Staff photo by Troy Stolt / UTC freshman Haydynn Fike pitches his idea for a real estate photography startup to his classmates during Libby Santin's Entrepreneurship class in UTC's West Campus Housing dorm classroom. The class is a part of UTC's Entrepreneurship living learning community, a special dorm/resident hall geared toward students with an interest in entrepreneurship.

"Hey there, have you ever been looking at real estate online or Facebook Marketplace or something like that and you realize just how bad some of the pictures are on these listings?"

Haydynn Fike, a tall, dark-haired freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, stands at the front of a classroom and asks his peers. Fike has a service that will not only supply a photographer to take photos of a house or rental property, but will also help you build a listing on real estate websites or other online marketplaces for your property.

"If you're interested, you can have my card," Fike gestures, empty-handed, to his classmates.

But Fike hasn't created this service yet. Some of his classmates, a half-dozen freshman who are part of UTC's very first Idea Central living learning community (LLC), do already have small businesses or have launched projects, though. Fike and his classmates are each expected to develop an idea to try and sell by this spring's annual UTC College of Business Elevator Pitch Competition.

UTC's new living learning community and its accompanying classes are meant to take students like Fike and his classmates and foster that entrepreneurial spirit as early as possible in their college careers. The students all live together in the same dorm on campus and participate in classes and extracurricular activities that are tailored specifically to them.

Libby Santin, the director of UTC's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, helped launch the initiative and leads a weekly class for the freshman, where they learn about the resources available to them both on campus and across Chattanooga.

"The living learning community was established to get students thinking about entrepreneurship from their freshman year," Santin says. "We are hoping to accomplish a couple things. The first semester, I introduced them to all the entrepreneurship assets in Chattanooga. It was really me telling them, 'This is great city that you live in and you probably aren't aware of all these great assets.'"

They visited pillars of Chattanooga's downtown Innovation District, including the nonprofit startup accelerator Co.Lab and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's Incubator, and met with city Mayor Andy Berke and representatives from Chattanooga's Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC).

Many of Santin's students came to campus already with ideas for start-ups or small businesses that they want to pursue. Ethan Richard, one of Fike's classmates and a 2019 graduate of McCallie School, is a founder of Withdrawn Legion, a local car meet group that sells merchandise and hosts monthly events.

Richard is exploring how to market himself as a automotive photographer and offer his services to other car enthusiasts interested in branding or marketing themselves.

Hugh Jackson, a recent graduate from Chattanooga's STEM School, worked on a project to use concrete to 3D print building materials to aid with disaster relief in places such as Florida or Louisiana that have been hit by hurricanes. He hopes to eventually work for or start his own construction company.

Like Fike, the group is developing their own ideas in a more structured setting than a typical entrepreneur who might take a risk and start a company on their own.

"I've always had the idea of starting a business or being my own boss, but I never knew how to go about it," says Aidan Cooley, one of Santin's students.

Many of them say they envision starting their own businesses and being their own boss, but also want the skills and opportunities that come with a college education — and a degree.

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Think like a business owner at UTC

Fike says he hopes to get a job after he finishes his degree at UTC and then build up a network throughout his career. He says he hopes to make some money and "get comfortable" before taking a risk and launching his own business someday.

UTC's Gary W. Rollins College of Business already offers a degree program in entrepreneurship among other business majors, but Santin says many students with great ideas don't get plugged into core business classes or the co-curricular programs that the center offers them until later in their college career.

Starting with freshmen gives them time to incubate ideas from the start.

Santin also doesn't expect every student to start a business or launch a radical new start-up — students are developing skills and a certain mindset that will benefit them no matter their path, she says.

"With an entrepreneurship education it doesn't mean you need to go start a business, it means you have have the skill set and mindset to be able to think entrepreneurially. That is so valued in the workplace," she says. "At any given day if you were to search job postings, there's about 19,000 jobs that list an entrepreneurial mindset that they are looking for in candidates."

Those skills, or habits, that Santin hopes to foster include self-leadership, self-management, creativity, the ability to think about things differently, the habit of improvisation the ability to turn on a dime or adapt an idea.

Students are also learning the practical side of starting a small business, like how to identify a target audience or what ideas have the ability to scale and what don't.

Cooley has started exploring art as a creative outlet and wants to find a way to monetize it. During the recent pitch exercise in class, he pitched his own artwork, but his peers and Santin weren't sure if there was a marketplace for his idea.

"You need to find your niche," Jackson says.

Isaiah Mosby-Jones, also a freshman, reminded Cooley of the hand-painted, customized shoes that Cooley wore to class the week before. Cooley says the design and paint he had used didn't work long-term.

"You could just figure out what works and what doesn't work," Mosby-Jones says. "I say just go for it and go for it full force."

Santin encouraged Cooley to think of what only he could provide — and to tap into his passion.

"I just don't want you to let go of something that's a bigger opportunity, or something that you can customize," she told him. "I want you to learn as much as you can this semester about what it takes to build and start a business, so I want to make sure you have something meaty enough to test out."