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Entrepreneurship + Music + Farm Tours = ......?

At the first Innovate LIVE event in Staunton recently, attendees chose from events as diverse as workshops on social entrepreneurship, farm tours, community sourced conversations and live music at Queen City Brewing. WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports.

If 2015 had a buzzword it might be “innovation.” The word floats around obvious spaces such as tech circles, startups, and college classrooms, but also has surfaced in conferences such as this past weekend’s Staunton-based event: Innovate LIVE

Although Innovate LIVE was loosely modeled after startup weekends hosted by cities such as Harrisonburg, Charlottesville and Richmond, Meghan Williamson said she and fellow cofounders Christina Cain and Courtland Robinson, took the idea of start-up weekend and made it place-specific to Staunton.

MEGHAN WILLIAMSON: There’s never been exactly another Innovate LIVE….We said what does entrepreneurship and innovation look like through the lens of Staunton in a way that plays to the kind of character of the local city? Having a weekend that celebrates local entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, place-based businesses, that was really the motivation behind it, to have a start-up entrepreneurial weekend that mirrors the culture and energy of the city.

The effect was to give interested parties a space at the intersection of local businesses and community organizers where they could crowd-source ideas, network and maybe even learn new skills from people who had done what they are trying to do in the place they are trying to do it.

One example: the keynote address by Richmond-based co-owners of the Apple Cart, a company whose mission is to help other food businesses start.

STEPHANIE GANZ: What really excites us is creating communities through enterprise development so really empowering entrepreneurs to feel like they can be a part of the community and that they can contribute to it with whatever it is that is their passion.

That was Stephanie Ganz. She worked as a classically trained chef for years before founding the Apple Cart with Barb Upchurch in 2010. Ganz said they learned that one of the most effective ways to market a new small food-based business is to connect one business with another. She said that collaboration is actually much more mutually beneficial than trying to strike out alone.

GANZ: It’s really showing people that if you can kind of strip down that expectation of competition that you can really work together in a way that is powerful and meaningful for all the businesses involved. So we’ve been very lucky to really empower people to do that and to feel safe with each other because food-based businesses can be very competitive and they can see each other as a zero sum threat where if ‘you are going to this person’s food truck you aren’t going to my food truck,’ but what we’ve learned is that when they set up together they bring more people to the table than they could ever do alone.

In the spirit of collaboration, participants were not given a list of events to attend, but rather a list of ways they could engage with panelists and other attendees.

The result:

STEVE GILMAN: It was a very positive, very empowering weekend.

That was Steve Gilman. He’s president of the Harrisonburg-based marketing company the Gravity Group and participated in the weekend both as an attendee and a moderator in one of the workshops. He said that for him, the highlight of the weekend was the emphasis on collaboration between facilitators and participants.  And that’s what Williamson was going for, too.

WILLIAMSON: The whole concept is to connect a number of perspectives that don’t necessarily always come together in a typical business-planning workshop so we have artists, farmers, marketers, entrepreneurs, funders, creative-spirits and to see what some of the energy can mix and match and really grow into something that’s more than just a standard format discussion.

One way they made the weekend more than just a standard format discussion was to include nine workshop options with titles such as “Guerilla Marketing for Innovators and Entrepreneurs,” (the workshop Gilman moderated) and Doing Good while Doing Well: Social Entrepreneurs Build a Local, Sustainable Economy.

Sometimes questions were answered by others in the audience and never made it back to a panelist at all. Participant Rosalind O’Brien didn’t mind.

ROSALIND O’BRIEN: All the panel discussions really felt like discussions, it felt like a good back and forth. It was really organic - they just didn’t manage it too tightly. Topics came up you wouldn’t have expected, you ended up just veering off and discussing something that was interesting to everybody, but wasn’t planned and there was a lot of space for that right from the beginning.

The founders and other planning partners, such as the City of Staunton and Augusta County intentionally wove this coveted space for discussion into the schedule.  The county was instrumental in facilitating the farm tours of Project Grows Farm and Polyface Farm that bracketed the weekend.

Somehow all these pieces: farm tours, a keynote address and various workshops, came together into one weekend event that provided a meaningful experience for those involved such as Marion Anne Ward.

MARION ANNE WARD: I think it was designed brilliantly because it was organic and everyone made it, I mean everyone was a part of it and created it and it was designed that way so that it would be alive, it wasn’t just a dry list of topics, it was what people needed it to be and wanted it to be, it was LIVE, it was neat.

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.
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