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Eat, Dance, Party and.... Innovate!

Evelyn Jackson

Music, art, innovation and food. The Tom Tom Founders Festival is this week.  WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the story.

Festival founder Paul Beyer says the name Tom Tom refers to Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville’s historic luminary, who at his core was a founder of ideas. The title “Founders Festival” also points to what Beyer hopes is Charlottesville’s future: a community that is known for startups, entrepreneurs and innovation. The festival is a kind of embodiment of that vision.

PAUL BEYER: My experience with Tom Tom is very much mirroring the participant’s because it was an experiment, it was something that was a startup and it has faced all the same challenges that you hear about any startup entrepreneur facing whether it was money or staffing or resources or trying to determine priorities, trying to determine what the goals and missions should be, how to live brainstorm through the various problems you confront.

The festival has evolved from the 2012 month-long series of events to a shorter but better developed weeklong schedule. It’s niche: the emphasis on innovation and creativity.

BEYER: The things that most interest me are the innovation, the idea of what’s next what’s the future. And how some of these conversations can best be had in the middle of a larger cultural event. So Tom-Tom’s themes are music, art and innovation. The music is dozens of concerts throughout the downtown area. The art is all kind of public art residencies, public installations, art vendors, art crafts. And then the innovation is, increasingly, about startups, entrepreneurs and how specifically how these ideas start. What is the practical narrative that a budding entrepreneur can come to Tom-Tom and learn from really established founders how they did whatever they’ve done.

This year, they are consolidating that narrative into a keynote event called the Founders Summit that includes speakers such as avant-garde fashion designer Becca McCharen, and UVa grad Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit.

This is the event Carolyn Zelikow, assistant director at Tom Tom is most excited about. Attendees will have the opportunity to hear how successful innovators connected their vision with the resources to make it come to life.

Although innovation is undoubtedly the core of Tom Tom, the festival also draws together music, art and food to create what is essentially a community-driven event that is funded through the support and participation of more than 300 community partners. This year only two events, the Tom Tom Founders Summit mentioned earlier, and the Founder’s Summit Luncheon require tickets. If the weather holds, the festival could attract as many as 25,000 people this year.

Zelikow said by far the “crowd-favorite,” though, are the block-parties.

CAROLYN ZELIKOW: A block-party is a huge, outdoor, free public party with live concerts, art, local food, craft beer and hopefully some great weather.

She said this year they are expanding on the idea of block parties to include events called Porchella, which will happen outside of the block party hosted in Belmont. The idea is simple: a series of acoustic concerts and jam sessions played on the front porches of houses in the neighborhood.

ZELIKOW: Tom Tom is pretty multi-faceted. We are hosting 58 events in 36 venues over 7 days with about 400 participants including chefs, startups, artists and musicians. So it can be a really different experience depending on what you are looking for. But I would say overall it’s just a lot of fun and it’s fun in a way that is intellectually stimulating and helps you discover new aspects of this community whether you are a local resident or visiting from out of town.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.