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PART 2: Bruce Charles helps create entrepreneurial spirit at Change Center

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series spotlighting Knoxville’s Change Center that opened just four days before Christmas Day 2018.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Bruce Charles, Chief Financial and Entrepreneurial Officer at The Change Center, told us he was recruited by Laurens Tullock to be part of a team to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether the concept of a roller skating rink would work.

“I was kind of retired,” he explained. Today, Charles is anything but retired. At the same time, the constantly smiling former business executive is passionate and animated as he talks about the early efforts of The Change Center.

“Employers told us, ‘If you can find people with six months of work experience and who are drug-free, we’ll interview them,’” Charles says. Those requirements have helped frame three early initiatives.

He initially visualized a program where the Center would hire 40 “kids” every six months, providing the training and mentoring they needed to meet the expectations of prospective employers.

“We hired 33 really great individuals in the first round, and it looks like they are not leaving as they all want to stay through graduation” Charles said, adding that means The Change Center will offer part-time opportunities to 60 young people per year.

Those who are hired who don’t have a bank account have to open one because their paychecks are direct deposited at Home Federal Bank. For those under 18 years of age, it is a savings rather than checking account. Regardless, you can see that part of the plan is focused on financial management.

A second component of the early strategy might be best described as a facility on steroids.

“Between 400 and 500 kids use this facility each week,” Charles says. “They have access to our facility. We are a place, not a program, but we do offer job development training.”

Finally, there’s an entrepreneurial component that has already birthed two start-ups.

“We know the guys we are trying to get started in business are not bankable (right now),” Charles says. Fortunately, two Knoxvillians – Tracy Thompson and Sean Jackson of People’s Bank – have stepped-up to help Charles launch an eight- to 12-week program to help prospective residents of the area understand the challenges of starting a business and test their mettle. At the end of the program, they make a pitch, just like any start-up, to see if they can secure a non-traditional investment.

“Each participant has five mentors,” Charles says. The mentors will continue to work with the mentees long after the initial program ends. “Our goal (with this initiative) is to create five new businesses and 60 jobs in 2019. We want to double the job growth with the same number of new businesses in 2020.”

The Change Center is off to a good start, counting ServOps Construction founded by Adam Robinson and a food trailer initiative as its first two start-ups.

In addition to helping start companies and provide part-time jobs for youth, Charles says he is focused on two other goals – ensuring The Change Center operates at breakeven and helping reduce the annual death rate of youth by providing recreational activities and space during non-traditional, non-school hours.

Those interested in helping the non-profit organization can contact Bruce Charles at bruce@changecenterknoxville.com or 865/951-1567.

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