By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The new Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) that the Knoxville Chamber is sponsoring is anything but an easy undertaking, even for the Chamber’s executive who is a master of managing large and challenging events.
Lori Fuller, Vice President of Marketing and Events, describes YEA! as “a logistical monster,” and we certainly understood the realities after talking with her. Yet, the year-long program is a critical ingredient in preparing the community for a strong entrepreneurial foundation.
It starts with the process of selecting 24 students from the community. YEA! is not an “anyone can participate” activity. Students are nominated and then have to fill out an application, so the Knoxville Chamber team started working with Jim McIntyre, Knox County Superintendent of Schools, and his team, to communicate information about the program to Principals, Guidance Counselors and others so they could nominate students who would thrive in the program.
More than 80 students were nominated, and each nominee was contacted and introduced to the program. All who ultimately applied were interviewed one-on-one by Fuller; Mark Field, Senior Vice President of Membership at the Chamber; Holly Helton, Events Manager for the Chamber; or staff members of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.
“We needed a place to have it (the weekly classes),” Fuller said of the sessions that run three hours – 5 to 8 p.m. – on Tuesday nights except holiday periods. The Chamber turned to the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee (UT), which readily agreed to serve as host.
The Chamber also needed a Program Manager and found that individual in a UT senior student.
Then, there’s the matter of the curriculum. The 30 sessions are divided into thematic periods and, even though the YEA! parent organization provides instructional materials, there’s still the matter of finding energetic, engaging individuals to serve as instructors.
Fuller noted that these people have to be able to capture the YEA! students’ attention.
- The first block of instruction is 10 weeks focused on idea generation, validation, etc. Local entrepreneur Haseeb Qureshi, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Audiohand, is handling those session.
- Next up is the process of creating the pitch which will be used in the finale when a Knoxville student is selected to move to the regional competition and a chance to participate in the national finals. Kevin Kragenbrink, President and CEO of Tech 2020, is the instructor for those 13 sessions.
- Finally, there’s what Fuller describes as the launch phase. It is seven sessions, four of which involve field trips to cool businesses in the community.
As if those are not enough moving parts, Fuller says YEA! requires about 60 volunteers. The Chamber has targeted an initial group of its members to recruit for those slots.
How important is the initiative? Consider these facts gleaned from the national YEA! website:
- Since its inception more than a decade ago, 100 percent of YEA! graduates have finished high school on time.
- Ninety-nine percent of YEA! graduates enroll in college.
- Nineteen percent of the YEA! alumni form a second business after their inaugural YEA! experience. In fact, more than 3,000 businesses have been launched by the 4,338 YEA! graduates.
- Nearly one-half of the participants are females, and 56 percent are classified as under-represented minorities.