Vol Court Pitch Competition and Speaker Series Kicks Off Feb. 1

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The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation invites students, faculty, staff and members of the local community to pitch their business ideas at Vol Court, a semiannual pitch competition and speaker series.

Winners of the competition receive up to $1,500 in prize money, space in the UT Research Foundation Business Incubator, and legal and accounting services.

Vol Court kicks off Feb. 1 with a five-week entrepreneurial speaker series. The event culminates March 8 in a pitch competition where attendees put what they’ve learned into practice.

Local entrepreneurs and UT faculty will cover a range of business topics. As part of the series, Vol Court director Shawn Carson will share his own entrepreneurial expertise.

“We’re excited to return for the spring semester with new speakers and topics,” Carson says. “Vol Court provides opportunities not only to learn from seasoned entrepreneurs but also to network with area businesspeople and entrepreneurial-minded students, faculty, staff and community members.”

Vol Court has grown in recent years to include more speakers, sponsors, participants and prizes. All pitch competition participants are eligible for cash prizes awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners.

Vol Court meets 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. every Wednesday from Feb. 1 through March 8 in the Haslam Business Building, 1000 Volunteer Blvd. The Feb. 1 meeting will be held in Room 103, but all other sessions—as well as the pitch competition—will be held in Room 104.

Anyone who participates in the March 8 pitch competition must have attended four of the following five series meetings:

Feb. 1: Opportunity Identification and Validation

Feb. 8: Getting to Your Market

Feb. 15: Understanding Basic Financial Statements

Feb. 22: Intellectual Property

March 1: Pitching the Concept

The speaker series and pitch competition are open to the public. There is no charge to participate in the event, and anyone interested in starting a company is encouraged to attend.

Vol Court is made possible by donated funds and services from sponsors, which include Cirrus Insight, PYA, Morehous Legal Group, Hard Knox Pizzeria, The IT Company, Funding Sage, 3 Roots Capital and the UT Research Foundation.

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Ice Cream Pop-Up Shop Churning Success for UT Grad

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For UT alumna Colleen Cruze Bhatti, a combination of timing, connections, and hard work brought her to the next step in her growing dairy business, Cruze Farm Girl. This summer, Bhatti opened her first storefront, the Cruze Farm Milk Bar, in downtown Knoxville.

She credits UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation for supporting her entrepreneurial dreams.

“The opportunity to open a storefront came up, and the timing was right,” Bhatti says. “It’s been interesting to see how many people we have been able to reach.”

In this case, “interesting” means twenty thousand scoops of farm-fresh ice cream sold during the shop’s first three weeks.

The Union Avenue shop mixes the old-fashioned charm of an ice cream parlor with modern flavors like lavender honey ice cream as well as the chili dog, a hot dog topped with chili, cheese, mustard, and onions. The top-selling ice cream, in flavors like birthday cake and cookies ’n’ cream, is churned overnight at Cruze Farm. New flavors rotate daily.

“We’re selling everything we can produce right now,” says Bhatti. “We’re in a good spot.” She attributes the success to time spent scooping and selling ice cream, hot dogs, and biscuits from the Milk Bar food truck at the Market Square Farmer’s Market in Knoxville.

“We’ve spent the last five years building connections with people at the market,” she says. “People want to know where their food comes from, and I think they enjoy talking to the person who prepares the food they’re eating.”

This connection between the business and its customers is key for Bhatti. While she now employs twenty full- and part-time “farm girls” who work in the shop and on the dairy farm, customers regularly find Bhatti at the shop scooping ice cream, greeting customers, and caring for the business she has worked hard to build.

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That hard work began while Bhatti was an agriculture science major at UT. She dreamed of expanding her parents’ dairy business and pushed that plan forward when she entered the Graves Undergraduate Business Competition hosted by the Anderson Center. She was awarded the $5,000 first prize in the lifestyle business category for her plan to bring ice cream to Cruze Farm.

“Winning the competition gave my dad confidence in me to keep the dairy business going,” she says. “I think when he saw that the Anderson Center had confidence in me, it gave him confidence too. After that, he was ready for me to move forward.”

The $5,000 prize bought pint containers, and Bhatti spent the summer churning ice cream to fill them.

“I worked so hard the first summer after graduation. I was still proving myself,” says Bhatti. She expanded Cruze Farm’s accounts, selling and delivering milk in Chattanooga and, eventually, Nashville. By the end of that summer, Cruze Farm was bottling all of its own milk. Today, it is the only dairy farm in Knoxville with its own cows and milk plant.

Those real-life lessons of hard work and perseverance are something she strives to share with future entrepreneurs at UT through the Anderson Center.

“We make mistakes, wipe away tears, and try again,” Bhatti says. “Building a business can be emotional. UT has been a great help to me. Talking to students really brings it full circle.”

