Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Celebrates $1M Milestone

To date, the center has awarded startup funding to nearly 250 UT student entrepreneurs

November 20, 2023

The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business celebrated the awarding of its millionth dollar in startup funding to student entrepreneurs. The center marked the milestone on Nov. 17 in conjunction with the award ceremony for its fall 2023 Graves Business Plan Competition.

Attendees included the Graves winners and their family and friends as well as faculty and staff, past pitch competition winners, alumni, donors, and campus and community partners.

The celebration commenced with remarks by Haslam College of Business Dean and Stokely Foundation Leadership Chair Stephen L. Mangum, who gave a brief history of the ACEI and introduced its new executive director, Breanna Hale.

Hale announced the seven student startups that won funding in the fall 2023 Graves Business Plan Competition and announced that the ACEI’s all-time funding total had officially surpassed $1 million. Confetti cannons were fired to commemorate the milestone.

Financial Support and a Vote of Confidence

The college held its first student pitch contest, then called the Undergraduate Business Plan Competition, in 2008. The following year, Donde Plowman — who was then head of the management department and is now chancellor of UT Knoxville — gave approval for a center dedicated to entrepreneurship and innovation. After a significant gift from alumnus Charles Anderson and his wife, Moll Anderson, the center was officially named to honor the couple’s family in 2010.

That same year the ACEI launched Vol Court, a five-week speaker series culminating in a business pitch competition, held twice a year. In 2011 the center introduced the Boyd Venture Challenge, a seed-fund grant competition held each spring semester. In 2016, anonymous donors endowed the Undergraduate Business Plan Competition in honor of faculty member Tom Graves, now a distinguished lecturer emeritus. The twice-yearly competition was renamed the Graves Business Plan Competition in 2017.

By offering these business pitch opportunities, Hale sees the ACEI’s role in supporting student-run businesses as twofold. “Being able to offer funding to a student entrepreneur serves not just as a way to reduce their up-front startup expense and help them get their business off the ground, but also, and maybe more importantly, as a vote of confidence and encouragement that UT believes in them and wants to see them carry their ideas forward,” she said.

‘Just Getting Started’

To date, the Anderson Center has awarded funding to nearly 250 UT student entrepreneurs from a wide range of majors and business industries. Notable winners who have found great success with their startups after receiving ACEI prizes include Colleen Cruze, a 2011 agriculture science graduate, for Cruze Farm Dairy; Lia Winter, who earned a dual MBA and MS in biomedical engineering in 2019, for Winter Innovations; Mary Cayten Brakefield, a 2020 retail and consumer sciences graduate, for Brakefields; and Alex Weber, a 2020 MBA graduate, for D3D.

As Hale takes the reins to lead the ACEI into its next chapter, she finds inspiration in the support the center has provided for so many young entrepreneurs. “To know that we’ve been able to provide a million dollars’ worth of support is a truly heartwarming thing, but knowing that we’re just getting started is incredibly exciting,” she said. “I look forward to this new era for the Anderson Center and seeing where the next million dollars can take our students.”

About the ACEI

The Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is a university-based resource for entrepreneurship across the region and the state of Tennessee. Its mission is to foster an entrepreneurial culture by developing student skills, providing experiential learning opportunities, conducting meaningful entrepreneurial research and connecting students with mentors and resources that enable them to successfully start and grow new businesses.



Cindi King (865-974-0937,

Brennan Hullett, (865-974-5061,


Photo, L-R: Mickey Napier, Alexa Schnittka, Cody Blankenship, Brennan Lessard, Kaitlyn Daniels, Logan O’Neal, J.T. Sudderth