From adverse origins to founding two companies and gaining the attention of business tycoons the likes of Richard Branson by age 18, UT freshman Matt Madlock's story is testimony to the power of spirit, stamina and business savvy.
Madlock, who is the owner of Unshatter Me, a company fixing smartphones on college campuses, began life seemingly without fortune on his side.
"I was born on the sidewalk in San Diego, California," Madlock said. "I was given up at birth because I was born to a drug-induced mother who reportedly didn't even know she was having me."
After spending two years in the foster care system, he was adopted by a California couple who were to remain his adoptive family for the next 13 years.
"I still consider that to be my family," he said. "I learned so much from them and they saved my life; I had a lot of health issues and my mother nursed me back to health. But after a while, things just escalated. I had a lot of behavioral issues due to some of my early developmental issues and then there were other problems going on in the house, as well. It took its toll on us all to the point where we couldn't stay together anymore."
After much contemplation, Madlock made "definitely one of the hardest" decisions of his life to reach out to the Department of Children's Services. However, life within the confines of DCS did not turn out as redemptive as he had hoped.
"I was put in a foster home for a while, and then I just moved around to different placements, group homes and other foster homes," he said. "I was essentially lost in the system. They still had 'return to parent' on my permanency plan, which I told them from the start wasn't going to happen. Yet for two and a half years, I was stuck waiting.
"I was very angry about that, but I always struggle to find the light at the end of the tunnel. That's when I really first started the business thing."
During his sophomore year of high school, Madlock discovered his talent for technical repair that would eventually evolve into Unshatter Me.
"I first got into it because my sister snapped her Razor in half," he said. "I had just gotten my first phone and this really messed me up because my mom was like, 'You have to give her your phone since we have no insurance.' But I wasn't about to do that."
Instead, Madlock took his sister's broken cell phone and an identical run-over Razor he found on the street outside of his school. Without any guidance or instruction, he disassembled the two phones and reconfigured his sister's phone with the salvaged parts.
"I didn't use YouTube or anything, just took it apart and figured out where the different parts went," he said. "We didn't have Internet at the house at the time and I had no electronics besides the phone; we didn't have much money. Since that moment, I knew I was skilled with small electronics."
Around this time, Madlock got involved with Nashville's National Entrepreneur Center, where he met 2010 Nashvillian of the Year, Hal Cato.
Cato instantly recognized something exceptional in Madlock.
"Matt showed up for our first meeting and knew everything about me, my background and even what my goals were," Cato said. "I've worked with thousands of high school students over the years and never had that happen.
"I realized right then and there that this was someone special."
Through Cato's mentorship and the instruction of the Entrepreneur's Center, Madlock learned valuable business skills he applied to the cultivation of Unshatter Me. As his business grew, so did his ambition. He applied for and won the prestigious Horatio Alger scholarship that not only granted him $20,000 toward his college education, but also provided him with what was to be a life-changing summer of 2013.
"I was one of 107 nationally selected students from my year of 2013 who got to go to this really awesome conference in Washington, D.C., where we met the individuals who created the scholarships," Madlock said.
Among these noteworthy funders were U.S. Justice Clarence Thomas, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Stearns, founder of Stearn's Lending Inc.
"He is good friends with Richard Branson and connected me with him," Madlock said. "He funded my opportunity to go to Richard's island for a 'Survive and Thrive' leadership conference."
There, he was given the opportunity to connect with several other young entrepreneurs who earned success in the face of adversity, as well as getting to interact with billionaire Branson himself.
"I pitched both of my businesses I'm working on to Richard and the co-founder of Ebay while racing on a catamaran from one of his private islands to the next," Madlock said. "Talk about pressure pitching. I tell that to people and I'm still like, 'Did that really happen?'"
After returning to Tennessee, he enrolled at UT on a full-ride scholarship. Beyond cultivating Unshatter Me through targeting his smartphone repair at a college demographic, Madlock has spent his first semester fostering his next altruistic venture: Enlink.
With partner Cato, he aims to provide cellphones to young people in foster care and group homes who are otherwise deprived of technology.
"Having been a foster kid myself, I know firsthand the dehumanizing feeling that is brought with being a ward of the state," Madlock said. "The restricted use of technology by the Department of Children’s Services can be prohibitive to social growth, as well as creating a huge informational gap. Most kids have access to at least Google to find things out, but these kids don't get to have that."
Cato, who believes that "knowledge is power" to these wards of the state, praises Madlock for striving to provide others with the tools for success he himself grew up lacking.
"Adolescence is hard enough, but Matt's was about as challenging as it gets," Cato said. "But he hung in there and will do whatever it takes to overcome adversity and succeed. He believes in himself and knows that he is here to make an impact."