Part of that circle is Jennifer Edwards, a sophomore majoring in accounting in UT’s Haslam College of Business. Edwards puts her accounting education to work each evening when she plans the quantities and flavors to churn for sale the following day at the shop.

“Jennifer loves to indulge her creative side by inventing new flavors. Her business side always figures out the best plan to execute her fantasy flavors in an efficient way,” Bhatti says proudly.

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While the pop-up shop will stay open only through September 4, Bhatti’s plans for her business are anything but limited. She’s utilizing her location to build relationships with her summer neighbors, including a hot dog collaboration with award-winning chef Joseph Lenn from the soon-to-open restaurant J.C. Holdway and an ice cream story time with Union Avenue Books.

She also is planning for the future—one she hopes includes another storefront. While she is not ruling out a year-round shop, she says the summer pop-up shop has been a great fit for Cruze Farm Girl.

In the fall, Bhatti plans to bring back more flavored milks, including chai milk, and to continue serving ice cream from the Milk Bar truck at the Market Square Farmers Market.

The Milk Bar is located at 513 Union Avenue and is open 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 to 10:00 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 7:00 p.m. Sunday.

To learn more about the Anderson Center’s upcoming business plan competitions, visit andersoncei.utk.edu.

Rhonda Reger Appointed Director of Research

Dr. Rhonda Reger was appointed as director of research of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Tennessee.

The director of research is responsible for fostering entrepreneurship research throughout the Haslam College of Business. The role also is responsible for generating external funding to support entrepreneurship research. Reger assumes these duties on July 1, 2014.

Entrepreneurship research is focused on topics that are vitally important to entrepreneurs and those who provide financing to them. Research focuses on topics such as how entrepreneurs find and exploit better opportunities, how successful entrepreneurs make better decisions to build businesses with limited capital, how venture and angel investors can maximize their return on investment in their portfolio of businesses, and how regions can foster entrepreneurial ecosystems that create and sustain the right kinds of entrepreneurship.

“We know that high growth ventures are the engines of economic growth and new job creation, and most high growth ventures are technology ventures. Other kinds of entrepreneurship follow and regions prosper wherever technology ventures prosper, so much of entrepreneurship research focuses in that sector,” suggests Reger. However, other important research is in need of funding, such as research on social entrepreneurship that looks at ways to help the socially minded improve their communities or even the world, while also sustaining their ventures.

Dr. Reger is a professor of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship in the Management Department at the University of Tennessee. She previously held positions at the University of Maryland-College Park, Arizona State University, and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

While serving as a department co-chair at the University of Maryland, Reger created a similar director of research position at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship which provided small research grants to faculty and doctoral students, and provided forums for entrepreneurs to learn about impactful academic research on entrepreneurship and innovation generated throughout the college. “We look forward to her leading similar efforts here,” said Steve Mangum, the dean of the Haslam College of Business.

In addition to her administrative track record, Reger is also a successful researcher. Trained in strategic management, her research focuses on strategies to foster high growth and technology entrepreneurship. Most of her current work applies a cognitive perspective to better understand how to overcome barriers that have limited some regions of the country from creating vibrant technology entrepreneurship ecosystems in spite of enjoying an ample supple of inventors.

She also is studying how the country music ecosystem in Nashville creates new celebrity performers. “While the ‘technology’ of being a star country music performer is different from the technology of being a star technology growth company, the processes and the support systems surrounding them are remarkable similar,” says Reger.

Her work has appeared in numerous top tier journals in her field. She serves on the editorial review boards of four management journals and holds leadership positions in international societies of management professors.

Vol Court Experiences New Growth Milestones

We recently concluded the Spring Vol Court series, and we are pleased to report that his program continues to grow, provide value, cross all of the Knoxville campuses, and reach out to the public. 

In the fall, we revamped the program to reflect the concepts emerging from Silicon Valley, specifically the customer discovery and validation model implemented in the Lean LaunchPad program at Stanford.  When we did that, our fall series grew in size.  This semester, we retained more participants over time and imiproved the quality of the output.  Additionally, we had a record number of competitors — for the first time ever, we had to narrow the field to make the competition manageable for judging.

This spring, 77 people participated, and here is the breakout:

  • 62% were students
  • 21% from the general public
  • 12% did not identify themselves
  • 9% were faculty/staff

When we started the program in the fall of 2010, the vast majority were from the College of Business, so outreach across campuses is succeeding!  Of the students:

  • 48% were business students
  • 29% were science/technology students
  • 22% were from other disciplines (law, arts, etc.) 

Even better, one of our repeat judges told us it was clear to him that the quality and polish of the presentations were the best that he has seen so far – he believed that the students are much better prepared for starting their businesses. 

Vol Court is open to anyone, inside or outside of UT, who wants to learn the fundamentals for starting a business.  Join us again in the fall!