Austin Lynch, 22, won't graduate from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga until December, but he is so energized by his studies in entrepreneurship that he has already started a company. His new business, called Tee-mocracy, is a satire-based T-shirt company launching this summer, in part, to take advantage of the supercharged run-up to the November elections.
Lynch, whose hometown is Nashville, says that he and his business partner, a friend in Austin, Texas, have already completed the paperwork to start the T-shirt business. What's more, Lynch has a handle on expenses and expected profits, and he is leveraging the talents of friends and family who are graphic artists — start-up tips he learned in classes at UTC.
"I have the entrepreneurial spirit," Lynch says. "I've always felt acclimated to lead groups and teams. Ever since I was a kid, I've been interested in running a business."
The entrepreneurship major at UTC currently has 170 enrollees, or about 10 percent of the population of the undergraduate school of business. Observers say the major seems to be growing in popularity among business-minded Millennials, for whom a 9-to-5 job at a Fortune 500 company is no longer the ultimate gig. May Millennials have seen their parents climb — and in some cases fall off — the corporate ladder and are choosing a different path for themselves.
"Millennials want to have control of their lives," says Dr. Beverly Brockman, head of the marketing and entrepreneurship department and George Lester Nation Professor of Entrepreneurship at UTC. "Moving up the ranks (in business), is not always the safest route (to employment security) any more."
Brockman said the entrepreneurship curriculum at UTC is meant to teach students a progression of entrepreneurial skills from hatching ideas, to writing business plans, to locating funding. One of the more innovative teaching tools employed by the program is an annual pitch contest at which students are judged on sharing their start-up ideas before a panel of judges.
Daniel Taylor, 23, of Jackson, Tennessee, won the pitch competition in 2014 with an idea for a ladder-leveling device that promised to be safer and more convenient than the traditional alternative: wedging a scrap of wood or a chunk of brick under the ungrounded leg of a ladder.
Taylor said he practiced his 90-second "elevator pitch" for the leveller with anyone who would sit still — his roommates, his teachers and people in business community who agreed to meet with him. He constantly honed his speech based on feedback from his listeners. "For me, it came down to giving the pitch to as many people as possible," Taylor says.
Today, Taylor, who is on track to graduate with a degree in marketing and entrepreneurship in December, has begun to mass produce his ladder levellers, which are available on Amazon and at several Ace Hardware stores. He is looking for funding to expand his business, he says, and hopes to appear on "Shark Tank" the ABC reality TV show that matches fledgling entrepreneurs with successful investors.
Andrew Byrum, 25, of Maryville, Tenn., is a 2015 graduate of the UTC entrepreneurship program who is also putting his training to work in a start-up company called Get Seated. His venture uses a smartphone app to allow restaurant patrons to look up wait times at popular eateries without calling ahead. Byrum's app is based on a proprietary system that uses mobile phone crowd-sourcing to gauge wait times. Byrum says that after a successful beta test, the app will go live this month. Among the first wave of restaurants to deploy the app in Chattanooga will be Urban Stacks, Taco Mamacita and Community Pie.
Byrum said he first came up with the idea two years ago at UTC, and got lots of positive feedback from his business school classmates, which ultimately convinced him to pursue his dream. Instead of taking on debt to grow his company, Byrum says his business is a bootstraps operation. He used college graduation gifts as seed money, and recruited a friend who has a background in computer science to be his business partner.
"We wouldn't even be a company it it weren't for the (UTC) business college," Byrum says. "I've been working on this baby for two years and now I'm about to put it out into the public. We are in crunch time."
Byrum, and business-minded young people like him, embody a trend toward grassroots entrepreneurship. Involvement with a start-up company makes young people feel they are helping build the ground floor of a business, experts say.
"If you poll young people between 18 and 25, the number wanting to become involved in a start-up (company) is disproportionately high," says Dr. Robert Dooley, dean of the UTC College of Business. "Over the past decade or so, I've seen a shift in what students are looking for. They want to be engaged early and contribute significantly."
While the entrepreneurship major continues to grow, UTC business school administrators say that offering entrepreneurship classes to majors in other disciplines is also a promising trend. Even engineering students and liberal arts majors see advantages in learning how to monetize their skills and talents, the administrators say.
Heidi Foster is a former communications major and performing artist who refocused her college experience on entrepreneurship in hopes of starting a business in music-industry management. The 32-year-old mother of three graduated last year and has already begun using her degree to develop two enterprises with her husband: a property management business and a company that books musical acts at Chattanooga venues.
"The way I looked at it, studying entrepreneurship, I was going to learn how to do everything (in business)," she said. "As I progressed through the major and got more involved, it opened lots of doors."
UTC business school administrators have a master plan for growing the entrepreneurship program within the business school and expanding elements of it across campus.
Major initiatives include expanding partnerships with local start-up engines such as CoLab, the Business Development Center and the Edney Innovation Center; continuing to provide interns to the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and CoLab; and hosting international students studying social entrepreneurship.
UTC is also about to begin a search to replace retiring professor Dr. Richard Becherer, Clarence E. Harris Chair of Excellence of in Business Marketing and Entrepreneurship, who many credit with being the driving force behind the entrepreneurship program at the school.