15 Unsung Heroes of the Local Startup Community (and Why I’m So Grateful to Sing Their Praises)

We all saw last week that the Startup Scene in Knoxville is alive, well, and thriving. No single person is responsible for this, or even one organization; it’s the spirit of the creative people in this city that believe something greater is possible here, and even more that Knoxville’s best days lay ahead. In many ways, Startup Day 2015 was the end of the beginning. Over 500 filled the Bijou, 30 investors and countless other visitors came from cities as far as Detroit and Brooklyn.  Angel Capital Group made an $8.7M investment in General Graphene.  These aren’t table stakes, and we have to continue to push for the next level.  That’s what 2016 is going to be about – reaching new heights…


But this week is Thanksgiving, and I wanted to publicly express my gratitude for these specific people who do so much work, usually for free on behalf of the startups in our community. They are the unsung heroes of our movement..well, until now.


I am thankful for Channing DawsonWe would be lost without Channing Dawson. Channing was on the founding team at Scripps Networks. He led innovation. He spent his entire career trying to figure out “what’s next”. Lucky for us, the year we started MediaWorks was the same time that “what’s next” was retirement (or so he thought). Channing is our Mentor in Residence for Digital Media. His insights and thoughtful consideration drive all our media initiative at KEC, he never asks for credit yet literally spends hundreds and hundreds of hours LISTENING to startups and helping them to think bigger, and helping team KEC to think bigger as well. I could write this entire article about Channing, but he wouldn’t want that. That’s the kind of guy he is. We love Channing.  And I’ll write an article about him someday anyway.


I am thankful for Jill Van Beke:  Jill was one of the first people I met when I returned home and started learning about the local startup scene. She is a great friend to me and the community.  She isn’t at home as much as I’d like but she’s always there when I need her, or when any startup needs her. She is kind of like Startup Wonder Woman. She thinks “bigger than here” and she’s always down to brainstorm about to how to do something better.  She gives us honest and relevant feedback.  I’m so thankful to have Jill around.


I am thankful for Andrew May, Don Den Eyl, and the CodeStock Board:


Too many names to count here, Ben Farmer, Arlene Rose, Adam Byrum, Michael C. Neel, they’ve all been instrumental in helping us engage the coding community. When I started my work with KEC, one of the first things we set out to do was engage the tech community, because frankly, you can’t have a startup community without a tech community. It’s Impossible. Andrew, Denny, and the crew answered the call. They worked with us to create events for coders at KEC. We partnered on the Codestock conference this year, and Andrew single-handedly recruited enough coders for the first ever KEC hackathon (and many more to come). They were critical in planning and recruiting for CodeWorks, and they never ask for anything in return, they just want to see Knoxville live up to its potential. I am incredibly grateful for these guys.

I am thankful for Bob Bradley:


I say it all the time, Bob Bradley is my hero. He’ll meet with anyone, he understands what KEC does, and why the work is important. If we need a speaker, a mentor, advice, a moderator, to join the board, intros, to bring a bunch of middle schoolers to tour his office….the answer is always “what time works.”  He gets startups,  has tons of experience, and brings a quiet confidence to the table every time he shows up. I’m glad his company is having success, because he deserves it. I’m a huge fan, and quite thankful.


I am thankful for Brandon Bruce (and the Cirrus Insight crew):

Brandon is EXACTLY what this town needs. His startup Cirrus Insight is blowing up, and instead of moving away, he is getting involved. He started the “Founder’s Coffee” at KEC, he calls US and says “what can I sponsor”, He paid for breakfast at our last hackathon, and he is leading a community lead effort to map the startup ecosysystem and brand the city as a startup hub, all while traveling back and forth to California running his awesome startup.


Team KEC:

Emily:  I’m thankful for Emily, she keeps the ship running tight, and when I get really overwhelmed, I know she can take on anything and get it done.  She’s a constant source of inspiration and also has an amazing laugh.  Truly grateful.

Joy:  What a blessing. Joy cares about people, about everyone, and she works hard to serve our region everyday. I greatly admire her.  She also listens, sometimes to me rambling on for hours about how to accomplish the mission….and then she’ll ask a really hard question that changes my perception of everything.  So thankful.

Jim:  I never wanted to have a “boss” again, so I’m thankful for Jim. He taught me that it can be a good thing… a boss can be a partner in crime. He gives me a LONG leash, stays out of my way when I’m in the zone, and is always there to have my back when I need him. Everytime.  Very thankful for Jim.


The Interns – Kaleigh, Alex, Will, Jacob, Kevin, Justin:  They actually belong at the top of the list. These students are the heart and soul of our organization, I’m not just thankful for their amazing Design/Video/Coding/Marketing/Research/Analytics skills. I’m thankful for how often they make me laugh, and how eager they are to be part of something special. When, actually in my mind, they are one the things that IS so special about KEC and the culture we’ve created.   And we’re grateful to LaunchTN for the first crew of interns that started it all last summer.


And there are so many more people that belong on this list… Shawn Carson, Nick Hollensbe, Beth Papenek, Haseeb Qureshi, Steve Chin, Chuck Morris, Doug Hurst, Janna Laxton, Joe and Cathy Vangieri, Mayor Rogero, Rhonda Rice and The KEC Board, Tom Ballard and The Startup Day Board, Every Mentor, Every Startup, Every Entrepreneur.  I’m grateful to be part of such a wonderful community that I believe really is on the verge of something special.

Happy T-Day,

Jonathan Sexton

PS – what are YOU thankful for?  Drop us a line or post to our socials @knoxstartshere.

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