By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
East Tennessee’s newest publicly-announced co-working site will hold a grand opening on August 23.
The LITE House – LITE stands for “Leads Innovators to Excel” – is located at 1 West College Street in Downtown Athens just a block from the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan University (TWU), one of the key sponsors. The August 23 event runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
The co-working space is small at the outset – about 1,500 square feet that will include four walled offices and the traditional “hot desks” for individuals to use, according to Anne Montgomery, a TWU Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Director of Entrepreneurial Development who is also one of the key people involved in the effort.
While the co-working space is the latest undertaking by a core group of TWU and community leaders, The LITE House is actually emblematic of a broader initiative focused on supporting entrepreneurs in the city just off I-75 and about equidistant from Chattanooga and Knoxville.
Montgomery explained that the initiative emerged after Robert Goodfriend, an Athens native and businessman, made a major gift to Tennessee Wesleyan. The donation sparked a multi-faceted effort that included a focus on entrepreneurship, specifically the development of a minor in entrepreneurship.
When the school’s leadership asked for volunteers to help, “I was the first to raise my hand,” Montgomery said. “I wanted to be involved.” It made great sense since she actually has her own start-up.
She is actively supported by Martha Maddox, Associate Dean of the Goodfriend School of Business and another key player in The LITE House initiative.
Montgomery and colleagues at the college traveled to a number of other institutions to learn about their entrepreneurial curriculum. Those visits included two University of Tennessee campuses – Chattanooga and Knoxville – as well as Belmont University, Lipscomb University, Covenant College, and Tennessee Tech University in Tennessee plus Berry College in Georgia.
They also went to conferences and connected with three regional assets – The Biz Foundry in Cookeville, CO.LAB in Chattanooga, and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).
About 18 months after beginning to develop the core curriculum, Tennessee Wesleyan launched the minor in Spring Semester 2019. The 19-hour interdisciplinary program has separate tracks for business and non-business majors.
“We already had four business majors graduate with the minor,” Montgomery. They were able to do so because they had completed the pre-requisite courses on topics like entrepreneurship, business calculations, management, marketing, accounting, innovation, and new venture development and only had to undertake a special course focused in a non-business area.
As the curriculum was being developed in late 2017, Kathy Price, Executive Director of the McMinn County Economic Development Authority, approached the university’s team with an idea.
“She told us the community had been trying to get something going on entrepreneurship; let’s get around the table and work together,” Montgomery recalled Price suggesting. That idea sparked a community meeting in December 2017 where TWU President Harvey Knowles agreed for the university to lead the broader effort.
Montgomery says the entrepreneurial initiative is clearly a work in progress. For example, when we talked, the finishing touches were still being made to the co-working site, and the group is only beginning to start work on a community strategic planning process that will be led by Beth Jones, Executive Director of the Southeast Tennessee Development District.
For now, start-up costs for both the co-working space and the broader initiative are being underwritten by grants from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Lyndhurst Foundation along with three-year financial commitments from the City of Athens and McMinn County. Other donors include The Willson Family Fund and The Mayfield Family Foundation.
“It’s really a community collaboration,” Montgomery says.
Even before officially opening, The LITE House has secured its first co-working tenant – Lisa Dotson who runs the Athens Main Street Program.
The first formal programming offered was a CO.STARTERS class last spring. “Spark: A Camp for Young Entrepreneurs” was offered to middle school students this summer, and one of the CO’s innovation buses will be in the region the first week of September,
Also, as the 2019-20 academic year evolves, Montgomery expects the university to offer its innovation course for community residents, work with The Biz Foundry and KEC to offer coding workshops, hold a female-focused event, and help organize “lunch and learns.” Future possibilities include programs targeted at veterans.
“This is our start-up side hustle,” Montgomery says of herself and others involved in the effort. They have their regular day jobs, but the initiative is clearly a passion.