. “My hope is to build on that success by leveraging some of KEC’s strongest assets.”
Those assets include a deep pool of mentors who can advise start-ups, the region’s two great technology centers – Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus (UTK) – and an amazing entrepreneurial support system that includes the Tech 20/20, Entrepreneurs of Knoxville, UT Research Foundation, and UTK’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“KEC should act as a front porch for entrepreneurs in the region,” Biggs believes, “a place where people can gather, share ideas, gain knowledge, and work together to build stronger companies and a stronger community.”
He says the KEC “can be both a jumping off point for entrepreneurs and single point of reference throughout their journey, while fostering a sense of collaboration among all these organizations.”
The new KEC leader left California at an early age and grew-up in Connecticut, graduating from Yale University in 1989. Along the way, he met and later married Cate Chapman, daughter of Jeff Chapman, the well-known Director of UTK’s Frank H. McClung Museum.
The Biggs family relocated to California, where Jim attended the University of California Hastings College of the Law, graduating in 1993. After four years as in-house counsel for the U.S. Customs Service, he did a stint as “stay-at-home” dad, while Cate worked full-time as a writer.
When he decided to reenter the workforce, it was the proverbial “pivot” for a lawyer. Biggs started helping a family friend who had recently transformed a community service initiative – working with residents of senior living facilities to knit handbags – into a small business. The friend designed the handbags, finished them, and marketed them as gifts.
“She wanted to be a designer, not a manager,” Biggs said. So, for the next three years, he helped her grow Sarah Oliver Handbags into a business that provided a meaningful opportunity for senior citizens to live a more fulfilling life. Today, the handbags are sold in about 100 retail outlets.
“At some point, I realized that handbags were not my future,” Biggs said, noting that he had always nurtured an inner tech geek. This led him to Essention Group, a Bay Area software consulting firm that provided custom application development for SharePoint sites.
Initially, he became a part of Essention to help grow a Software as a Service product called ConservationTrack®. The software package allowed land trusts to manage all of their operations. Later, Biggs also helped in other business development and operational areas.
“Cate started thinking more intently about going back home,” he says in explaining the decision to leave California in the latter half of 2012. “We’ve found Knoxville to be an incredibly welcoming place to raise our teenage girls. I feel like I can really be an advocate for the region in terms of how attractive it can be to outsiders.”
As he joins KEC, Biggs believes the nearly 18-month acclimation to Knoxville has helped him learn more about his new home, and how he might serve that community. He hopes that the “intersection of San Francisco experiences and Knoxville opportunities” will be a place where he and KEC can have a meaningful impact on the great things being done here.