Colleen Cruze Bhatti (’11) grew up on the Knoxville dairy farm her parents started in 1980. Cruze Farm products are sold in local markets, mom-and-pop grocery stores, and food cooperatives throughout East Tennessee, as well as Whole Foods in Chattanooga and Nashville. Today, Cruze is the only Knoxville dairy farm with its own cows and milk plant.
“I grew up selling my family’s homemade ice cream at the Knox County farmer’s market,” she says. “I fell in love with selling ice cream. It makes people smile and creates happy memories.”
While Bhatti was studying agricultural science at UT, she crafted a business plan to add ice cream to the Cruze Farm product line. That plan took the $5,000 first prize in 2011 at the Graves Undergraduate Business Competition, hosted by the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Haslam College of Business.
“Winning the competition gave my dad confidence in me to keep the dairy business going,” she says. “I think when he saw that the Anderson Center had confidence in me, it gave him confidence too.”
Bhatti spent her prize money on pint containers and started churning. “I worked so hard the first summer after graduation. I was still proving myself,” she says. By 2017, Bhatti and her husband, Manjit, had debuted a milk bar food truck and Cruze Farm’s summer pop-up ice cream shops. The projects led to the opening of their permanent, year-round ice cream and coffee shop in East Knoxville.
Those real-life lessons of hard work and perseverance are something she enjoys sharing with future entrepreneurs at UT through the Anderson Center. “I love speaking with students,” says Bhatti. “I’ve spoken to several business classes and always talk about being passionate in your work.
“We make mistakes, wipe away tears, and try again. Building a business can be emotional. UT has been a great help to me. Talking to students really brings it full circle,” she says.
Bhatti frequently hires UT students for her squad of “farm girl” employees. “I love giving them jobs that allow them to grow.” Even their distinctive uniform—a gingham dress in honor of Bhatti’s grandmother and a head scarf to evoke the spirit of Rosie the Riveter—is designed to empower the young employees.
Kelsey Watson, a kinesiology major, has worked for Bhatti for a year and says the experience gives her and her co-workers newfound confidence.
“She teaches us that we are strong, intelligent, accomplished young women,” Watson says. “She builds up this determination in us to be more fearless, to believe in ourselves more, to just go out and do it. She isn’t afraid of hard work and goes after everything she wants in life. All of us at Cruze Farm look up to her. She is the definition of an influential female role model.”
“We are not just a dairy farm,” Bhatti says. “We are a movement inspiring women all over the world that we can work hard and make all our dreams come true.”
And the movement keeps growing. Cruze Farm has opened a pizza barn and a permanent ice cream store in downtown Knoxville.
“Growing up on a dairy farm taught me how to work hard. I love creating a fun workplace that demands hard work so others can learn how to work. Through hard work and commitment, anything is possible. I like to live by this and encourage my employees to do the same.”