Educating tomorrow's entrepreneurs: Schools gear up startup programs to meet demand

Photography by Covenant College / Students present their business pitches in the 2016 Seed Project Competition on the campus of Covenant College. First-place winners were awarded $5,000 in seed money.
Photography by Covenant College / Students present their business pitches in the 2016 Seed Project Competition on the campus of Covenant College. First-place winners were awarded $5,000 in seed money.

Entrepreneurship, the engine of American's free enterprise economy, has become a hot topic at college business schools around the Chattanooga area. Even a local high school, Brainerd High School, is getting in on the action by teaching students the basics of running a small business.

Meanwhile, thriving entrepreneurship programs at places such as Chattanooga State Community College, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Covenant College on Lookout Mountain reflect an uptick in demand for business startup skills, as some 21st century students look for alternatives to well-worn business management, accounting and marketing tracks.

From popular business-pitch competitions at UTC (think television's "Shark Tank"), to local businesses such as Creekside Flower Farm emerging from the entrepreneurship culture at Covenant College, to training programs at Chattanooga State that help cosmetology students open their own salons, the seeds of startup businesses are finding fertile ground in the Scenic City.


At UTC, the entrepreneurship program, which has about 150 majors, is blending with the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in a new office and classroom facility inside the James R. Mapp Building on East Eighth Street.

The move and merger create a laboratory environment for UTC's Gary W. Rollins College of Business entrepreneurship program. For example, there is a "makers" space inside the center where students can build product prototypes using 3-D printers and other tools.

Thomas Lyons, the Clarence E. Harris Chair of Excellence in Entrepreneurship at UTC, says the push is part of a plan to combine the practical and academic sides of entrepreneurship so the university turns out graduates with all the skills they need to succeed in the business startup culture.

"The plan was to begin the process of developing entrepreneurs, and to think of it as skill development," Lyons says. "The literature tells you that when we develop skills, we start with knowledge. But that's not enough. We have to give (students) the opportunity to practice that knowledge."

UTC is trying to position the program to be more closely aligned with the Chattanooga's growing business startup culture. The new facility has mentor spaces where students can meet with business role models from the community.

The university is also putting new emphasis on its two yearly new-business pitch competitions: Hatch It!, which occurs in the fall, and Fly, in the spring. The hope is that the competitions will eventually advance teams to compete on regional and national stages.

"The (startup) community wanted to see more serious competitions," Lyons says. "We will be inviting people from local industry to come. We are trying to be strong partners with the (entrepreneurship) ecosystem here."


Entrepreneurship had been a point of emphasis inside Covenant College as far back as the 1980s and 1990s, school officials say.

"It was very organic," says Leda Goodman, entrepreneurship coordinator at Covenant, "and involved students from all different majors."

Then, last year, the Lookout Mountain, Georgia, college officially launched its entrepreneurship certificate, which gives the discipline structure and direction within the school's business curriculum. The certificate includes a cluster of six courses worth 18 credit hours.

"You can be in any major and be in this certificate program," says Lydia Berglar, Covenant College communications specialist. "Say an art major wanted to start a business; this (certificate) would be helpful."

Demand for the certificate program looks promising, with 25 students seeking admission to the first course in the program this year, which was designed for 2o. Coursework includes brand design, principles of management, entrepreneurship, management lessons from literature and film, living and working in a multicultural context, and principles of marketing.

Starting in 2010, Covenant College began sponsoring a business-plan pitch competition with money on the line to help seed startup ventures. The $10,000 competitions were suspended in 2016, but plans are to reactivate them soon.

Also, Covenant has begun recruiting an alumni network to help mentor young entrepreneurs. The college has already identified 215 alums who own businesses.


The business curriculum at Chattanooga State is a road with two lanes: management and entrepreneurship. Students can earn an associate's degree of applied science in entrepreneurship.

Students in Chattanooga State's career programs can take classes to help them monetize their skills by starting small service businesses.

"Some [students] come here to school and they want to start their own business," says Ed Southeard, an associate professor of business at Chattanooga State who teaches entrepreneurship. "Wanting to and doing it are two different things. They find it's not easy."

Southeard says the entrepreneurship coursework at Chattanooga State is designed to teach these students business basics, such as drafting a business plan, designing pro forma business statements and drawing up marketing plans.

The school's partnership with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center gives Chattanooga State students access to a host of startup business resources. The TSBDC is funded through the federal Small Business Administration with matching funds provided through Chattanooga State.

"In the academic world, a lot of times we work with putting together internships to get them (students) exposed (to the business world)," says Lynn Chesnutt, of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center. "We are grant-funded and they come to us at no cost to them."

Jake Stanford, head of the business department at Chattanooga State, says the entrepreneurship classes there can help students become more self-reliant.

"I have more and more students who are very interested in starting their own business," he says. "They might be working one to three part-time jobs and they are looking for independence, to work for themselves."


The 2-year-old Future Ready Institute for Entrepreneurship at Brainerd High School is part of a broader plan to give more high school students skills that dovetail with job opportunities in the community.

"Our goal for Future Ready was looking at existing career-tech programs and seeing what the labor market needs," says Jeannette Tippett, a school-based coach with the Future Ready Institute at Brainerd.

At Brainerd, the existing vocational programs are in the fields of cosmetology and culinary arts, two areas that are ripe for small business creation. Culinary arts students might want to start a catering business, while cosmetology students might dream of opening a salon.

The Future Ready programming includes guest speakers, field trips (suspended now for COVID-19), mock interviews and career fairs, among other things. Tippett says there has been a push to create an advisory board for the program that includes representatives from local colleges, successful Brainerd High alumni and business leaders from the Chattanooga area.

Access to college dual enrollment college classes is also part of the mission of the Brainerd Future Ready Institute.


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