Diane Walker Markarian & Raffi Markarian

Supporting Young Entrepreneurs

The daughter of two University of Tennessee alumni, Diane Walker Markarian (HCB, ’83) grew up on a working farm in Maryville, Tennessee, before studying literature and journalism at UT. While working as a freelance writer for a local publishing company, she developed an interest in business. “Many of the stories I wrote were about young entrepreneurs,” she recalls. “That captured my attention and I decided to go back to school.”

Walker earned a master’s of accountancy from the Haslam College of Business with the goal of working for a large accounting firm. PwC hired her to work in London, England, for six months following graduation, and then she moved to Chicago to work in the firm’s international tax department. She met her husband, Raffi Markarian, there. “We worked together, making presentations on a new software product, and we had to travel to clients all over the country,” she says. “It was different from the usual accounting culture—very fast-paced, and it felt like an entrepreneurship venture within a large company. I loved it.”

Walker eventually left PwC to work in management consulting for the software industry, including for IBM and several startup technology companies.

With a background in science and technology and an MBA in accounting and finance, Raffi enjoyed working at PwC for about five years, but says meeting Diane was the highlight of his early career. He eventually moved to Deloitte, where he’s worked for 22 years. “It’s a very fulfilling and dynamic organization,” he says. “The rapid changes of pace in many areas have been very dramatic, especially related to technology and globalization.”

Over the years, Diane and Raffi enjoyed frequent trips from Chicago to visit Diane’s family. Among other activities, the couple enjoyed attending football games. “UT gave me a whole new perspective on college life and the color orange,” Raffi says. “It satisfied something I missed in my own undergraduate experience—the exhilaration of college athletics.”

A few years ago, Diane and Raffi attended a social event in Chicago for UT alumni where they learned about new initiatives at the university. As they explored opportunities to be more involved, they learned about the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. “We came down and spent time attending the pitch competitions,” says Diane. “We were very impressed with both the events and the students involved.”

When the couple asked where their investment might be best used, Lynn Youngs, executive director of the Anderson Center, and Tom Graves, director of operations, suggested an endowment to help students travel to pitch competitions outside the local region. The idea struck a chord with Diane, who loves to travel. “It’s important to me because it’s broadened my life experience,” she says. “We thought that was a great place to invest and feel that the money has been well spent on something we’re both very interested in.”

Today, Diane and Raffi divide their time between their home in Chicago and Diane’s family farm in Maryville. “We love it here,” she says. “The four seasons, the nature, the birds, and wildlife make Tennessee a special place for both of us.” Longtime friends Mark and Maria Lazzaro say Diane and Raffi have always shown an interest in entrepreneurship. “They enjoyed exploring local businesses when we traveled together, and now they have that same excitement for rediscovering East Tennessee.”

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