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VOL. 40 | NO. 44 | Friday, October 28, 2016

THE millennial major

Entrepreneurship is a fast-growing part of college programs, from music to agriculture

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Taylor Adkins wanted to start his own business before he even started college.

Thanks to the entrepreneurship program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Adkins now has both a degree and his first business.

Across the state, universities are ramping up such programs to meet the needs of students like Adkins who want to spend their undergraduate years gaining the knowledge and experience to develop and launch a business.

“It really, honestly, changed my life,” Adkins says of UT’s Entrepreneurship Learning Center, which he joined his freshman year.

“I was able to meet on the first day a group of people who were really like-minded and wanted to pursue something that I believe is almost a calling, or a passion.

“It really gave me a leg up.”

Academic programs for would-be entrepreneurs have typically been siloed in one school or department, such as business or engineering.

But Tennessee’s institutions of higher education are now looking to encourage a campus-wide culture of innovation for all students, regardless of major, on the premise that an entrepreneurial mindset will serve them well in an economy in which their career path could include numerous job changes, self-employment or a series of gigs.

“Our program has been growing rapidly – not only our academic programs and majors, but interest across campus in other disciplines than business,” says Joe Ivey, executive director of Lipscomb University’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

Taylor Adkins, UT Knoxville graduate, owns his own software company called SilkOps.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I think there is a sea change in the expectations of a lot of our students coming in as to what their careers will look like throughout their adult lives. I do think this generation feels the need to take a bit more control of their future, and that leads them toward entrepreneurship.”

Clearly, there is demand. Last month, Vanderbilt University opened its ambitious new innovation center, dubbed the Wond’ry, which it envisions as the epicenter of all things entrepreneurial, and a place where students, faculty and members of the community can develop ideas and collaborate to solve real-world challenges.

Two thousand people have already visited the Wond’ry, and all its programs have been oversubscribed.

“Our undergraduates are all millennials,” says Robert Grajewski, executive director of the Wond’ry.

“They’ve grown up with technology. They’re coming in with the skill sets and desires to be innovators, to be entrepreneurs. They see the founders of Facebook, Snapchat – the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – as their heroes and what they aspire to be, and they want to emulate or figure out what they can do while on campus to push those goals forth.”

Robert Grajewski, executive director for The Wond’ry at Vanderbilt University, stands outside on the rooftop terrace.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

UT has seen significant demand across campus for the new 15 credit undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship it opened up to all students last spring. About a quarter of students in the core Introduction to Entrepreneurship class come from outside the college of business, instructor Shawn Carson says.

“I’ve got sociology, psychology, graphic design, engineering students – people coming from different disciplines and applying entrepreneurship to wherever their interest is,” Carson says.

“The students may not come in knowing all the ins and outs, but they absorb it and ask great questions. They’re not taking it to check off a box on their college resumes. They’re interested in it and they bring to it a capacity to understand this way of thinking.”

UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is based in the Haslam College of Business but is increasingly opening up to all students. It’s home to an Entrepreneurship Learning Community that brings together students from different colleges with a common interest in starting businesses, as well as the 15 credit hour undergraduate interdisciplinary minor in entrepreneurship that is open to all.

Students can choose from classes taught in the business school as well as courses such as The Business of Music, Agribusiness Management and Design Thinking and Innovation that are offered by other UT colleges.

The Anderson Center also offers three pitch competitions – Vol Court, the Boyd Venture Challenge and the Graves Undergraduate Business Plan Competition – open to any undergraduate student or team with a business plan for which they want to seek funding.


“Our vision is to develop entrepreneurial talent, educate students and help them understand the skills they need, spread an entrepreneurial spirit across campus, and impact the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region,” says Tom Graves, operations director and founding father of the Anderson Center.

One of the first students in the Entrepreneurship Learning Community, launched in 2012, was then-freshman Taylor Adkins. He also was one of the most determined, haunting office hours and lobbing pitch after pitch to Graves, a retired businessman who serves as mentor and educator.

Not all his ideas were viable or pitches smooth. Adkins says he learned that through trial and error.

“You fall on your face sometimes,” he recalls. “I did it, probably more than most, and just thinking about it makes me cringe.

“But if you can pitch at Vol Court or Boyd Venture or the Graves, you learn the techniques and where to focus and it’s not that different from the real world,” Adkins says.

One business idea finally gained traction. SilkOps, an early-stage company that makes business software for the screen printing industry, won UT’s Boyd Venture Challenge competition and went on to become one of four winners earlier this year in LaunchTennessee’s 2016 Statewide University Venture Challenge, which pits the winners of campus pitch competitions across the state against each other.

SilkOps won in the “technology enabled” category, earning Adkins and his partner $12,500 to invest in the company. Adkins graduated in May, and SilkOps is currently market-testing and fine-tuning its product based on feedback from customers, with a big sales push planned for this winter.

“The most useful skill I learned was persistence,” Adkins says of his undergraduate experience.

“I made so many mistakes but when I kept trying it eventually worked out and that’s what I learned most of all.”

Grow Bioplastics, another early-stage business developed by UT students, won both the Boyd Venture Challenge and Vol Court spring competitions, then went on to win the commercializable technology category of the Statewide University Venture Challenge.

Earlier this month, LaunchTennessee selected Grow Bioplastics as one of eight participants in this year’s TENN master accelerator program for promising startups.

Grow Bioplastics is developing renewable, biodegradable mulch films and planting containers for the gardening and commercial agriculture industry, and has attracted significant interest at competitions outside the state as well.


“This last month has just been fervent activity,” says co-founder Tony Bova, a PhD. student in the Energy Science and Engineering program at UT’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education.

Bova says he and his partner came up with the idea based on their research on renewable plastics and turned it into a plan during an entrepreneurship class at the Anderson Center called New Venture Planning.

“The end product of that class was an almost complete, full business plan,” Bova says.

“We took what we learned in that class and some additional refinement and a lot of help from the people at UT, and we’ve been entering competitions around the country and raising money to continue our efforts forward.”

Bova, now 32, says he always knew he wanted to be his own boss and create a company that could not only provide him a living but solve an environmental problem.

“Our generation not only realizes that we can do that, but we want to,” he says. “I’ve always thrived off change so working at the same job for 30 years seems stagnant.”

A place to wonder and collaborate

In the month since its soft opening, some 2,000 people have already visited Vanderbilt’s Wond’ry (a mashup of “wonder” and “foundry”), which occupies 13,000 square feet in the Innovation Pavilion adjacent to the university’s new Engineering and Science building.

It has three floors of dedicated space for lectures, seminars, mentor meetings, entrepreneur-in-residence offices and even maker stations at which participants can get hands-on familiarity with tools ranging from glue guns to 3D printers to create minimally viable prototypes of whatever product they can imagine.

The central concept of the Wond’ry is to be a place where anyone on campus can find the resources to explore and develop any idea.

“We are that ‘sandbox’ where all the schools can come together,” says Grajewski, a startup veteran and venture capitalist from North Carolina who joined Vanderbilt in April.

“From the humanities and the arts and sciences all the way up to your traditional technical majors – medical, nursing, engineering, business. When you go out into the real world you don’t just work with MBAs, you don’t just work with lawyers or engineers, but everyone is working together to solve big problems.

“And we try to replicate that here. Once you have a lot of smart people in a room working on a project – a lot of diverse perspectives in a very inclusive, fostering environment - you’ll get some really exciting insights that will be truly revolutionary and transformative in terms of solving problems and creating opportunities.”

The Wond’ry is built around four key programs:

-- A seven-week “pre-flight” course for would-be entrepreneurs to define and develop their business plans

The second floor of Vanderbilt’s The Wond’ry innovation center

-- An “Innovation Garage” in which Vanderbilt student and faculty can team up with sponsors from the business and nonprofit sectors to tackle real-world challenges

-- A social entrepreneurship initiative to work on issues like underemployment, affordable housing and transportation

-- A mission to build a culture of innovation on campus through educational and creative events such as art exhibits, speaker series, hackathons and business plan competitions such as the TechVenture Challenge, Owen Business Plan Competition and Vanderbilt Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society (VINES) 48 Hours Launch.

“We want to create a safe environment where students can come and interact with groups and people that are outside of their academic discipline,” Grajewski says. “They can try things they are not naturally as good at, and learn to fail fast and fail forward so they can gain resilience and come back with solutions, iterate, learn and reflect on how they can pivot and make it successful.

“And that’s really the strongest skill set for an entrepreneur to have, because in the real world things don’t always work out the first time.

“College and grad school is a great time to be an innovator and explore because the risks of failure are a lot lower. This is the time you should be dabbling, exploring, and learning those skills,” he adds.

The Wond’ry has some elements of innovation centers at other universities, such as the i-lab at Harvard – Grajewski’s undergraduate alma mater.

But unlike Harvard, where academic units are scattered across several campuses, Vanderbilt’s colleges and institutes are all within walking distance of the Wond’ry, making it easier to create the kinds of serendipitous interactions that Grajewski envisions among visitors with disparate but complementary interests.

The Wond’ry isn’t just for Vanderbilt students and faculty. It’s also designed to be a gateway for the greater Middle Tennessee community to engage with Vanderbilt and find solutions to community challenges, such as workforce development, affordable housing and transportation.

Students take advantage of available rooms for studying and brainstorming at Vanderbilt’s The Wond’ry innovation center.

“I saw an opportunity to kind of do what Stanford has done for Silicon Valley, and what Vanderbilt could do for Nashville in our own unique way: be a catalyst and conduit to creating a very sustainable and incredibly vibrant innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” Grajewski says.

“My goal is to make the Wond’ry the best university innovation center in the world, and what really sets us apart is that we serve the entire campus, so we are a much greater touch point for people to engage in or interact with us and we can much better serve the entire community.”

Lessons for life

Not all students who study entrepreneurship will end up owning a business, UT’s Graves says. Some will work for other people’s startups, and others will work in take a more traditional path within a corporation.

But they can still effect change within their organizations as an “intrapreneur” and use the principles they learn to help guide their lives and careers.

“The program really stretches beyond starting a business,” Graves says.

“The thought process of an entrepreneur – seeing things others miss, nurturing ideas, pushing things forward – is really a desirable characteristic wherever you work. They can apply those lessons across the board regardless of where life takes them.”

Adkins says he appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the Anderson Center and work with mentors such as Graves, whom he still consults even after leaving campus.

“The biggest thing that kids need is someone to believe in them, really,” Adkins says.

“Because if you get that confidence in yourself to go out and try something, even if you fail a number of times, it may work out just once and that can take you somewhere.

“The most useful skill in college I learned was persistence. I have made so many mistakes but when I kept trying it eventually worked out, and that’s what I learned most of all.”

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