UT Haslam’s Annual TakeOff Program for First-Gen Students Culminates with Pitch Competition

The pitch competition enables students to demonstrate skills gained through the program, such as making a business case through presentations.

June 14, 2024

Offered during the fall and spring semesters, the TakeOff program in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, helps first-year, first-generation students adapt to life at a large university. Administered by Haslam’s Office of Access and Community Connections (OACC), the program offers a tight-knit cohort, targeted guidance, peer mentors and financial incentives for completing the program.

TakeOff students participate in professional development workshops and seminars, as well as scheduled visits to local companies. Students emerge from the program with an enhanced understanding of business soft skills, professional etiquette and personal branding.

Showcasing Students’ Business Skills

TakeOff, now in its sixth year, culminates each spring with a pitch competition that allows students to demonstrate skills gained through the program. Over the course of the spring semester, students form teams and consult with faculty members and visiting business professionals to develop a marketable product and business plan. The teams present their business concept — with a coach’s guidance — to a panel of judges at the end of the school year. This year’s panel included judges Gregg Bostick, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, Brennan Lessard, owner of Paint & Repair, LLC, and Damon Rawls, principal strategist with The Innovation Digital Agency.

Pamela Sanchez, Haslam’s coordinator for retention and education and TakeOff’s director, launched the pitch competition four years ago and has great admiration for the students’ work in the program.

“These first-year students dedicated the spring semester to learning about entrepreneurship and the process of pitching a business while navigating unfamiliar terms and concepts,” she says. “They also had to both develop a business idea and do the research to support their value proposition. I am so proud of their hard work and dedication.”

Winning Winter Weather Solution

Spring 2024’s winning pitch team consisted of communications major Tucker Riley, accounting major Veronica Chudoba and finance major Garrett Brown. Their concept product — Blizzard Beater — is a device that could remove snow from car windshields in one swipe.

The Southeast’s abrupt, heavy snowfall in January and the always-harsh northern winters inspired the trio’s creation. Chudoba, who is from Chicago, explains that the team wanted to create a convenient, useful product. “We wanted something compactible to fit in the car, quick and effective on heavy snow,” she says. “With the Blizzard Beater we were able to get all of that, with our customers’ safety as our number one priority.”

Knoxville native Riley says the team knew their product needed to be a unique device that could remove snow in one swipe.

“Our pitch showed the audience that anyone could use our product in order to meet their needs of the winter season,” he says. “Our team worked hard to make sure that our product could be successful, and winning the pitch competition was a great achievement.”

TakeOff’s Impact

Members of the TakeOff cohort, consisting of 14 multiethnic students in professional attire, pose in front of a screen with the words, "2023-2024 TakeOff Program Cohort Recognition," projected on it, with four students kneeling in front and 10 standing behind them. The three members of the winning team are appreciative of their time in the TakeOff program, calling it rewarding, engaging and collaborative. For Brown, TakeOff expanded his professional network and positioned the Nashvillian for greater responsibilities and career advancement.

“This program provided me with invaluable insights into effective team management and decision-making processes, which have directly contributed to my ability to perform with a team and create organizational success,” he says.

Riley deemed the in the TakeOff program “fantastic,” saying, “There were many experiences and lessons learned that contributed to my development as a student. I look forward to taking all that I’ve learned to better myself and those around me.”

Through TakeOff, Chudoba learned more about herself and grew closer with her classmates, and she is eager to share her experiences.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat and I would recommend it to anyone,” she says. “I know Ms. Sanchez has people from past cohorts come to her class the following year, and I cannot wait to go see and talk to her class next semester.”

More About the TakeOff Program

TakeOff was founded in 2017 by Russell Crook, First Horizon Foundation Distinguished Professor, Cheryl Massingale Faculty Research Fellow and head of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, and Tyvi Small, previous head of the OACC. Sanchez took over the program in 2019 and expanded it, adding the pitch competition to help instill in its participants essential skills they will need as business students and business leaders. Since then, she has found the program equips students with more than skills.

“I’ve seen the students grow from being hesitant on the first day of their spring semester to become confident in their ideas, teams and selves,” Sanchez says. “That confidence will be invaluable in their professional and personal journeys, and their success will be an inspiration to future TakeOff cohorts.”

Main photo, L-R: Garrett Brown, Veronica Chudoba and Tucker Riley


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu