Never too young to start a business
The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce launched its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) in 2015 to teach middle- and high school students how to create and operate their own business. The program, which runs for a full academic year, has graduated more than 4,000 youth, who have gone on to found social media consultancies, landscaping firms, clothing companies and more.
“We structured YEA! to get our youth excited about entrepreneurship and business, while exposing them to employers in the region,” said Megan Wright, program director at the Knoxville Chamber. “It’s also a great way for us to engage our members by having them come in and work with the students in an interactive manner.”
YEA! is a national initiative located in more than 130 cities across the country. It was brought to Knoxville, Tennessee by chamber President and CEO Mike Edwards, who attended the Saunders Scholars Competition, in which top YEA! students from across the U.S. compete for prizes and scholarships.
During the nine-month program, students meet weekly for three-hour sessions, in which they learn skills like developing business plans, marketing, finance and production. The sessions are divided into two segments; in the first half, students receive instructions from guest speakers and during the second, they work in a computer lab researching and composing their business plans.
“The students’ businesses really run the gamut depending on their interests,” explained Wright. “In this year’s class, we have an individual with a successful YouTube channel who started a consulting company for other YouTubers. We also have a few doing lawn care who started mowing neighbors’ lawns, and now they’re taking it to the next level.”
YEA! includes a “shark tank,” where student pitch their business plans to a panel of local investors, who judge them and hand out cash prizes ranging from $100–1000. It also features a trade show, during which students set up booths and sell their products to people from the community.
“The Academy is a great way to bring our members in to host field trips, mentor students and expose them to career opportunities,” said Wright. “That’s the biggest benefit for us; getting those students engaged and plugged in at an early stage, and getting them excited about the amazing opportunities in Knoxville.”
Looking ahead, Wright says the chamber plans to partner with other community organizations to expand the scope of the program.
“We’re looking at opportunities to engage with other groups with like-minded missions, whether that’s a shared field trip or pooling educational resources,” she said. “Our next step will be finding out how we can do it a little bigger and better moving forward.”
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Lessons on Entrepreneurship from MIT
The highlight of last month’s Metro Council CEO roundtable in Boston for me was our trip over the Charles River to MIT. Thanks to Paul Guzzi and the Greater Boston Chamber, our group met with Lita Nelsen, Director of MIT’s Technology Licensing Office to discuss tech transfer and the university’s role in supporting a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. When I say robust, I mean robust. One recent study found 25,800 active companies founded by MIT grads employing 3.3 million people with annual worldwide sales of $2 trillion. At least a million of those jobs are in Massachusetts.
From Lita’s enlightening presentation I took away 3 key points:
- Real estate doesn’t matter that much. Dozens of successful companies were founded in grubby basements around Cambridge. And despite high commercial rent, starts ups still flourish (and mostly stay) in greater Boston. This is not to say that helping provide affordable, conducive space won’t help startup ventures… but a shiny new incubator building does not guarantee any success.
- You don't need a Czar. MIT has successfully maintained a flourishing start up environment without anyone “in charge.” The Tech Licensing Office helps with patents and investment, Sloan Management School has an entrepreneurship track, alumni group runs mentoring, the School of Engineering has shared lab space, the Deshpande Center for Tech Innovation provides grants… but there is no “czar” of entrepreneurship. There is lots of coordination, but faculty and staff have fought all attempts to centralize.
- Successful startup executives matter. Accomplished business builders, marketers and operators - are as important to a robust ecosystem as inventors, research and patents. This is the often overlooked element of MIT’s success and an area where all chambers can add value.
For more on MIT’s support for startups, check out Kauffman Foundation’s report – Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT.
Attracting Entrepreneurs to Durham
From April 1 to May 31, North Carolina Research Triangle area entrepreneurs had a chance to launch their companies from downtown Durham for free, courtesy of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Durham, Inc. and Self-Help Commercial Real Estate.
The idea, called Bull City Startup Stampede, came from a conversation with Aaron Houghton, founder of Preation and co-founder of iContact. He thought more entrepreneurs should be exposed to Durham’s thriving downtown. He suggested giving Triangle-based start-ups a first-hand experience there, and the Startup Stampede was born.
The Stampede is an event consisting of 60 days of free space in downtown Durham complete with parking, office furniture and wi-fi. Programming for the event was light but each week Stampede participants heard from successful Durham entrepreneurs on the ups and downs of launching a company.
At the end of the program, 15 startup business leaders gave their sales pitches. Three companies reached the product launch stage and all 15 who participated plan to keep working on their ideas.
A poll of Stampede participants found that 90 percent had a more favorable view of downtown at the end of the program, and 75 percent said they’d be more likely to launch in Durham again. “The Stampede was really about building awareness among Triangle startups as to what a great place Durham is to launch a company and the quality of the startup community here,” said Adam Klein, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. He said there are plans to launch Stampede 2.0 in the fall.
The Herald-Sun: Start-up Stampede comes to an end
The Herald-Sun: Durham startup pushing fitness program for busy executives
Triangle Biz Blog: Four to move from Startup Stampede to Bull City Forward
Durham Magazine: Startup Stampede rumbles along