UT Knoxville, ’69
Part of the Tennessee Alumnus’ 100 Distinguished Alumni feature.
Chris Whittle has built empires by challenging the status quo.
Born in Etowah, Tennessee, his entrepreneurial drive emerged early. As a child, he kept local sports team stats, wrote play-by-plays for local newspapers and delivered morning newspapers.
He majored in American studies and graduated from UT Knoxville in 1969. With fellow UT students, he created 13-30, a publishing house ran out of a vacant former pillow factory building in South Knoxville.
In 1979, 13-30 acquired Esquire magazine and breathed new life into the men’s magazine. Seven years later, Whittle bought out his partners and sold Esquire to Hearst. The same year, 13-30 became Whittle Communications, and a media empire in downtown Knoxville grew into one of America’s top 100 media businesses.
In 1989, Whittle Communications launched Channel One News, a national in-school television news network that reached 8 million students and won a Peabody Award.
Channel One provided the impetus for a new challenge. He recalls thinking, “Why just focus on 12 minutes of the day? Why not the whole day?” And so, he turned to education.
“Communication is a form of teaching and, for sure, good communication is required of good teachers,” he says. “If you think of it, curriculum has a lot in common with editorial content.”
He moved to New York to spearhead the Edison Project, the for-profit school initiative he founded with Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale University. He co-founded Avenues: the World School, a for-profit private school system. He founded Whittle School and Studios, a global system of K-12 schools.
Since a child watching his father care for patients as a country general practitioner, he has considered health care and education as the two most important careers.
“Education is the former generation helping the next one stand on its shoulders,” he says. “The skills and insights education provides are required for prosperity and, more important, happiness, however one defines it.”