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March 06, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Tom Graves focused on helping students

A passion for staying active while also helping inspire college students to become entrepreneurs keeps the University of Tennessee’s Tom Graves excited and engaged in an endeavor that he did not expect when he and his wife moved to Knoxville about seven years ago.

Graves, whose official title is Director of Operations for the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) at UT Knoxville, spent a career in the corporate world for Caterpillar Inc. He was born in Johnson City but lived in locations around the world.

“Tennessee had always been appealing to me,” he said, adding that “Knoxville felt like home.” So, it was only natural that Graves and his wife would locate to Knoxville when he decided to retire.

In a recent interview with, Graves recalled that “my best professors in graduate school came out of industry.” This thought, coupled with a still working spouse, led Graves to join the College of Business Administration in a part-time teaching position. That initial limited role has expanded significantly over the last several years to a more than full-time new career in the entrepreneurial world and a series of programs where students, faculty and even those from the local community have a chance to increase their odds of success.

Graves talks about how much he “loves working with students” and the “enthusiasm” that he sees in them. He is particularly passionate about the various activities that have been launched to support entrepreneurship, particularly for students, as well as exciting plans for the future. He also notes with pride a role that he played in helping conceive what has become the Anderson Center.

One of the first entrepreneurial endeavors that Graves helped launch was an undergraduate business competition based on students “pitching” their ideas. Now called the “ACEI Business Plan Competition,” the event is open to any UTK undergraduate student. About $50,000 in awards have been distributed during its first four years, and 10 start-up companies have been created although Graves notes that not all of them are still in business. The fifth annual competition is set for April 13.

Another important initiative is the “Boyd Venture Fund,” a semi-annual seed-funding grant competition open to both undergraduate and graduate students. The fund was established by a gift from Randy Boyd, President and CEO of Radio Systems Corporation. To qualify for the grant money, the applying business must be legally established (federal tax ID, state business license, LLC, etc.), and the student owners must be enrolled in a UTK degree program at the time of application. A total of $20,000 is available for funding each cycle, and winners also are connected to a volunteer mentor to help them. Like the business plan competition, the Boyd initiative is in the midst of accepting applications so those who will present in May can be selected.

A third initiative – Vol Court – grew out of a conversation with Joy Fisher who was a full-time staff person at the UT Research Foundation (UTRF) at the time. She has since joined ACEI while also retaining a role with UTRF.

Graves said that Fisher asked, “Can we do something together?” The initial answer was to “further awareness of entrepreneurship and how to grow a business”

Vol Court was started in 2009, but it has “gained momentum each year,” Graves said, noting that the number of participants in 2009 was in the low 20s, but it has steadily climbed to more than 40 in the latest semi-annual offering.

Unlike the other ACEI offerings, Vol Court includes weekly programs – entrepreneurially themed speakers in the fall and one-hour workshops focused on the mechanics of starting a business in the spring – coupled with a semester ending pitching contest. Graves said that another distinctive feature of Vol Court is that it is open not only to students but also to faculty and even citizens in the community.

Regardless of the competition, Graves said emphatically that “we don’t just let them win and then abandon them.” A good example of previous winners that the ACEI team continues to support is DineTouch LLC, a company founded by Joey Natour and Seth Elliott, UTK students. When the interview was conducted, they were preparing to be the only Tennessee-based company among 60 presenting at the Southeast Venture Conference.

Graves said that all of the initiatives focus on a common belief – “success breeds success.”

In that vein, he is excited about the next initiative that will be rolled out for the fall semester of 2012. It’s called the “Entrepreneurial Living and Learning Community,” but he prefers to keep the details under wraps for now.

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