Last week I was gifted the incredible opportunity to head back to my alma mater, The University of Tennessee, for a week of speaking, teaching, listening, working, and just engaging with the bright and eager students across campus. I will forever be grateful for the experience as the interests and enthusiasm of the students brought such an amazing energy to my time!
Back in 2011, I was first asked back to campus to speak to my friend Tom Graves’ Entrepreneurship class. Back then I still wasn’t even making a “living wage” and began to engage students by simply sharing the story of how I got started and where I hoped to go. As luck would have it, as The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation has grown, my business has as well and I am now able to share highlights of my success as well as lessons I’ve learned from mistakes along the way with students who have a fierce and growing passion for entrepreneurship, small business building, and business creation.
I have become a huge fan of the Entrepreneurship minor offered by the Haslam College of Business. I believe it is a great program that gives students the unique opportunity to look at business through a creative lens. Since this is outside the traditional business school track from back in the “old days” (such as when I was in school), I think students are being offered a more well-rounded and ultimately broader view of all the possibilities that getting a degree in business can offer.
Prior to this past week’s experience, I’ve been able to make day trips up to campus to engage here and there with students. This year, I’m grateful for the Haslam College of Business who hosted over 20 conversations spread across a number of colleges including the College of Law and the College of Communications during my four days on campus. I was able to meet with a large, diverse group of incredible students with an array of interests - some searching for their path (been there), some who have already created successful (by a host of metrics) businesses while in school, and some who have both started and sold businesses well before graduation. The amount of drive and success that is housed on campus today is astounding and I’m proud to be part of it.
During my time on campus, I was sharing my startup story, conducting extensive Q&A’s, having some pretty intense one-on-one conversations and even speaking with Law Students about how a bottom-tier law student found success outside the traditional paths graduate schools often put you on. There were so many positive and life-giving conversations along the way, but my favorite way to engage with students is to give them the raw version of me and my story - sitting on top of a desk, sharing what was and is hard, what mistakes I’ve made (both at the beginning and more recently) and trying to show them that the measures of success are not limited. And while I enjoy talking business concepts and skills, we also spent plenty of time discussing the mix of hard and soft skills that need to be developed outside the classroom, the truth that life is more than your job and finding purpose in community and personal interactions is ultimately more valuable than monetary gain, and of course, the kicker that we all learn at some point, that meeting someone else’s expectations will not be a guide for your own happiness.
They are looking to expand this concept, so this year they had students share feedback and I’m extremely humbled to share some of the comments which definitely both focus and inspire me to spend more time on speaking with students.
“You’ll have losses in business and life and that’s okay. It’s important to learn from them and move on. It’s not always the best thing to dwell on it and try to correct it, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and move on.” - Devin
“Ensure everything you do, no matter how small, has purpose and continues to propel you towards success” - Alex
“Take a step back and figure out what you enjoy. Sometimes the answer is simpler than your plans.” - Grant
“Don't be ‘average’ in your success.” - Rachel
“Talking with him, especially one on one, really gave me that personal conversation that tailored all advice to my specific path and goals. This gave me better insight as to what I’m doing and what I might need to do in my future. I think the one on one time slots really give a powerful experience and I enjoyed being lucky enough to get one of those spots.” - Jack
“Get really good at one thing, and you can be the best in the world at that one thing.” - Spencer
As with any volunteering effort, the person “giving of their time” is often the one who gains the most and that was certainly true for me in this experience. I returned home with a renewed energy, from all the eagerness and passion that I saw in the students on campus, ready to dig back in to my current business as well as engage with some of the other ideas that have been floating around in my head for years. So what can someone else take away from my week back at school?
I would definitely encourage friends and connections to reach out to schools within your sphere of influence. Identify what makes your experience unique and share your story - these experiences have been an incredible bright spot in my life… and greatly outweigh whatever cost it takes on my daily schedule.
I look forward to sharing more specifics of what I shared with students sometime soon!
Also, big thanks to a host of individuals for facilitating my time - Mark Willoughby, Kyle Allen, Steve Evans, Lane Morris, Tom Graves, Amy Jared, Joan Heminway, all the students who smiled in the pictures with me, and many more that are doing such great work at UT!